In the cool of the morning, Henry Relaford leaned forward on an old push-plow. His strong, rugged hands pushed hard against the wooden handles, making the rusty big wheel turn and allowing the razor-sharp blade to cut through the soil.
Relaford is in his element. The 92-year-old Riceboro man loves his garden.
“I like to plant,” said Relaford, pointing to rows of okra, mustard greens, rutabagas, watermelons, cantaloupes, pole beans and corn. “You see all that stuff. I haven’t even tasted it yet, and I may not. When I grow stuff, I tell people to come and get it. I just enjoy growing it. God gave me the strength to work, so I work.”
Relaford was born in the Willow Hill community, about 10 miles west of Statesboro. The son of a sharecropper, he grew up to be a sharecropper himself and later served 22 years on the Riceboro City Council.
The tools he used as a farmer are the same ones he uses now for his garden — two hoes, a refuse hook rake, a pickax, a pitchfork and the push-plow.
As he leaned on a hoe, he reminisced about his boyhood, saying he had to walk 8 miles to and from school. The only heat in his segregated schoolhouse was a 55-gallon drum made into a stove.
He paused and looked longingly at his garden as he spoke of his first wife, who died of cancer. They were married 55 years. He sighed as he said he still loves her, and then sighed again as he noted that his second wife now lives in a nursing home in Ludowici. He said he loves her too, but he’s unable to care for her since her stroke.
As he chopped some weeds growing near the garden fence, Relaford proudly said he’s a World War II Army veteran. He was part of a chemical warfare unit in Europe.
He smiled for a moment as he remembered his military service.
“The Nazis found out we had chemical weapons, so they didn’t use theirs and we didn’t use ours,” he said, laughing.
Relaford changed the subject back to gardening.
“I’m gonna plant sweet taters in that spot right there. You see these pecan trees right here and over there? I planted them in 1954,” he said.
His daughter, Henrietta Relaford Weaver, confirmed the date. The only daughter of nine children, she said she remembers when her daddy planted the pecan trees “because I was just a little girl then.” She then showed off an area behind two storage buildings where the ground had been recently turned over, though some weeds and grass remained.
“He did that in just the last few mornings,” she said. “I don’t know how he does it. Did it all with just that hoe. He said this is going to be a collard patch.”
Relaford said he can remember “all the way back” to when he was 2 years old. The seventh of 16 children, he said he grew up when hard work was the only work a man could get. He recalled the poverty and racism that were prevalent back then but said he holds no malice toward anyone.
“I don’t hate nobody,” Relaford said, then paraphrased Job 14:5. “The Bible tells us a man’s days are numbered. Every morning I get up, I thank God for a new day. I tell folks, ‘I may be 92, but I’m not through.’”
Relaford will celebrate his 93rd birthday in September. Henrietta said she is sure her daddy will spend that day doing what he does every day but Sunday: He’ll be working in his garden.