Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for June, 2012

“[The Lakeport Plantation project] provides complete documentation of agricultural development in the [Delta] region and the accompanying changes in the African-American experience. These include the transition from frontier and plantation slavery to sharecropper and tenant farmer systems, to agricultural mechanization and the mass exodus of African-Americans to factories in the North, to large-scale corporate farming.”

—Blake Wintory, assistant director of Lakeport Plantation,
quoted by Rex Nelson in “Winter’s day at Lakeport,”
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 1, 2012

In my previous two posts I wrote about cotton and the center of the cotton production in my beloved home state: the Arkansas Delta.

Arkansas Delta

A land-use map of Arkansas showing the Delta (the light-green area) in East Arkansas. McGehee is located in the center of the most narrow part of the Delta in Southeast Arkansas below the place where the Arkansas River empties into the Mississippi (photo taken from an online source)

In those posts I cited several quotes about cotton and the Delta and listed eight more—four of mine and four of others’—at the end of each of the two posts.

In this post I provide some additional quotes on the Delta, both my own and others that I have either composed or collected over the thirty-five years of My Oklahomian Exile. As noted, since some of these quotes were originally written years or even decades ago, they may not be totally accurate or current. Conditions in the Delta have changed drastically over the past three and a half decades since I lived there.

So from a historical, nostalgic, and sometimes humorous perspective, here are those select quotes on the Delta, some of which may have appeared at least in part in earlier posts. I have set them flush left in regular type with their sources below and flush right and with my comments in parentheses and my emphasis in italics. 

Additional Quotes on the Delta

Mine:

“I was born on the edge of the Seven Devils Swamp. God saw fit to cast me out of the Seven Devils, but unlike Mary Magdalene He has never seen fit to cast the Seven Devils out of me.” (At age ten, when my parents forcefully moved me against my will from my rural birthplace in the Gulf Coastal Plain (Selma) to the Mississippi River Delta (McGehee), neither they nor I had any idea how it would mark me for the rest of my life—and for the next one as well.)

“Muddy Mississippi River water leaves a stain on the soul that is virtually impossible to get out—assuming any fool would try!”

Mighty Mississippi

The Mississippi River (to magnify, click on the photo)

“The Delta and I have a symbiotic relationship—I feed off of it, and it sure eats at me!”

“Even the rainwater that falls on Tulsa is drawn to run down to Southeast Arkansas to return to the Father of Waters. Why should my heartfelt desire to do the same come as any kind of surprise?”

“You are so East Arkansas if you think the Delta is Judea, the rest of the state is Galilee, and Northwest Arkansas is Samaria.” (Used by the Arkansas Times.)

“Alligators, like snowfall, are just rare enough in Southeast Arkansas to cause a stir among the locals.”

“I call the Arkansas Delta ‘Mississippi Lite’—all of the mud, mosquitoes, and malicious mayhem, with a minimum of the moonlit, magnolia mansions.”

“Helena, Arkansas (60 miles downstream from Memphis and 35 miles from where Mari and I started out teaching in 1962) is an antebellum city, historic river port, traditional home of the Arkansas Blues, site of the Delta Cultural Center, and the scene of a Civil War battle that took place on the same day that Vicksburg, Mississippi, fell to the Yankees. I call it a ‘poor man’s Vicksburg.’ But then everything in the Delta is a ‘poor man’s’ something—and I am that man!”

Delta Cultural Center

The Delta Cultural Center in Historic Helena, Arkansas

“God wants to save the world. I just want to save the Delta—and me!”

“It seems to be a race to see which one of us dies first—me or the Delta.” (I know which one misses the other the most.)

“In Arkansas the Delta is dying, but Dixie is not.” (I have finally got it through my hard head that the Delta is dying. Now if I could just get it through my soft heart.)

“While I have been languishing here in exile and forced labor, my beloved home (the Arkansas Delta) has been slowly dying—and so have I! So now I have no home to go back to, even if I were able, which I’m not!”

Delta farmhouse

A decaying Delta farmhouse

“If there is a River of Life in heaven, then it has to have a Delta—and I want my Tara to be on the Arkansas side of it.”

“One of these days when I die,
I’m going to that Big Delta in the sky!”

“Heaven better look a lot like HOME or I’m comin’ back to haunt the Delta Queen!” (Sadly, even the Delta Queen is no longer operating and is not even docked in the Delta!)

The Delta Queen at Helena

The Delta Queen at Helena, Arkansas, a historic river port and the scene of a Civil War battle (to magnify, click on the photo)

Other’s:

“I’m just really excited to be back in my element. I didn’t know I had so much Delta left in me.”

—Dr. Charles “Billy” Ball on returning to his native
Southeast Arkansas to practice medicine after retirement

“There’s just no other place like down in the Delta.”

—Karen Warren Markowitz, native Deltan
speaking in Oklahoma City

“I soon learned that those people lived in the State of Delta, and the capital was Memphis.”

—Iowa Methodist pastor on being assigned to
Elaine, Arkansas, in Delta below Memphis

“When I first went north, I was surprised to learn that there were people in the world who did not know that Arkansas has both a delta and a culture that goes with southern lowlands.”

—Margaret Jones Bolsterli,
a native of Desha County near McGehee,
writing in Born in the Delta 

Arkansas cypress slough

A typical cypress slough in the Arkansas Delta

“It was in the early 1950s and harvest time in the Arkansas delta. Cotton stretched white as far as the eye could see, and our labor stretched from sunrise to dark. The field hands varied in age, skill, strength, and determination, and wages were proportional to production. At the end of the day, when the cotton was weighed, each worker was paid according to the harvest. Most workers picked about two hundred pounds of cotton; some, three hundred; and the mighty few reaped five hundred pounds of cotton. The old, young, and physically impaired were at a disadvantage.”

