Note: this is one of a series of stories
written about various Athens neighborhoods.
Just eight miles from downtown Athens is 132 acres of land known as Kenney Ridge, an “intentional conservation community,” and home to 22 families. Since its birth almost 20 years ago, the community has prided itself on its commitment to the stewardship of the land and the history behind it.
The 80-year-old farmhouse that still stands tall at Kenney Ridge serves as testimony this land had a story long before it was the community that it is today. Bill Kenney, 92, was born in that very farmhouse and is able to share its legacy.
Bill Kenney, born in 1918, was the second born of five children to a hard working farming family of Athens Clarke County.
“We were ignorantly happy. We didn’t have much, but my dad, [Pierce Kenney], has the land which was the most precious thing to him,” Kenney said.
The land had been in the Kenney family for many years, belonging to Kenney’s grandfather, a confederate veteran, before his father. He remembered the old farmhouse from his day. The house was civil war vintage style. The kitchen was a separate building about 50 feet from the main house, so the family usually cooked in the 4-foot-tall fireplace in the living room.
“I could tell you things a lot of things about that old house,” Kenney said, “It’s just really personal to me to remember it.”
Kenney said that his mother would cook just about anything on the fire, but he especially loved the delicious biscuits she made.
“Growing up we had a lot of good times. We had Sundays off. After church we had the freedom to do what we wanted, but six days a week, it was work,” said Kenney.
The Kenney family farmed cash and truck crops: timber, cotton, corn, fruits, and beans. The farm was completely family run, and it provided produce for UGA and other families in town. It took a lot of work for a single family to keep the farm going. Kenney recalls his childhood days of going to school in the mornings, collecting beans from the farm in the afternoon, and shelling the beans every night in the house.
Farming was what Kenney’s father new best. He did not receive an education past the 5th grade level because he had to work on the farm to take care of his family. His father had been seriously wounded in the war, and he took over the duties of the family from a very young age.
“My dad thought anyone could be a farmer without an education, and he could. I was always impressed with everything he could do without any education,” Kenney said.
Kenney’s mother was a substitute teacher at the local schoolhouse. She placed an emphasis on her children’s education, which started in a two-room schoolhouse with about as many windows in as there were out.
“Tots to grown men were in the same school,” he said.
Kenney left school after the 8th grade to help work on the farm. He was out for four years and then went back to high school.
“He always was the brains of his family. Now he reads all the time and watches the news, too,” said Kenney’s wife, Elizabeth Kenney.
Determination was not something that Bill Kenney lacked. He faced many obstacles in his education. He had to take four years off in between middle school and high school, and still he went on to college at UGA to study engineering, but Kenney did not have a car. He walked eight miles to school both ways everyday. Sometimes, a neighbor would give him a ride if they were passing by.
“For labs, we had a lot of lab work, we would work late into the night. I spent the night in the classrooms those days,” Kenney said.
Kenney paid his way through school. “I would do just about anything for a quarter or a dollar,” he said. He was handy and earned money by making repairs. He also taught carpentry, metal work, and woodwork as an assistant professor at UGA.
Kenney largely credits his mother for his education; “I grew up and knew that I needed an education if I were going to go anywhere. I was the only one in my family that got a college education.”
Bill Kenney graduated from UGA in 1942. Just 10 days later, He left for the army and was a 2nd lieutenant stationed in Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga.
“That was when I met Bill,” his wife, Elizabeth, said. “Bill’s sister-in-law invited me over to meet him one day, but then he left with the army overseas and was gone for four years, but when he got back, he asked me to marry him.” Bill andElizabeth have been happily married for over 50 years with three children, Barbara, Steve and Martha.
Bill and Elizabeth Kenney moved around the southeast for the next decade. Meanwhile, back at Kenney Ridge, Bill’s oldest brother, Pierce Jackson Kenney, PJ, took over the farm after their father’s death.
“Everyone in town would come to get the strawberries that PJ raised. Those were the best strawberries in town,” Elizabeth said.
After leaving Athens in 1948, Bill Kenney and his family lived in Tifton, Columbus, Mississippi, and Memphis. He worked as an engineer for a construction company.
Doctors told Kenney that he had a heart condition, and Kenney’s father and 3 of his siblings had died of heart related problems. In 1973, Bill Kenney moved his family back to Athens so that when he died they would be near family.
“I knew that I would probably die before I lived to be old,” said 92-year-old Kenney.
He worked for Porterfield Construction and then John Que West Construction before starting his own construction company, Kenney Enterprise Inc.
Bill Kenney had never intended to continue life on the farm, which was why he invested so much in his education, but so much experience and moral values had come from his childhood at Kenney Ridge.
After PJ Kenney’s death, no one was left to work the family farm. Bill and his two sisters would have like to keep the farm, but due to a flux in the land taxes, financially they were unable to keep the land that had been in their family for over a century.
He sold the 132 acres of family land to Nancy Stangle and Skipper StipeMass. “I had reservations of selling at first, but I would rather sell to them than someone trying to build a subdivision,” Kenney said.
Kenney said he was very impressed with the buyers, and that they understood what it meant to preserve the land and the history.
“They would have their meetings on the front porch of where he was raised,” said Elizabeth Kenney.
“Mr. Kenney still comes to some of our meetings at the farmhouse,” Skipper StipeMass said. “We will all sit around as he tells us stories of how Kenney Ridge used to be.”
The farmhouse continued to be a centerpiece of the community. “We used to call it hotel Kenney,” said StipeMass. “Everyone ends up staying there for at least a night during moving transitions etc.”
Today Bill Kenney has come a long way from the Kenney farm. He remembers the farm fondly, but is thankful for central heat and the comfortable life he leads in a tidy home in a community near Timothy Road. Not thinking he would live past 65, Bill Kenney keeps up his health at 92-years-old by using a rowing machine, getting regular check ups, and going for walks at the mall with his wife, Elizabeth.
Bill and Elizabeth are still active in the Athens community, members of the First United Methodist church, and are just as happy as the day they met. Elizabeth is always ready for guests, the perfect southern hostess, with chocolate chip cookies and coffee and at set table.
“It’s a great life, I’ll tell you,” Kenney said.