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DLC’s Tribute to The Lasting Legacy of a ‘True Southern Gentleman Farmer Who Loved the Land’

by | May 7, 2023

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The most remarkable conservationist you might never have heard of spent his long working life in textile mills, fixing looms. Frank (Frankie) Chester lived humbly in a Rowan County mobile home, but most days drove to the farm, five miles east of Davidson, which had been in his family for centuries. He loved to entertain friends under a sprawling white oak, and he doted on his beef cattle, although hated sending them to market.

Until February, Frankie Chester kept a secret: He had donated conservation easements to his 209 acres to the Davidson Lands Conservancy, permanently protecting his land from development. This act of conservation required a substantial sacrifice in the farm’s market value.  It was the most substantial conservation achievement in the 23-year history of the Conservancy.  The generous donor planned to live out his last years comfortably on the farm.

Those plans died when Frank Chester, at 86 years old, passed away unexpectedly on his beloved farm. A hay delivery driver found Frank deceased outside the barn on April 3.

Frank had explained why he decided to leave such a gift of conservation—he didn’t want to see development of his farmland. To walk through his barnyard, strewn with rusting farm implements, permanently parked tractors and pickups, past the black manure still pocked by cow hooves, to a pasture vibrant with creeping buttercups and red clover, is to sense his love of the place.

“The land really seeped into his bones, and I saw that early on,” said Conservancy executive director Dave Cable. “That land was a huge part of his life and he recognized that it was his legacy. He must have told me a hundred times, ‘Dave, I just don’t want to see houses all over this land.’”

Frank had grown up poor on the farm, raised mostly by his grandmother, Bettie Hamilton Chester and an aunt, Ethel Chester, after his mother died in childbirth. He worked 48 years at Cannon Mills in Kannapolis and took great pride in his skills, daughter Janet Purser said, but had also attended business school and once hoped to join the FBI. He neither smoked, drank, nor cursed, and faithfully attended Gilwood Presbyterian Church in Concord. Janet, who lives near the farm, and her son Rodrick, are his only survivors.

Slightly built and reserved around strangers, Frank could also be a tough-talking man, like a “bantam rooster” when needed, Janet said, especially about encroachments at the farm. He was known to sternly invite unwelcome visitors off his land.

Frank with Button, his pet cow

Frank’s cows revealed his soft side. He named Button and Oreo, among many others in his 70-cow herd, and mourned those he was forced to sell.

“He could stand down in the field and give them the call, ‘soooook’, a cattle call, and they’d come running like a pack of dogs,” said Clayton Smith, Frank’s neighbor and friend of 25 years.

Bob Johnson, a Davidson farmer who had known Frank most of his life, said the cows were his pets.

“Frankie was the way that he was, he wasn’t going to change,” Bob said. “Frankie stuck with it, you know? People tried to get him to change his ways, but he stuck with it. I really admire him for that. He was a true Southern gentleman farmer, that’s about all you can say.”

Daughter Janet added to Bob Johnson’s message with, “Dad was a very committed farmer, and loved his land just like his ancestors had.”

The hard work and hazards of farm life didn’t spare the retiree. Chester once fell off his tractor and broke a wrist, and also suffered a concussion after falling from his truck. Simply walking his rolling land, which holds a deep, boulder-lined ravine, was to invite a tumble. Still, well into his 80s, Chester lugged bucket after bucket of feed to his herd several times a week.

Nothing went to waste, even when it should have.

“I can’t be 100% sure,” Clayton Smith said, “but I don’t think he ever got rid of anything in his life that had to do with this farm.” Mounds of used baling twine, empty motor oil bottles and cow-mineral buckets litter the place.

After tending his cows, Frank would settle into one of the plastic chairs parked under the big white oak, beside the boarded-up house where he’d spent part of his childhood. Friends and fans stopped by to chat. He loved Kit Kats, Mountain Dew, Concord’s Independent Tribune newspaper, and word-search puzzles. If the weather was bad, he sat in his car or went to daughter Janet’s nearby home.

“Little by little, I spent more time with him,” said Janet Andersen, a Conservancy board member who became a dear friend. “And you

Frank with close friend and DLC Board member, Janet Andersen

couldn’t spend just 20 minutes with him—that never happened. It was at least an hour, or four.”