—Tom Henson, quoted in The Upper Room
Daily Devotional, January 31, 2007

“One of the last holdouts of chopping and picking cotton by hand was the vast plantation of the Cummins unit of Arkansas State Penitentiary at Varner, about 30 miles north of McGehee. Highway 65, the main road through Southeast Arkansas to Little Rock, sliced through the prison farm, so travelers got a good look at work gangs in the field. Chopping or picking cotton under the watch of trusties, fellow prisoners on horseback with rifles at the ready. . . . Well into the 1960s, the prison system was a moneymaker for the state of Arkansas, with farm profits paying the full cost of penitentiary operations and turning back hundreds of thousands of dollars to the state.”

—The late Bill Stroud, a native of McGehee, Arkansas,
and an editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer

Delta cotton chopping

Cotton chopping in the Arkansas Delta in the 1980s (to magnify, click on the photo)

“‘The water is very high in Mc Gee hee [pronounced MaGEE], in Desh ‘a [pronounced DeSHAY] County in Ar KAN’ sas [pronounced ArkanSAW].’”

—Mrs. Marion Stroud, quoting 1927 radio announcer
speaking of historic Mississippi River flood

McGehee in 1927 flood

McGehee, Arkansas, during the 1927 Mississippi River flood (to magnify, click on the photo)

“Leave it to Rosalie Gould, the plain-spoken mayor of McGehee, Ark., which is as Delta as a town comes, to shatter the report’s glib talk of high-tech industries for the Delta. ‘We’ve been hearing that same song for years,’ says Mizz Rosalie. ‘We can’t expand high-tech. We haven’t got any to expand. . . . This is like an undeveloped Third World country in a lot of ways. . .’ ”

—Paul Greenberg, “Delta Cheated Again,”
Tulsa World, October 30, 1989

“Your articles are most fascinating and interesting. I feel about the McGehee, Rohwer and Delta area as you do. Those who do not know our fascinating and spellbinding ways are lacking a part of history that is almost gone for good. We have been in economic trouble here for about 8 years and are desperately trying to restart our economy. . . . I do appreciate hearing that a native son is still working and dreaming with us.”

—Rosalie Gould, McGehee mayor, in letter
to Jimmy Peacock, dated November 1, 1989

“Hughes, like many small Delta towns at one time was a vibrant community with thriving businesses. Mechanization of agriculture and a whirlwind of cultural and economic changes swept through the Delta like Moses’ plagues on the Pharaoh and when the dust settled, the towns were a shell of their former selves.”

—Joe Dempsey, Weekly Grist for the Eyes and Mind,
June 18, 2012

“The Delta has some of the lowest population densities in the American South, sometimes less than 1 person per square mile. . . . The region still has a very large African American population. Eastern Arkansas has the highest percentage of cities in the state with a predominately African American population. Since the nation’s shift to urban centers and since the mechanization of farm technology during the past 60 years, the delta has experienced significant migration of its population. Such declining numbers have contributed to a diminished tax base hampering efforts to support education, infrastructure development, community health and other vital aspects of growth. The region is stricken with a combination of extreme poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment.”

Wikipedia article on the Arkansas Delta 

“Poor people in the Delta kiss the devil to survive.”

—Jeanie Branch, 82, of Watson, Arkansas, quoted in
“Delta people ‘kiss the devil to survive,’
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 27, 1997

Delta sharecropper shack

A Delta sharecropper shack in the 1980s

“If you look at this country, you have two very obvious geographic areas of poverty. The one area is Appalachia. The other is the [Mississippi River] Delta.”

—Tom Dalton, head of Arkansas’ welfare reform,
“Delta people ‘kiss the devil to survive,’”
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 27, 1997

“Everybody always talks about the Delta, but no one does anything about it. To a large degree, it’s a forgotten place.”

—Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee,
quoted in “Delta people ‘kiss the devil to survive,’”
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 27, 1997

“When you’re born in the South [i.e., the Arkansas Delta] you need to learn everything. . . . I don’t like what I see here anymore. The roads are pot-holed, we pay for them to spray for mosquitoes, but they never do, and the government just doesn’t do anything about it.”

—June Grundy,
quoted in “Delta people ‘kiss the devil to survive,’”
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, October 27, 1997

“‘These people are real down here,’ and their poverty and pain is real too, he said. He called Delta residents ‘forgotten numbers’ because the rest of America has turned its back for years.”

—Patrick “Pete” Johnson, Jr. of Clarksdale, MS,
quoted by Jeff Porter in article titled
“Mississippian in line for Delta Post,”
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 16, 2001

Delta plowing

Large-scale cotton plowing by mule teams in the Delta in the 1930s about the time I was born (to magnify, click on the photo)

“The famous actress being honored this evening, now 92 years young and visiting the Arkansas Delta for the first time, searched for a word to describe this part of the world, and true to her reputation, found just the right one. She said it was the ‘lovingest’ place she’d ever been. And at that point one realized that here and there, in diverse and now almost hidden places, there is still a South. And always will be.”

—“Evening in the Delta,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, nd

“People who have never been to the delta, do not really know what flat country looks like. . . . And it’s hot, and ungodly humid. In the late afternoon, people get away from the heat and humidity by going to the river. There’s shade there, provided by cypress trees as thick as three big men, and hung with spanish moss. . . . Tyler Brown’s soft laughter came to me across the shaded bayou and around the cypress trunks as if from a great distance. . . . Three more casts, and Tyler Brown was nearly out of sight, but I could still hear the low voices of he and his boys . . . . Polite kids. Deep South kids, and not the kind I’m used to seeing along my stretch of the river.”

—Conrad Vollersten, “The colors of the Arkansas,”
in column titled Along the Arkansas
in unknown Oklahoma newspaper, nd

Delta Lake Enterprise

Lake Enterprise in the Delta at Wilmot, Arkansas (to magnify, click on the photo)

“When T.S. Eliot christened the Mississippi River the ‘great brown god,’ he was tipping his pen not only to the river but also to the people whose lives and fortunes were bound inseparably to it; a river-centered culture to which Arkansas was and remains, no stranger. From the brown Mississippi to the delta land it suckles . . . rivers have been veins of commerce throughout the state’s history, converging inextricably with the lives of [its] residents.”

