August 13, 2020

Mary Ann is a real-life ‘Energizer Bunny’

           Edward and Grace Prather’s third daughter was born to be a farmer.  When she was 10, Edward put dainty Mary Ann on a tractor.  By age 11, she was plowing alone. Three years later, Mary Ann planted her own soybean crop.  Profits paid for her first car—a 1973 Ford Pinto. In the six years that I have known her, I’ve never seen Mary Ann Simmons when she wasn’t working and smiling. 

Five Prather children—four girls and a boy—grew up on Smithonia Road, near the Oglethorpe-Madison County line.  And that’s where Mary Ann and her husband, Dennis, live. Before retiring in 2019, Dennis commuted for 39 years to Athens Country Club, where he was a golf-course groundskeeper.

For her entire life, Mary Ann has walked out the back door to work.

            And work she does.

            Year-round, you’ll see Mary Ann doing something.  She is a real-life Energizer Bunny.  She just keeps on going and going and going and going.  The day that I stopped by, she was loading crates of tomatoes into her John Deere Gator.  Behind Mary Ann were rows of taller-than-her caged vines, sagging with plump, begging-to-be-picked tomatoes.

            Mary Ann wasn’t complaining.  She was just explaining why she was in 18-hour overdrive.  This time of year, I get into the field at 5:30 in the morning and often work until midnight,” she said.  Lifting the brim of her sweat-stained cap, Mary Ann wiped her brow.  I felt guilty asking her to pause for a photograph.

            Some days, I slow down to marvel at the petite farmer perched on the big blue Ford tractor. Mary Ann’s rows are straight-arrow. If she weighs more than 90 pounds, I’d be surprised.  I’ve seen her driving metal T-posts into the stubborn red clay.  Her hands tell the story.  Mary Ann doesn’t back up from whatever needs to be done.

            There’s a roadside marquee touting what’s for sale.  It could be blueberries, peaches, figs, broccoli, corn, squash, peppers, okra, peas, butterbeans, potatoes, rutabagas, cucumbers, eggplant, zucchini, cabbage, kale, collards, turnips, cantaloupes or watermelons.  Don’t forget those luscious tomatoes.  And who harvests this bounty?  Mary Ann, mostly.  But I have seen her sister Emily Smith tackling one of the worst jobs—picking butterbeans.

            Around Thanksgiving and Christmas, Mary Ann draws customers from a wide swath around Smithonia.  Last year, I talked with a lady who had driven 100 miles round-trip to load her Buick’s trunk with bunches of Mary Ann’s greens. The happy customer said, “My family says it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without these collards.”      

            In the middle of Mary Ann’s 3-acre garden is a red-roofed, two-story cottage that serves as her fruit and vegetable stand.  She doesn’t have time to operate the cash register, so there’s an honor system.  You weigh or count your purchase and put money in a slotted metal box.  A camera watches the store. 

In her “spare time,” Mary Ann hauls and sells items at farmers-market events.  She has a wholesale outlet, too, up on the lip of I-85 North.  Mountain-bound travelers grab up Mary Ann’s tomatoes.

            Since I mentioned Mary Ann’s “spare time,” I should elaborate on what she really does with that.  In the coldest months, she enjoys carving, painting and decorating gourds.  She’s a fan of Native American artwork.    

With COVID-19’s disruption, she’d had to postpone teaching piano.  She misses her students and laments, “This is the first year since 1979 that I haven’t had a recital.”

            Oh, my.

            What will the Smithonia Road Energizer Bunny do with that extra time?

            One thing is certain about our nearby neighbor.  Sunrise won’t catch Mary Ann napping.