“The transformation of dense swamp and forest to today’s commercial agriculture is the story of two hundred acres worked by people sowing their fate with sweat, ingenuity, and luck.”
—Synopsis of During Wind and Rain by Margaret Jones Bolsterli
In the preceding post I presented a book review I once wrote of a book by Margaret Jones Bolsterli titled Born in the Delta.
This second review of another book by Professor Bolsterli titled During Wind and Rain was written by Taylor Prewitt, a native of Desha-Drew counties who grew up in McGehee, Arkansas. His family has been involved in large-scale cotton production in those two counties for generations, which is why he was gracious enough to provide quotations and photographs about cotton farming in this post.
I have included his review in this post with his permission. It previously appeared in “Acorns and Hickory Nuts,” an annual collection Taylor published privately on lulu.com. It should be noted that his review is about twice as long as mine, because it contains so much more valuable information on Professor Bolsterli’s family history, the Arkansas Delta, Desha County, and cotton production in the Delta.
Again, I have presented the piece just as it was written with my emphasis in italics and my comments in brackets. With Taylor’s permission I have also inserted the photos used to illustrate the review. As with the first piece, I have broken the copy into shorter paragraphs to fit the format of this blog:
During Wind and Rain
I may have measured the Jones farm, subject of Margaret Jones Bolsterli’s During Wind and Rain: The Jones Family Farm in the Arkansas Delta 1848-2006 (The University of Arkansas Press, 2008), during the five or six summers that I measured land for the Agriculture Stabilization and Conservation Commission.
Located on the road between Watson and Back Gate, it was in one of the most remote areas from my home in McGehee, and a trip to Back Gate [so named because it was the “back gate” to a Delta plantation where travelers disembarked from Arkansas River steamboats] was an adventure of discovery. It wasn’t so remote as the McGehee area, though, when it was first cleared and farmed before the Civil War.
My dad used to tell me that some of the farms around Newton’s Chapel, near Winchester, had been farmed with slave labor, and that some of the boards from one of the ante-bellum farm houses there were used to build the Newton’s Chapel Methodist Church. Our own farm land dated back to perhaps the early twentieth century but not to the days of slavery.
The remoteness of McGehee and Tillar in the days when river travel was the first option, is documented in a letter dated June 8, 1893 and quoted in part: “We went from Ark. City for about 2 mi. in a skiff then from there to 2 mi. beyond Trippe [Junction] on a hand car, went through water 6 in. deep just pouring over the track then from there to McGehee in a wagon and from McGehee to Tillar on the train, didn’t we have a time getting there.”
Foremost among the documentary treasures of this book is Choctaw Certificate #630B for 160 acres in Redfork Township, Desha County, Arkansas, reproduced as the frontispiece. Signed by President Zachary Taylor (for whom my great grandfather was named), “the 160-acre plot of land had been awarded to Pha-Nubbee by an act of Congress in 1842 to satisfy claims arising from the fourteenth and nineteenth articles of the Treaty of Dancing Creek of 1830, the treaty that initiated the removal of the Five Civilized Tribes to the west [to what is now Eastern Oklahoma]. It is not known where Uriah (Jones) came by it nor how much he paid for it—there was a thriving market in these certificates.”
Uriah Jones, the author’s great grandfather, had moved, with his wife Sarah and their son Joseph, from central Tennessee to Arkansas County, Arkansas, in 1841.
Although I’ve never met Margaret Jones Bolsterli (my son had a class under her at the University of Arkansas), I think of her as an old friend because we both grew up in a farming family in Desha County at about the same time (she was born in 1931, I in 1938). Her previous book, Born in the Delta [see my book review in the previous post], describes the cultural mores we both grew up with; I still quote a line from her brother, replying to her concern about what to wear to town because their mother never wanted them to look common. “Hell, we’re all common now.”
In her introduction to this book, she identifies the underlying purpose and function of farming in southeast Arkansas:
Conditioned as we are by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s version of life on the northwestern frontier, we must be cautioned to remember that life on other frontiers took different shapes, according to the topography and soil. In the Arkansas Delta, life on the family farm, what one might think of as the “Little House in the Swamp,” may have had some similarities to a homestead in Wisconsin, but the nature of the ideals and expectations brought to it made it different from the very beginning from the “Little House on the Prairie.” This Delta farm was hacked out of the woods in the 1840s by slaves who became sharecroppers in 1865, some of whose descendants were tractor drivers in the 1960s.
In other words, ours was a farm managed like a plantation because the plantation ideal that was central to the vision of the farm’s founder has been, to some extent, carried on down to the present. It was a farm because it was too small to be termed a plantation (not for lack of trying).