—Tim Stanley, “The waters of life:
Arkansas celebrates its river heritage
with a full month of cultural events,”
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 3, 1998

“I’m not old enough to remember the Kate Adams, the steamboat that connected Memphis, Helena, Friar’s Point [MS] and Arkansas City, but I remember the Sprague, the world’s most powerful sternwheeler . . . . Interesting that the history of our rivers is still being written, yet Americans know so little about it at any age.”

—Richard Allin, “Rollin’ on the river,”
Our Town column,
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, nd

Delta steamboats

Mississippi River steamboats loading cotton bales in the past in the Arkansas Delta

“Weeping, we sat beside the rivers of Babylon [Tulsa] thinking of Jerusalem [the Delta]. We have put away our lyres, hanging them upon the branches of the willow trees, for how can we sing? Yet our captors, our tormentors, demand that we sing for them the happy songs of Zion [home]! If I forget you, O Jerusalem [Mighty Mississippi], let my right hand forget its skill upon the harp [the computer keyboard]. If I fail to love her more than my highest joy, let me never sing [write] again.”

—Psalm 137:1-6 The Living Bible (paraphrased)

“There are different Deltas. But my Delta—I have to be honest—when I go there, I have a very brief period where I’m just happy to be back where I come from, and where I know everything in a way that I can never know things somewhere else, where I can capture the nuances of speech and understand gesture. At the same time, in a very short period, when I’m down there, I start feeling very, very restless and wanting to get away.

“I once interviewed Buddy Nordan . . . and Buddy said when he was a kid he was fascinated at the notion of escape. And he said that should seem maybe strange, because the Delta is a big, flat place, so why would anyone feel trapped? He said he felt trapped growing up by that landscape. He always wanted to escape from it. I feel exactly the way I felt most of my life. I wanted always to be connected to it, but I wanted always to get away from it as well.”

—Tom Williams, “‘Dogged by Some Sins from Their Past:’
An Interview with Steve Yarbrough,”
Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies,
August 2002, Vol. 33, No. 2, p. 120

Photos and Additional Sources of Information

The map of the Arkansas Delta region was taken from an online source. To access it, search for Arkansas images.

The photo of the Mississippi River with the barge descending it was taken from a book titled The Mississippi River by Ann McCarthy.

The photos of the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, Arkansas, and the 1930s mule plowing in the Delta were reproduced by courtesy of the Arkansas History Commission from note cards issued by the Delta Cultural Center, an agency of the Department of Arkansas Heritage, Helena, Arkansas.

The photo of the Delta farmhouse was taken from: http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3613/3393545339_1e88ec2dd3_z.jpg

The photo of the Delta Queen, was taken from: http://www.save-the-delta-queen.org/wp-content/uploads/image/delta-queen-helena-1.jpg

The color photo of the cypress slough was taken from a postcard labeled Arkansas, a State of Natural Beauty, produced by Jenkins Enterprises, North Little Rock, AR, 501-945-2600

The photo of the 1927 Mississippi River flood in McGehee, Arkansas, was taken from the McGehee Centennial 1906-2006.

The photo of the old steamboats was taken from: http://activerain.com/image_store/uploads/4/9/8/4/0/ar123344639504894.jpg

To read more about the Arkansas Delta, click here.

To read more about Helena, Arkansas, and its Civil War history from Rex Nelson’s Southern Fried blog, click here.

To view a video of Bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins singing about cotton with scenes of cotton fields, cotton picking, and other such activities, click here.

To view a video of Southeast Arkansas made out the window of a car on Highway 65 south of Pine Bluff and passing by the Cummins unit of the Arkansas State Penitentiary, click here.

To view moss-draped cypress trees in Lake Chicot twenty-five miles south of McGehee, click here:

To view a video of canoeing through cypress trees and scum-covered water in a Lake Chicot swamp , click here.

To view a video of Lake Chicot with cypress trees, cranes, alligators, and stories of pirates, click here. 

To view a video of Blues music with photos of Desha County, Arkansas City, the Mississippi River, steamboats, sharecroppers, etc., click here.

To view a musical video of the Mississippi River made at Arkansas City with a passing riverboat pushing a barge, click here.

To read more about the late Bill Stroud of McGehee, click here.

On Bill’s site, to learn more about Arkansas Delta sharecroppers and tenant farmers, click here.

To read Bill’s reminiscences of his hometown of McGehee, Arkansas, in the 1950s, click here.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Cotton Comes and It Goes—
In and Out, Up and Down
 

’Leben-cent cotton and twenty–cent meat,
now that’s a combination ya jus’ cain’t beat.
How’n the hell they ‘spect a man ta eat,
with ‘leben-cent cotton and twenty-cent meat!”
—Depression-era cotton farmer’s lament

Just as the dust storms and depleted soils of the Great Plains during the Great Depression forced many subsistence farmers and sharecroppers to migrate west to California from states like Oklahoma (which at that time also grew cotton on a wide scale), so mechanization, falling prices, depleted soil, boll weevils, government agricultural programs, adverse weather and climate changes, and other varied and often complex factors led to decreases in cotton production in the South in the second half of the twentieth century.

Man in dust bowl

Dust storm during the Great Depression (source of photo unknown)

A boll weevil

A boll weevil (source of photo unknown)

In his blog “Southern Fried,” Rex Nelson talks about that period in a post titled “The Delta, Cotton, and the Great Migration.” Here are some excerpts from that post, quoted with Mr. Nelson’s permission, but I encourage you to read the entire article by clicking here.

“In an earlier post, I discussed Gene Dattel’s recent visit to Little Rock to talk about his book Cotton and Race in the Making of America: The Human Costs of Economic Power. [To view a video of Gene Dattel discussing this book and its subjects, cotton and race, click here.]

“In that book, Dattel touches on one of the most significant events in the history of the Delta regions of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi — the Great Migration of blacks from these cotton-growing regions to the factories of the Upper Midwest and other parts of the country. . . .

