Imagine our little area of the world as it might have been in 1754—fields and creeks and woodlands stretching as far as the eye could see, only marred by the occasional house or barn.
The Burt family may not remember it that way, but they certainly have an appreciation for what it must have been like and a healthy respect for the eight generations of Burts who worked the land before them. Eight generations. That’s almost 300 years of legacy tucked away in the fields of Wake County, almost unknown to the hoards of newcomers who have populated many of those fields in the last 20 years.
The Burts came to the Americas in the 1620s from England, settling first in the Isle of Wight and Jamestown/Yorktown areas of Virginia to farm. To this day, there are still Burts in the tidal basin region of the James River in Virginia. But in 1754, John Burt received a royal land grant of 16,000 acres (roughly 25 square miles) from King George II and moved to Wake County, North Carolina. Land grants were a way of rewarding people or promoting expansion in the colonies, and the Burts’ land extended from the Harnett County line to Holly Springs.
Farmers since the day they first arrived in Virginia, the Burts continued that vocation in North Carolina, and are currently raising the tenth generation of agricultural specialists on the farm today. Over the years, however, pieces of the property have been sectioned off through marriages, gifts to children and relatives, or sales. Even with all that partitioning, the current farm still includes over 800 acres of prime farmland in what the Department of Agriculture calls “a rapidly urbanizing area.” With subdivisions popping up in tobacco fields all over southwest Wake County, farms like theirs are becoming more of a rarity.
Fred Burt, who owned and operated the farm for over 18 years, represents the eighth generation to live and work on the farm since John Burt acquired it before the Revolutionary War. His son John is now the owner-operator and manages the day-to-day operations of the current enterprise, but Fred is never too far away.
Initially, the Burts grew and harvested tobacco as their main cash crop. But as with any family enterprise, holdings began to diversify and each new generation launched new businesses and new endeavors. Family members operated grist mills, sawmills, and cotton gins, and even entered non-agricultural professions. Some were active in local and county government, and one rather notable Burt—Benjamin—left town to attend Johns Hopkins University and became a doctor. He returned to southwest Wake County and built a practice in Holly Springs in the early 20th century, with an office in the old soda shop building downtown. Fred tells a story about Dr. Burt installing a private phone line between his office and the Burt farmstead so he could call prescriptions into the pharmacy in Holly Springs when he visited patients in northern Harnett County!
The Burts donated land to several worthy causes over the years. In the late 1800s, the Burt family donated land to start Piney Grove Baptist Church, and were instrumental in starting two local schools. One of those school buildings still stands today, converted into a house, although Fred isn’t sure the current owners know it used to be a one-room schoolhouse. The locals even named a small town after the Burt family. Burt, North Carolina was located southwest of Holly Springs near Duncan and was a tiny farming outpost. “It was never incorporated and only consisted of a grist mill, a couple of stores, and 10 to 12 houses,” Fred Burt recalls. “But it was at a railroad crossing and there wasn’t anything else for miles, so it served the local farmers well for a number of years. I remember a couple of the buildings still being out there as late as the 1970s, although everything is gone now.”
Over the years, the crops have changed, the acreage has changed, and the lineage has changed. When Fred left to serve his country during Desert Storm in the 1990s, the family switched its focus from tobacco to high-quality hay, and were able to transition into new ventures when the tobacco buyout happened over a decade ago. Today, the farm raises beef cattle, small grains, hay for cattle and horses, and timber. They also have a horse-boarding operation that provides year-round income.
The entire farm, with the exception of about 60 acres, is in agricultural production of some kind. There are no original buildings on the farm, but there are remnants of a grist mill dam that was built in the 1760s. The original house was torn down 47 years ago and the oldest buildings on the farm now are a corn crib and a smokehouse that are used for storage.
Fred Burt is proud of the way the family has been able to stay ahead of the curve on new agricultural trends and technology. Being in a suburban area allows them to provide products to a captive audience of people who want the kinds of things a high-end agricultural operation can offer – hay, quality beef, boarding facilities, etc. It allows them to pay the bills and keep the land in the family, especially at a time when many farms are selling out to development.
“When I was growing up, this farm was my backyard,” Fred shares. “Nowadays kids are growing up with tiny yards and no place to run and explore. I had acres and acres right out my back door.” Fred feels a powerful connection to the land and the heritage that the farm represents. A lover of local history, Fred enjoys exploring the stories of his ancestors and all the previous Burt landowners that helped build the backbone of our community. “It’s that heritage that makes you want to hold onto the land,” he says. “It would be easy to sell, but the history is what keeps us here.”
He is also proud of the fact that the tenth generation of Burts—his two grandsons—seem to be interested in farm life. “They are still young and time will tell,” he says, “but I hope that one day they will take over the farm and continue the family legacy out here.” Recently honored by the NC Department of Agriculture as a “Bicentennial Farm,” it’s only 37 years away from being recognized for 300 years of operation—a feat that will be unmatched by any other farms in North Carolina for a number of years!