Much of their conversation was about Frank’s early life. In February, the two drove to Raleigh for a farm implement show. “He was like a kid in a candy store,” she said.

Easements protect a vanishing landscape

The Conservancy began urging Frank to protect his land under former director Roy Alexander, who died in 2015. Dave Cable, then a volunteer, introduced himself a couple of years later and dropped by regularly, sometimes bearing muffins baked by his wife, Libby. Their friendship—and trust—deepened over time.

Farmland is an increasingly scarce commodity in the Charlotte region, where new houses sprout on old fields. Mecklenburg County lost 75% of its farm acreage between 1982 and 2017, according to federal statistics, while Cabarrus County dropped by 23%. North Carolina is the second highest state behind Texas to suffer farmland loss.

As houses went up and traffic intensified around the Chester farm, it became harder to move cows between pastures separated by Davidson Road. Frank relied on friends and neighbors to help, but in recent years had to call Cabarrus County sheriff’s deputies to stop traffic during the maneuver.

In 2020, Frank decided he was ready to protect a 117-acre tract of his farm. He was picky about some details, including retaining the right to mine gold on the property, although there are no legends of gold on the farm, only remnants of old iron plows and tractors.

“You never know,” he told Dave.

The Conservancy hired an attorney to represent Frank. Papers were signed on the hood of the 30-year-old Ford Ranger pickup that’s still parked under the white oak. But the ever-private Chester didn’t want anybody else to know about the transaction, even broaching the topic with his daughter carefully.

“He broke it to me cautiously, pretty much, and I had my concerns,” daughter Janet reported. A retired educator in the Cabarrus County schools, she’s a dedicated child-advocate, gardener, and master food preserver. A bit afraid of cows, she feels too old to manage a farm.

Would the acreage lose its lower farm-use property tax value if it didn’t continue as an agricultural concern? And would the terms of the conservation easements unduly restrict a farmer who takes over the property? The conservation easements on the farm allow for a wide range of farm uses but permanently prohibit any residential or commercial development on the land.

With her father’s death, Janet feels the need to sell or lease the property, ideally to a dedicated young farmer, or possibly see it turned into a park or other recreational preserve.

 “I don’t feel like I should keep it, but rather let it be beneficial to others,” she said. “It’s finding a buyer within the parameters of both farm and conservation, where it meets in the middle, that’s where I’m really trying to navigate.”

After telling his daughter about the initial conservation easement, Frank allowed the Conservancy to install boundary signs around the property. He insisted on walking with Conservancy volunteers who do regular stewardship checks. He later laughed, “I only fell four times.”

In February, Frank signed an easement protecting his remaining 92 acres. The Davidson Lands Conservancy paid Frank a fraction of the easement’s value made possible by the North Carolina Environmental Enhancement Grant Program, with additional contributions from the Conservancy’s 2018 capital campaign.

He beamed as the Conservancy presented him with a plaque recognizing his achievement and allowed the group to publicize it. “Frankie brought his plaque and showed it to us, and he was so happy, so proud,” said his old friend, Bob Johnson. The plaque hangs proudly in his daughter Janet’s home.

Frank Chester’s death leaves his beloved farm intact but likely to have new owners. With the bridge to her family land’s past, Janet is now trying to map out its future, and provide a beautiful, productive opportunity for others.

“All the families around here handed land down to heirs,” she said. “It’s an interesting concept for some families to think about new blood. How do you move forward in a way that accepts change but retains the family legacy? How do you achieve the vision, a new path that needs to be followed?

“Frank set the table for the future and next generation.”

Frank (middle) flanked by friends (L to R) Dave Cable, Ed Harris, Janet Andersen, daughter Janet Purser, and Clayton Smith.


About the Davidson Lands Conservancy

As an accredited land trust, Davidson Lands Conservancy’s mission is to conserve local lands, farms, and natural resources, and connect lives to nature. DLC advances its mission through education and through those four conservation pillars. Visit for details on the recently launched Now & Forever Campaign, as well as programs, news, and events.

Growth pressures on the Davidson area are high. While economic development benefits our community, balancing growth with well-stewarded and conserved natural lands is critical to our quality of life and to keeping our region attractive and healthy.


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