“Pete Johnson, the original federal co-chairman of the DRA, once compared the Delta to a ‘giant Indian reservation, separate from mainstream society in the region’s larger cities — out of sight, out of mind unless it’s a weekend gambling excursion.’ . . .

“’The Delta is truly the quintessential intersection between cotton and race,’ Dattel writes. ‘Cotton dominated the economy; blacks dominated the population. It was in the Mississippi Delta that cotton and culture combined to produce the musical genre of the blues, which has earned the region a reputation as a “primary taproot of black culture and history in America.” It has been referred to as the greatest single subregional contributor to the stream of black migrants to the urban North. As one of the spokesmen for the Delta Chamber of Commerce noted in 1938, more than 40 percent of all cotton produced in America bloomed within 200 miles in any direction of the Mississippi Delta. . . .

“’Times changed quickly,’ Dattel writes. ‘No longer were cotton farms filled with black sharecroppers and their shacks. Mules and the farm equipment of a bygone era disappeared. Sheds for tractors and mechanical cotton pickers replaced barns and mule stables. The many black churches that dotted the farm landscape were abandoned as blacks moved to Southern towns and cities and to cities in the North. High unemployment resulting from the displacement of unskilled farm laborers remains an enduring feature of the cotton plantation landscape. The coincidence of the advent of technology, the civil rights movement and the end of legal segregation has left blacks in the plantation world groping for an economic identity.’

“Dattel concludes that in the 80 years from 1861 to 1941, cotton descended from ‘an indispensable product to a surplus commodity. It was replaced by oil as the eventual strategic resource in the post-World War II global arena. In many ways, cotton had been the oil of the 19th century.’”

Taylor Prewitt, whose family has been involved in large-scale cotton farming in Desha and Drew Counties in the Arkansas Delta for generations, had this to say about the changes he sees in cotton production in the Delta:

“One of the significant trends has to do with age of the farmers. The older ones are dying off, and there aren’t many young ones taking their place. And labor requirements are decreasing. Not much labor is needed, and when it is needed for harvest, there’s a shortage of trained help. So there is a trend to use even bigger mechanical pickers. Some farmers have sold their land to large companies, some of them foreign, and now rent the land from them. Farms are consolidating and getting bigger. There are certain economies of scale.”

When I moved to Oklahoma in 1977 the Delta and cotton production in it had both already changed from the days of my childhood and youth. Over these past thirty-five years as I have traveled back “down home” on what I used to call my “semi-annual pilgrimages to the Holy Land,” the changes in the Delta have become increasingly evident and depressing.

Boy in cotton field

A boy in a cotton field ready to be picked (source of photo unknown)

Even as cotton production decreased and crop diversification increased, the economy of the Delta worsened. Population and income and the attendant tax base also decreased, resulting in a failing infrastructure and a corresponding lack (or loss) of industry. At the same time, many vestiges of the Old South way of life like cotton gins and shotgun houses fell into ruins or disappeared entirely.

Delta shotgun house front view

A front view of an Arkansas Delta shotgun house in the 1980s, so named because one could fire a shotgun through the front door and hit everything inside (to magnify, click on the photo)

Delta shotgun house side view

A side view of an Arkansas Delta shotgun house in the 1980s with the cotton plants in bloom (to magnify, click on the photo)

That’s when I came up with the saying, “Visiting the Delta now is like visiting a loved one in the nursing home—soul-stirring but spirit-depressing.”

So now once again, as during the Great Depression, the Delta has fallen on hard times. In fact, for years it has replaced Appalachia as the region of the worst poverty in the United States. Of course, many concerned individuals, government agencies, and private foundations are doing all in their power to restore the Delta, an endeavor which I totally support.

As I also say in one of my endless self-quotes: “I am impressed by Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead, but I would be even more impressed by His raising of the Delta—either literally or figuratively!”

I do not mean to imply that it was the seeming demise of King Cotton that brought about all the present problems of what I term “my beloved but blighted and benighted Delta.” (I have already referred to the depressed state of the Delta in my earlier post titled “My ‘Bucket List’ Trip II.” I will also address this issue in future posts.)

But the sad fact is that, as I also say, “The Delta is not a growth industry.” Yet I still love it—and always will though it is obvious that I can never return to it. As I say, “If God is ever going to take me back home to the Delta, He is first going to have to restore both it and me—which ain’t likely—at least not in my limited lifetime!”

Jimmy in cotton patch

Me “walking in high cotton” in a Delta cotton field whose plants are in bloom but whose bolls have yet opened (to magnify, click on the photo)

Me and My Cotton Caps

 “Cotton: The Fabric of Our Lives”
—Cotton Incorporated, America’s Cotton Producers and Importers
(For more information about this organization, click here.)

Nevertheless, ever since I have been living in exile here in Northeast Oklahoma, which has not produced cotton in decades, I have tried to identify myself as being not only an Arkie of the Covenant, as evidenced by my Razorback cap that I always wear, but also as a Deltan, as evidenced by the cotton boll caps that I have worn as I have been able to obtain them.

I have also decorated my home office with other cotton symbols—license plates, stickers, magnets, etc., all from the National Cotton Council, see photos.

Cotton license plate

A cotton license plate, the product of the National Cotton Council

Cotton Council sticker

Cotton Council sticker on my filing cabinet

The first cotton boll cap (a baseball-type cap with the image of a cotton boll on the front of it) was given to me (along with most of the cotton symbols pictured here) by a friend from McGehee back in 2000.

It was during another one of our “semi-annual pilgrimages to the Holy Land,” this time to attend Mari’s fortieth McGehee High School class reunion of the Class of 1960. (In a later post I will describe that reunion and that trip which included a tour of the Delta from south to north.) At that time I was also blessed by being made an honorary member of Mari’s Clique who presented me a tee-shirt with “Clique 2000” embroidered on it. (See my earlier post titled “My Annual Tributes to the Clique.”)

