Hand Picked: Earl Baker still picks cotton on the Shelby County farm where he was born 97 years ago

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Earl Baker reckons he&8217;s outlasted a dozen or so garden hoes, their handles worn by 90 years of labor.

The tool is almost always in his hand, as it was this fall when he carefully broke up any weeds after picking cotton in the field he first picked as a 2-year-old.

Baker, who will turn 98 in January, hasn&8217;t missed a year since.

He lays down for bed each night in the same room where he was born, in a house built well before the Civil War on a cozy little farm near Harpersville.

He gets up before dawn, takes his meals at the same time each day and walks the farm looking for jobs that need tending to.

It seems that Baker, and all that he represents, is as fleeting as the glint in his eye as he overlooks his family land.

Shelby County is a much different place than it was when he set out to start his own family at the start of the Great Depression, marrying Ophelia, his wife of 67 years, and moving into the home he calls the &8220;Weening House,&8221; just yards away from the house where he was raised along with 13 brothers and sisters.

With a mule given to him by his father as a wedding gift and little else to his name, they made it through hard times farming cotton and corn and &8220;just toughing it out.&8221;

Shelby County, once an area dominated by agriculture, now teems with residential, commercial and industrial growth.

Farming, too, has changed much since those early days.

Baker has been doing it well since the beginning, building chicken houses when chicken farming could make a man rich, growing cotton and corn when they were staples and diversifying whenever the need arose.

The Old Baker Farm has survived because of his ability to adapt and persevere through hard times.

Work sustained him, he says, even after tragedy. Over the years, Baker has buried a wife, a son and a grandson.

Baker&8217;s answer to the riddle of a long and happy life is a simple one.

&8220;Hard work,&8221; he says. &8220;I guess that&8217;s it.&8221;

Today the Baker farm raises cotton, soybeans, corn, pumpkins and Christmas trees. The family also looks after cattle, pigs, chickens, mules and horses, as well as Curly Horn, a ram, and Peanut, a 400-pound pot bellied pig.

Besides crops and a petting farm, Old Baker features corn and hay mazes, hay rides, and a replica of an Indian village.

Most of the operations are handled by Earl&8217;s son, Jerry and his wife, Pam, who live in another house at the farm.

&8220;He&8217;s been somebody that not only the family has looked up to, but everyone in the community as well,&8221; Jerry said of his father. &8220;He&8217;s not a very tall man but he really is a giant of a man.&8221;