One difference was that, in this scheme of things, white women of a certain class did not work in the fields nor did they cook huge meals for hungry harvesting crews. They were kept on as high a pedestal as the family could afford. [See the reference to Southern belles and the photo of an Arkansas Delta belle in the preceding post on Born in the Delta].
The culture produced by this ideal was my theme in Born in the Delta, so I will not belabor it here except to make the point again that these pioneers probably did not consider their venture a matter of going West, with its connotations of wide open spaces and freedom to build a new kind of life, but of moving the boundary of the South further west.
They wanted their lives to be as much as possible like the ones left behind in Virginia and Tennessee, or like the lives they would have preferred to have back there. The egalitarian dream that descendants of Texans—and others who went further west—claim for their forebears was not their priority. In any case, one suspects that the further west settlers went, the harder it was to retain the Southern ideals, no matter how much they might have wanted to. The western border of Arkansas may have been about as far as those ideals could thrive. [After living in Oklahoma for thirty-five years, I wholeheartedly agree!]
Her family perspective antedates mine by some half a century and a war. The nucleus of her story is the contents of three trunks in the house on the family farm, never really studied until she had moved them to a farm in Madison County in 1996. Besides the original land grant, there are other legal documents, letters, and farm accounts, which she has used to generate this account of the stewardship of five generations in managing the farm that Uriah Jones acquired in 1849.
There are gaps in the documentation, of course, and some of these are filled in with contemporary accounts from similar sources. Some insight into the institution of slavery which facilitated the establishment of the plantation system in Arkansas is given in the 1861 assessment, which shows that Uriah Jones assessed 440 acres of land at $5,280. His son Joseph assessed no land but did assess eight slaves valued at $6,400; so we see that eight slaves were worth more than 440 acres of land. This helps explain General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s comment: “If we ain’t fightin’ fer slavery, what are we fightin’ fer?”
As is usually the case when I review old documents, the stories are more accessible than the lists and figures. One possible intersection with my family in Tillar is in the letter from the author’s Aunt Sallie’s friend Sallie Owen Shaifer, quoted above to describe the vicissitudes of travel in 1893:
Well we got to Tillar about three o’clock and Sister C and some of the girls met us at the Depot, we all went to the Church and stayed until they finished fixing it then we went over to Mrs. Tillars and at 7:30 all went to the Concert and Sallie it was just splendid. They had music, dialogues, recitations etc. and the fan drill. It was about twelve girls small ones all dressed in red with red shoes and stockings and fans and they went through all kinds of motions using the fans and kept perfect time to music. After the Concert was over we all went up to the hall and danced. Uncle P Sister C and Mr. S (haifer) and I left at 12.
Hughetta Duncan, my grandmother, lost her mother when she was a year old. Her father asked Mr. Frank Tillar, whom he considered the best businessman in town, if he would serve as Hughetta’s guardian if anything should happen to him. He died when Hughetta was six years old, in 1891, and this letter was written in 1893. Was Hughetta one of the “twelve girls small ones all dressed in red with red shoes and stockings” doing the fan drill?
The author describes her work as an elegy for the family farm, citing Thomas Hardy’s poem, “During Wind and Rain,” which lends its title to the book. The inexorable trend toward larger farm size in the delta indicates that the cards are stacked against the family farm; there’s a certain threshold of size required to absorb the costs of large equipment. And despite the technical advances such as genetically engineered seed, irrigation, pesticides, and weed killers which diminish some of the hazards of raising cotton, all the variables cannot be eliminated, as her nephew Casey described:
The best pounds to the acre Daddy made was 650 bales on 400 acres; that’s a little over a bale to the acre, for five-hundred pound bales; two men picked that crop. By 2000, you had to expect two bales to the acre. In 2004, the last year I farmed, a lot of the fields made three bales to the acre. Some, more than that, but it started raining and was real wet, so by the time we got through, we were picking only a bale and a half to the acre.
This sounds like something I might have written for the annual report of the Prewitt Family Limited Partnership, describing the September nosedive of our yield. You can’t keep it from raining.
Looking at the leveled and irrigated farms while flying over the delta one time, I had a new perspective on how the swamp and forest land had been drained and transformed into a machine for producing cotton and rice. Bolsterli states this very well in her concluding paragraph: “For, granted that all agriculture, by definition, is a perversion of nature, the limits seem to have been stretched here. With the heightened consciousness of twenty-first-century environmentalism, it is not possible to look at those fields stretching to the horizons and not consider the ravishing of nature required to achieve them.”
She also alludes to the role of slavery in leading our ancestors to initiate the cotton plantation system which has become such an unreliable asset to the region’s economy and social structure.