When we got back to Tulsa, our church, downtown, up-scale, high-church Trinity Episcopal, was holding one of its traditional Sunday morning services, but outdoors at a Tulsa park. Since Mari and I were chosen to serve as oblationers, those who walk down the aisle of the church bearing the bread and wine to be used in Holy Communion, I later told Mari, “I bet that was the first time in the history of Trinity that the Communion elements were delivered by a guy wearing a white tee-shirt and a cotton boll cap!”

Cottob boll

An open cotton boll ready to be picked (source of photo unknown)

Eventually that cotton-boll cap wore out. Fortunately, it was replaced recently by another slightly different cotton-boll cap from the McGehee Producers Gin. It was a gift to me from my McGehee High School classmate and friend Pat Scavo (originally Patsy McDermott who was featured in my earlier post titled “My First Encounter with Elvis and His Music”) and her friend Barbara McClendon Barnes, a native of McGehee, with deep roots in Selma, Arkansas, where I was born.

 I wear it with pride and gratitude—and a great deal of nostalgia.

Collected Quotes on Cotton

There are volumes that I could write and refer to on the subject of cotton and the Delta, but I will close these two posts by presenting some final select quotes on the subject by me and by others.

Mine:

“To quote my friend Danny Lynchard from Cleveland, Mississippi, I have a love-hate relationship with the Delta; I hate I love it so.”

“The Delta worships three kings: King Jesus, King Elvis, and King Cotton!”

“Deltans look for the return of cotton like Indians look for the return of the buffalo—and for the same reasons.”

“If I am ever exalted as long as I have been abased, I’m gonna be walking in high cotton.” (See the earlier photo of me standing in high cotton near my birthplace of Selma, Arkansas. )

Others’:

“Without cotton you’d have to clean your ears with a stick.”

—Agricultural chemical company billboard at Marvell,
Arkansas, between Holly Grove and Helena, in 1980

“I was born in the delta region of Arkansas, in Desha County, near the point where the Arkansas runs into the Mississippi. But Delta, in this case, means more than typography. It is also a landscape of the mind, formed by the culture that blossomed out of that rich soil as surely as the cotton on which that culture was based.”

—Margaret Jones Bolsterli, Born in the Delta

“Somewhere between Russellville and Little Rock, you’ll start running into your first cypress trees. It’s a different river [the Arkansas] down there, full of cypress swamps, side sloughs, oxbows, cottonmouths, and alligators. . . .There are little communities of gray, weathered shotgun shacks tenanted by people living off of the cotton as much the same way as people have done down here for nearly two hundred years. . .”

—Conrad Vollersten, “The colors of the Arkansas,” in column titled
Along the Arkansas in unknown Oklahoma newspaper, nd

“The past is all around us. We live our lives against a rich backdrop formed by historic buildings such as the Lycurgus Johnson Lakeport Plantation house, the landscapes and other physical survivals of our past, such as the cotton fields, fishing holes, juke joints, churches, cemeteries, and other significant landmarks. Historic buildings and artifacts can define a region’s localities and communities.”(For more information about the restored antebellum Lakeport Plantation, see the photo below and click here.)

—Alice Rogers-Johnson,
president of the Lakeport Cemetery Committee,
quoted in “Lakeport Plantation to host reunion celebration,”
McGehee [Arkansas] Times, July 1, 2009

Lakeport Plantation cotton fields

Cotton fields around Lakeport Plantation near Lake Village, Arkansas, with the new Greenville (MS) Bridge in the background (photo used with permission of Lakeport Plantation, to magnify, click on the photo)

Read Full Post »

 “I wish I was in the land of cotton,
Old times there are not forgotten;
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.”
—“Dixie” by Daniel Decatur Emmett
(To learn more about the history of this song, click here.)

Arkansas Cotton Painting

The inscription on this painting by L. Young of Monroe, Louisiana, who owns property in Southeast Arkansas, reads: “Arkansas: The Land of Cotton. Much of the South, Arkansas included, was slow to change economically after the Civil War. The image of the solitary farmer and his mule in a cotton field was the commonly accepted idea of Arkansas agriculture.” (To visit L. Young’s Web sites, click here and here. To view the inscription and the small photos, click on the painting.)

For months I have been thinking about writing a post about cotton, a subject that must be explored in order to understand anything at all about my beloved homeland, the Mississippi River Delta.

I realize that the reason I have been hesitant to do so all this time is because it is an overwhelming task. Cotton was such an integral part of my environment during the first half of my life that to try to summarize it and its influence in a few pages and with a few photos is truly impossible.

Therefore, I had to expand the subject to two posts. However, even then they will offer just a glimpse into that fascinating world that—for better or for worse—now seems to be disappearing, seemingly soon to be “Gone With the Wind.”

Some General Facts about Cotton 

“The reason California has happy cows is because they get
their [cotton] seed [used for cattle feed] from Arkansas.”
—Donna Watts of McGehee Producers Gin, in McGehee, Arkansas

As I have noted in earlier posts, although I was born in the little sawmill/farming community of Selma, Arkansas, located just a mile from the edge of the Mississippi River Delta, when I was ten years old my family moved to neighboring McGehee, Arkansas, in the middle of the Delta.

The economy of McGehee was based on two industries: the Missouri Pacific Railroad, for which McGehee served as the southeastern hub for the state of Arkansas; and farming, which in that time and in that area was still denominated by King Cotton. (See the following three photos from the advertising section of my McGehee High School Class of 1956 yearbook which show girls from that class.)

McGehee Cotton Yearbook 1

An ad in my 1956 yearbook for one of the McGehee cotton gins of which there were several in those days (to magnify, click on the photo)

McGehee Cotton Yearbook II

An ad for another McGehee cotton gin in 1956; note the phrase “Cotton helps McGehee, McGehee gins cotton,” a reference to the family of the founder of the city; note also the word “planters” used to indicate plantation owners (to magnify, click on the photo)

McGehee Cotton Yearbook III

An ad for the Federal Compress and Warehouse in McGehee where cotton bales were compressed and stored for shipment; there was such a compress in many Delta towns (to magnify, click on the photo)

In those days the so-called Cotton Belt extended from the southeast corner of Virginia, down through the Carolinas to Georgia and the Panhandle of Florida, and westward through Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and beyond the Mississippi River to Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas. And the state of Arkansas was a leading producer of that leading product of the United States, which is now still second or third in world production.

