If you’ve ever visited the Heritage Farmstead Museum in Plano, and stopped to pay attention to the small white building with the words “museum office” overhead, you might have noticed a plaque honoring Ernest and Juanita Sanders. For almost three decades the couple lived in that house, working hard to keep the farm going.
Ernest Sanders’ father was a freed slave who moved from Tennessee to Collin County with his former owner in 1891, the year Ernest was born. Ernest’s father worked on a Plano farm that businessman Hunter Farrell had purchased the previous year. Farrell built an impressive Victorian home for his new wife, Mary Alice Farrell, and her daughter from a previous marriage, Ammie.
Ernest grew up to attend school at Shiloh Baptist Church in Plano before serving in World War I as an officer in the U.S. Army. Upon his return, he was hired as the farm manager, and began living in the one-bedroom foreman’s cottage that was later expanded and serves as the Heritage Farmstead Museum’s administrative offices today.
At its peak, the farmstead exceeded 365 acres. The home Hunter Farrell built still stands, facing 15th Street and serving as the museum’s centerpiece. As visitors can attest, it is not your typical turn-of-the-century farmhouse.
“Hunter Farrell was a man of considerable wealth, but he was not much of a farmer,” Heritage Farmstead Museum Executive Director M’Lou Hyttinen said. “He made the bulk of his money in gravel and road construction.”
The job took Hunter away from home for large chunks of time. In his absence, Ernest assumed the bulk of responsibility for the farm, including some of its financial obligations. Ernest oversaw for a large contingent of farmhands who grew cotton and wheat, and raised cattle and other livestock.
“There was a special fondness between him and Mary Alice,” M’Lou said. “She depended on him so much.”
Hunter and Mary Alice divorced in 1928. She kept the farm, and became even more dependent on Ernest. When Mary Alice died in 1934, she left him her car. As for the farmstead, she willed it to two orphanages, but stipulated that Ammie could live in the home for the rest of her life.
Ammie and her husband, Dudley Wilson, moved to the farm that year. She earned a name for herself in the sheep-raising business and was known as a free spirit who enjoyed a good drink and playing poker. She was also just as fond of Ernest as her mother, and counted on him to continue running operations.
Ernest married Juanita in 1936, and she worked as a housekeeper at the farm, helping Ammie Wilson with the chores. Ernest and Juanita named their first daughter Ammie as a tribute to their longtime friend.
According to “Never a Good Girl,” a book about the farmstead written by Hillary Kidd and Jessica Bell, most of the African-American families who lived and worked on the farm did not stay for long, but the Sanders stayed for 27 years, developing a close bond with the family along the way.
Ernest retired in 1947, and moved the family to East Plano. Juanita continued working in the farmhouse for several more years. The couple would go on to have four more children, all of whom graduated high school in Plano. Ernest died in 1974 at the age of 83. Juanita, who was much younger, lived until 2003.
Ernest and Juanita’s daughter, Ammie Sanders, went on to gain notoriety in her own right. In 1965, she was the first black teacher at Plano’s Mendenhall Elementary School. According to a 1989 newspaper article she often acted as a liaison between teachers and students of different races, helping them adapt to the changes of the time. She taught for 26 years, 17 from a wheelchair as she fought multiple sclerosis. Ammie Sanders retired in 1986 and passed away in 2010.
“The rest of us [kids] came along a lot later in life after they’d moved off the farm,” said Ernest and Juanita’s son, Jimmy Sanders. “My father was a quiet man who didn’t talk much about the past. Most of the things I know about that time I learned from my mother and my sister, Ammie.”
Jimmy has run a local auto repair business since he graduated high school. For the past 10 years he’s operated as JS Auto Service on 14th Street not far from downtown. He still enjoys talking to the people that come in and keeping his neighbors on the road.
As for his father, Ernest Sanders may have considered his years spent working on the farm as just his job. But his hard work and dedication kept the farmstead alive and thriving for future generations to enjoy.
The Heritage Farmstead Museum has exciting plans for the modest home where the Sanders once lived. Due to the museum’s tremendous growth over the last 10 years, the staff hopes to eventually move the administrative offices off site.
M’Lou explained, “We will return the foreman’s cottage to its original configuration and use it as exhibit space to interpret the lives and contributions of the caretakers and farm help, including the life of the Sanders.”Heritage Farmstead Museum >