The case study of the Jones family farm is well presented, with abundant documentation of the problems involved. This system has consumed the lives of multiple generations, as shown in the story of the Jones farm. It has also been the stimulus for many careers in academics, journalism, medicine—anything outside the delta. Farming in the delta requires farmers who are dedicated to the proposition, and this is another resource which is becoming more scarce, a factor hinted at in Casey’s decision to rent out the farm.
A riddle that I’ve lived with is how the area with the richest soil can have the poorest people. It’s a complex problem; its manifestations in the case study of this farm are well documented, and the story is well told.
In an article in the August 29, 2012, issue of the McGehee-Dermott Times-News, Cindy Smith recommended three other books about Southeast Arkansas: A Haunted Love Story, Camp Nine, and Growing Up in Arkansas.
Note: To view a video titled “Delta Mud in Your Blood” set to Delta Blues music performed by Marty Denton of McGehee, Arkansas, with scenes of Bayou Bartholomew, sharecropper shacks, cotton picking, the Mississippi River, the flat Delta landscape, Blues music and musicians, scenes in McGehee, etc., click here. For additional information and photos on many of the subjects presented in this review, see my previous post titled “Born in the Delta: A Review of a Book by a Delta Author” as well as other posts titled “My Bucket-List Trip II: The Delta,” “Wish I Was in the Land of Cotton I” and “Wish I Was in the Land of Cotton II,” “Additional Quotes about the Delta,” and “Days Gone By.”
Special Press Release on Lakeport Plantation Fifth Anniversary:
Lakeport Plantation, often featured on this blog (see the close of the preceding post titled “Days Gone By”) will be celebrating its Fifth Anniversary on September 28-30. The three-day event will showcase newly installed permanent exhibits in the house. See the press release below for more information and how to register.
The plantation home is an Arkansas State University Heritage Site, built ca. 1859 for the Johnson family of Kentucky. One of Arkansas’s premiere historic structures; it has changed little since its original construction and is the last antebellum plantation home in Arkansas on the Mississippi River. The Sam Epstein Angel family of Lake Village deeded the house to the university in 2001. Restoration began in 2002, using the highest level of U. S. Department of Interior standards for rehabilitation, and the restored home opened to the public in 2007.
Since its opening, thousands of visitors from all over Arkansas, the United States, and the globe have toured the plantation. Lakeport now enters a new phase with the installation of permanent exhibits, designed in collaboration with Quatrefoil Associates in Laurel, Maryland. Exhibits are based on years of restoration and research in family records, archives and oral histories.
“The house itself will always be our major exhibit,” stated Dr. Ruth Hawkins, executive director of Arkansas Heritage Sites at ASU. “We wanted to enhance the visitor experience, however, with unobtrusive exhibits that tell the stories of the house, the restoration, and the people who lived and worked at Lakeport.”
New exhibits also will display artifacts found during restoration and original items donated back to the house. Dr. Blake Wintory, director of Lakeport Plantation, said his personal favorite is a case full of artifacts, dating between 1860 and 1970, which were found behind mantels during restoration. “From the time the Johnsons moved into the house in 1860, people began losing pictures, letters, business cards and other objects behind the mantels,” Wintory said. “These lost and found artifacts are a fascinating record of their lives.”
The Lakeport Family Reunion will include descendants of the Johnson family, other residents of Lakeport, and descendants of African Americans who lived and worked at Lakeport as enslaved laborers and later as tenant farmers.
Early registration will take place from 5-7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 28 at the Guachoya Cultural Arts Center in Lake Village. Permanent exhibits will be unveiled at the plantation house at 9:00 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 29, followed by presentations related to new discoveries at Lakeport from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on the Lakeport lawn.
Saturday afternoon events will include a 2 p.m. tour of the Epstein Cotton Gin in Lake Village, led by Sammy E. Angel, and a 3:30 p.m. guided walking tour of downtown Lake Village by Rachel Silva of the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program. A social hour at the restored historic Tushek Building begins at 5 p.m., followed by a Homemade Spaghetti Dinner at 6 p.m. at Our Lady of the Lake Parish Hall. The dinner will include a presentation by community historian Libby Borgognoni on Chicot County’s Italian history.
On Sunday, Sept. 30, a panel of Johnson descendants will present “Memories of the Family” at 10 a.m., followed by “Memories of the Community” featuring Lakeport area residents at 11 a.m. A noon barbeque lunch will end the celebration.
The three-day event is open to the public, but registration is required by Sept. 14 and there is a charge for the meals. For information on registration, visit http://lakeport.astate.edu/, call 870.265.6031, or email email@example.com.