Cotton Belt

The modern-day Cotton Belt (note the concentration of cotton production along the lower Mississippi River, including the Arkansas Delta and Desha County just to the north of the Louisiana line–to magnify, click on the photo)

As an example of the importance of cotton to the economy of the state, at one time back in the days of the Great Depression, cotton was grown in seventy-three of Arkansas’ seventy-five counties.

In the days of my childhood and youth, back in the 1940s-1960s, the largest producer of cotton was Texas, which, primarily due to its huge size, harvested about five million bales a year. (That’s one reason the famed Cotton Bowl stadium and game are in Dallas and not in one of the cities of the Southeast.)

Second was Mississippi, with somewhat less than two million bales a year.

Arkansas was third with about a million and a half to a million and three-fourths bales.

The heart of cotton production in Arkansas was the Mississippi River Delta region, stretching from the Boot Heel of Missouri down to the Louisiana line. And in the very center of the Delta in southeast Arkansas, ten miles or so from the Mississippi River, and about forty-five miles from the Louisiana line, was my hometown of McGehee.

Arkansas Cottton Pin

Arkansas cotton pin

Although cotton acreage in the South and in Arkansas has decreased in recent years, being replaced by other crops like rice, soybeans, wheat, milo maize, and even catfish and crayfish, Arkansas still usually ranks in the top three states in the number of bales or pounds of cotton produced annually. (For more factual information about cotton production in the United States, click here. You will see that the five-year average from 2003-2008 again shows Texas as number one, Mississippi number two, and Arkansas number three.)

For an example of Arkansas’ prominence in cotton production compared to Oklahoma’s, just recently I read in a local newspaper that in 2011-12 Oklahoma is expected to produce about 65,000 bales, down 85 percent from last year due to unfavorable weather and climate changes.

About the same time I read in the McGehee Times that just one gin in my hometown of McGehee, Arkansas, estimated that it would process about 1,000 bales a day for two and a half months—which, if I figure correctly, would amount to about 75,000 bales.

From 2003-2008 the average annual amount of cotton production in Oklahoma was about 258,000 bales a year. During that same period the average annual amount of cotton production in Arkansas was 2,038,000 bales.

(Information from the Web site above and an article titled “Cotton crop brings changes,” The Times-News, Wednesday, September 21, 2011. For more information on McGehee cotton gins, see the quotes about cotton at the end of this post.)

Cotton gin in McGehee

A 1950’s cotton gin in McGehee, Arkansas (photo taken from McGehee Centennial 1906-2006)

Even so, cotton acreage in Arkansas today appears to be much less than it was back in the halcyon days of our youth. In fact, as reported by my friend Joe Dempsey from Pine Bluff in my earlier post on the Delta titled “My ‘Bucket List’ Trip II,” the number of cotton gins in the Delta has decreased immensely; in some places in the Delta they have virtually disappeared.

 “Gone Are the Days”—of King Cotton 

“Gone are the days
when my heart was young and gay;
Gone are my friends
from the cotton fields away.”
–“Old Black Joe,” by Stephen C. Foster (1853)

The cotton culture of our day affected almost every aspect of our lives while I was growing up. The influence of the “Cotton Kingdom” continued after I graduated from high school, college, and graduate school and began teaching in Holly Grove, a little cotton-based town in Monroe County, about ninety miles north of McGehee, and about thirty-five miles west of Helena. (To view maps of the Cotton Kingdom before the Civil War, click here and here. Desha County is located in that area in Southeast Arkansas.)

Cotton Kingdom in 1860

The old Cotton Kingdom in 1860 just before the Civil War (photo scanned from the Web site above; to magnify, click on the photo)

A modern mechanical cotton harvester

A modern mechanical cotton picker (photo courtesy of Taylor Prewitt, a native of Desha and Drew Counties in Southeast Arkansas)

About that same time Mari and I were married in December 1962, and she began teaching in Holly Grove Elementary School. The first five years of our marriage were spent in that cotton-farming community. In fact, cotton fields came right up to the back of the school and the football field so that in the fall we could look out our classroom windows and see the adjoining fields turning “white . . . unto harvest” (John 4:35 ASV).

And, as had been the case in McGehee and throughout much of the Arkansas Delta region, not only were the fields “white . . . unto harvest,” the roadsides were lined with white from the stands of cotton fibers that were blown from the hundreds of cotton trailers that farmers used to transport their precious “white gold” from the fields to the cotton gins.

Arkansas Cotton field

In those days virtually every town and community had at least one gin (short for “engine”), a large building that housed the equipment that separated the seeds from the cotton bolls and then cleaned and pressed the seedless cotton fiber into bales weighing usually about 450-500 pounds. (To watch a ten-minute video of the operation of a modern, high-tech cotton gin that moves the raw cotton through the entire process to the final “strapping and wrapping” of a cotton bale, click here. To read about the old and the modern high-tech McGehee Producers Gin, read the quotes about cotton at the end of the post. To order miniature cotton bales, click here.)

Cotton gins in McGehee, Arkansas: old and new

Cotton gins in McGehee, Arkansas: old and modern (to magnify, click on the photo taken from McGehee Centennial 1906-2006)

Of course, the trees and even sometimes the grass and bushes around these busy buildings were covered with cotton fiber. In fact, in the fall the whole landscape of the Delta gave an impression of a “winter wonderland” produced by these flying wisps of white.

But not only was cotton production a major activity and source of income in the agricultural dominated Delta, it was also the basis of an entire way of life, one that seemingly has marked me—and many others—for life.

“Cotton is goin’ west . . .”

“Cotton is goin’ west,
Cattle are comin’ east,
Blacks are goin’ north,’
And industry is comin’ south!”
—Southern saying of the 1960s

As the above quotation indicates, starting back in the 1950s with the mechanization of cotton farming, things began to change in the Delta as elsewhere across the South. As laborers and sharecroppers, both black and white, were replaced by machines, many of them were forced to leave their rural homes and journey north to urban areas like St. Louis, Chicago, and Detroit in search of work, usually in factories in what is now referred to as the Rust Belt.

A 1950's single row cotton picker

A 1950’s single row cotton picker (photo taken from McGehee Centennial 1906-2006)

Sharecropper family during the Great Ddepression

Sharecropper family during the Great Depression (source of photo not known)

When I was working as graduate assistant in the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, I learned that during a twenty-year period of the 1950s and 60s Arkansas lost approximately 25 percent of its black population, most of whom migrated to the North in search of a better life. In joining this mass migration of displaced Southern farm workers, often called the greatest human migration in the history of the nation, if not the world, they left behind a Delta, and indeed an entire South, that was destined for change.

Part of that change, as also expressed in the above quote, was the movement of cotton production from the traditional Southern Cotton Belt to Western states like New Mexico, Arizona, and California. (At one time I read that California had replaced Mississippi as second in the production of cotton, and that Arizona had replaced Arkansas as third, a situation that has now reversed.) Another reason for that movement was the change from cotton to other types of crops in the South due to the decreasing productivity of the soil, which cotton depletes if it is sown in the same land year after year.

Ironically, that was one of the factors that influenced many of the same families (like my own Georgia ancestors who fled the Southeast in 1857) to migrate west to states like Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas when their own lands were worn out from repeated cotton production.

Select Quotes on Cotton

Below are a few select quotes on cotton: mine and other’s. The discussion of the changing Cotton Kingdom in general and in Southeast Arkansas in particular will be continued in next week’s post which will end with some additional select quotes about cotton and the Delta.

Mine:

“How can they call Israel the Holy Land when they don’t even grow cotton there?” (In fact, as I later learned, Israel does grow cotton but is ranked as thirty-fifth in the amount of cotton produced. To see a list of the nations that produce cotton and their rankings and amount of production, click here.)

“In Arkansas cotton is a staple; in Mississippi it is a fetish!” (And the Mississippi Delta, called “the most Southern place on earth,” is still one of the leading areas of cotton production in the country.)

“You are so Southeast Arkansas if you know the seven roadside words that describe its treasured culture: Razorback, Delta, catfish, cotton, Baptist, beer, and bait.” (Used by the Arkansas Times.)

“The smell of cotton poison always makes me teary-eyed!” (This is double entendre, referring to the physical reaction to the familiar acrid odor of the chemicals used to eradicate boll weevils and to the “mistiness of memory.” It is not by chance that the mascot of the University of Arkansas at Monticello, twenty-five miles west of McGehee, is the boll weevil or that the university’s women athletes are known as the Cotton Blossoms.)

Others:

“No one was ever inspired to sing, ‘I wish I was in the land of polyester.’”

—Agricultural chemical company billboard
outside McGehee, Arkansas, in 1980

“McGehee [Arkansas, my hometown], located in southern Arkansas, is a typical hamlet in the Mississippi Delta, with its bayous filled with cypress trees surrounded by miles of cotton and soybean fields. . . . ‘When they say the impoverished Mississippi Delta, they mean Desha County. . .’”

—Helen Adcock, quoted by Amy Schlesing in article titled
“Delta town pins hopes for revival on children,”
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 25, 2001

“As I was raised next door to a cotton gin, I recall the changes and progress. Our first gin was located on the west bank of Boggy Bayou. It was powered by steam. In April of 1927, Daddy ginned cotton all day, ginning 14 bales of cotton. Later gins used diesel and butane.”

—Jimmy Kemp of McGehee, Arkansas,
quoted in McGehee Centennial 1906-2006 

“In the early days, Cotton Gins were individually owned. . . .Today many gins are farmer cooperatively owned such as McGehee Producers Gin, Inc. In the 2005 season, 65,000 bales of cotton were ginned in 64 days. In 2006, the gin was one of 12 in the Middle South to score 100% on safety. The Gin is completely electric and computer controlled providing extra quality to increase the financial return of the farmer owners.”

Kevin Watts, quoted in McGehee Centennial 1906-2006 

Read Full Post »

“Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart, and the pleasantness of a friend springs from their heartfelt advice.”
—Proverbs 27:9 NIV

In earlier posts I have presented tributes to my mother, my father, my wife, her mother, her father, our son, Mari’s Clique, and others. Now I would like to present a piece that I wrote and presented orally to honor a female friend and mentor in the Tulsa religious publishing field.

Although she was fifteen years younger than I was, Cris Bolley was instrumental in getting me, a Southern Baptist at the time, involved in copyediting for the Tulsa Charismatic and pentecostal community after my initial job as French-English translator and editorial assistant for the Obsorn Foundation came to an abrupt end.

For the whole story, read my tribute to Cris (below), which I delivered and presented to her as a scroll at a special ceremony to recognize her and her contributions to Harrison House Publishers in 1996.

I offer this tribute now because it was on Memorial Day in 1977—thirty-five years ago—that I traveled from Tulsa, where I had been working as a French-English translator since February, down to our hometown of McGehee, Arkansas, to move Mari and our two sons up here to join me in what was to become “My Oklahomian Exile.”

Cris Bolley, whom I had met on that job, was to become one of my closest friends and my mentor in the field of religious publication about which I knew absolutely nothing at that time. (For a description of my beginning days as an ill-prepared and ill-equipped freelance religious copyeditor, read the second part of my earlier post titled “Life Is Reg’lar/My Mother’s Bible.”) 

A Tribute to Cris Bolley
Delivered at Harrison House Publishers
on August 18, 1996

“The image of friendship is truth.”
—Anonymous 

“The best and most beautiful things in the world
cannot be seen or even touched.
They must be felt with the heart.”
—Helen Keller, taken from a plaque
given to Jimmy Peacock by Cris Bolley

Twenty years ago next February, I moved to Tulsa to work as a French-English translator for T.L. Osborn, a man whom I, as a lifelong Southern Baptist, had never heard of. After about a year, I was made an editorial assistant helping to produce all of the printed materials for the Osborn Foundation, including the regular magazine Faith Digest, published in four languages.

It was while I was at OS/FO that I made the acquaintance of a young couple, Jim and Cris Bolley, and several others like Danny Lynchard who, over the course of time, were to exert an unforeseen and even unimagined influence upon my life both personally and professionally.

Four years later, when the Osborn Foundation decided to “downsize,” which included moving its publication department out of house, along with Jim and Cris and a number of others I suddenly and unexpectedly found myself out of work—which is precisely where I was when Osborn found me in the first place, except that now I was stranded on the plains of Oklahoma rather than in the Mississippi River Delta of my beloved Southeast Arkansas.

Some months later, after I had again exhausted all possible hopes of finding suitable employment, I received an unexpected call—from none other than Cris Bolley. It seemed that after leaving OS/FO Cris had gone to work for a place called Harrison House, which had expanded to the point that it was in need of outside editorial assistance. Like Miriam, who suggested her own mother to Pharaoh’s daughter as a nursemaid for baby Moses, Cris was kind enough to suggest Jimmy Peacock to the HH “powers that be.”

I, of course, quickly accepted the offer, thinking that it would provide me a bit of much needed income while I looked for a “real job”—preferably, of course, as a university instructor back home in “the Holy Land.”

That was in September 1981, fifteen years ago next month. Needless to say, neither the job nor the return to “the Holy Land” ever materialized, while the work at Harrison House gradually increased and expanded.

Meanwhile, Cris enjoyed such favor that she quickly rose to occupy several very important positions, eventually becoming editor-in-chief. Her favor was so complete, in fact, and her rise so quick and phenomenal, that I soon began referring to her as “Queen Esther”—to which, I must admit, I have tried throughout the years to play the role of “Cousin Mordecai.”

Speaking of cousins, the French have an expression, “Je ne suis pas le cousin du roi—I am not the king’s cousin,” meaning, “I’m not just a distant relative; I’m very close to the throne.” In my case, being no fool, I tried to make the most of being “the queen’s cousin”—without realizing the full implication of another French expression, noblesse oblige—literally, “nobility obligates,” but perhaps more freely and more scripturally translated, “Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required” (Luke 12:48).

Over the intervening years, besides the original opportunity afforded me of serving as a royal scribe to Her Majesty, much has been given to me as a result of my favored relationship to Queen Esther, and much has been required of me.

For all of these blessings I am most humbly grateful—first of all to God, then to Harrison House itself, but also to the one who has borne the burden through the years of having to put up with Cousin Mordecai’s totally unsolicited advice and totally incessant complaints. (I have told Cris so many times and in so many ways that I want to go home, I am amazed that she didn’t tell me to do so long ago! But, on the other hand, among many other things, nobility does oblige patience.)

In the movie Educating Rita, a young coed approaches a dour middle-aged college professor asking him to tutor her in her studies. Reluctantly and against his will or better judgment, for some reason I cannot recall, the professor is obliged (there’s that word again!) to agree.

If you saw that film, you will remember that over its course it became more and more questionable as to who was tutoring whom, as the enthusiastic and vivacious young student began to break down the walls of cynicism and disillusionment in the aging scholar. By the end of the movie, it is clear that while he has indeed mentored her in literature, she has mentored him in life—with the result that they each go their separate ways with a different perspective and an altered prospect for the future.

That parable is perhaps the closest I can come to describing the indescribable—that is, what Queen Esther . . . Rita . . . Cris Bolley, has done for Mordecai . . . the professor . . . Jimmy Peacock.

While I cannot speak for others, though I am sure it is true for virtually everyone who has come under her influence, in my own case, borrowing from another popular recent movie, I can truthfully say: “Thanks, Cris, for being my friend and helping me to become what I am today. To a very real extent I am . . . Mrs. Bolley’s Opus. So now that you are a published author, Rita, here’s your diploma!”

Note: Since this piece was originally written in 1996 Cris Bolley has continued her academic studies and added MA and LPCC after her name. To understand the meaning and significance of the term “Mrs. Bolley’s Opus,” a reference to a popular movie at the time titled Mr. Holland’s Opus, go to this Web site.

However, although Cris Bolley was easily the greatest influence in my becoming a professional copyeditor and amateur writer, there were several other women (besides Cris and Mari) who also encouraged me in my literary efforts. Following are two examples from other women who published complimentary remarks about my writing and my love for my native state:

“Listen up . . . y’all! I would like to introduce you to that smooth talkin’ and slow walkin’ Southern Gentleman fondly known around Harrison House as  . . . Mr. Hey [a reference to my usual Southern-style form of address], who is a consulting editor for Harrison House . . . . He keeps very busy editing manuscripts, typing transcripts, proofreading, writing articles about our authors, composing back-liners for our books, and much more. His given name is Jimmy Peacock and he hails from that great state of Arkansas which he considers his own personal Promised Land. . . .  Here is just a little reminder to you YANKEES out there. According to Jimmy, the South WILL RISE AGAIN . . . even if it takes the rapture to do it!”

—Judy Whitley,
Harrison House Newsletter, 1986

“Jimmy Peacock, Sapulpa, Oklahoma. No one could be more steeped in the lore of his home state, Arkansas, . . . than Jimmy. He has a publishing business for religious needs and he also writes homespun stories about the region, drawing on his childhood experiences. Our favorite is the one about getting electric lights for the first time in his boyhood home. Jimmy is easy to identify with as most of us can find ourselves in his stories.”

—Virginia Peacock Whitehead,
Peacock Family Association of the South, 1985

Read Full Post »