“I was born in the delta region of Arkansas, . . . . 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
In my preceding post on Arkansas Delta plantations I began a discussion of this subject as presented in an AETN public television program titled “Plantation Homes of Arkansas.” In that post I examined some of these historic homes individually and introduced some lesser-known Arkansas Delta plantations and their misfortunes due to fire.
On a more positive note, one of the earliest Arkansas Delta plantation homes is still standing and is currently being excavated to locate the original cellar and outdoor kitchen. The Taylor Plantation is located on Highway 138 in Drew County near Winchester, Arkansas, a few miles north of McGehee.
According to an online source titled Arkansas Preservation.com, the dig is being co-sponsored by the University of Arkansas at Monticello (the seat of Drew County in which I was born) and the Drew County Historical Society which notes:
The Taylor House, a two-story, log dogtrot built in 1846 on the west bank of Bayou Bartholomew by Dr. John M. Taylor and his wife, Mary E. Robertson Taylor, was the epicenter of the 11,000-acre Hollywood Plantation and in 2012 was donated to the University of Arkansas at Monticello.
Another important Arkansas Delta plantation was located in Mississippi County, at one time reputed to be the largest cotton-producing county in the country. The Robert E. Lee Wilson Plantation covered some 65,000 acres and was said to be the largest cotton plantation in the world. (To read an entry from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture about Lee Wilson and Company, the parent company of this agricultural giant, click here.)
As for those shacks of slaves, sharecroppers, and tenant farmers so often associated with images of Southern plantations (see photo above), my longtime friend and Ouachita Baptist College classmate Joe Dempsey recently featured one of these few remaining humble dwellings in his Weekly Grist for the Eyes and Mind.
Here is that photo along with Joe’s comment on such disappearing vestiges of Southern plantation life:
Back in the day, the Delta was liberally sprinkled with domiciles of this genre. The DNA markers inevitably were tar-paper siding and a “tin” roof (aka “roofin’ arn”). As machinery replaced sweat to plant, nurture, and harvest the life-blood crops of the Delta, folks left and no replacement population was forthcoming. Once the technology ratchet was engaged there was no looking back. If one were to plot the curves of advancing agricultural modernization with declining population, I’m betting on a hard correlation.
The old homes were left to face the elements with no maintenance, a sure course to collapse. In a few cases, we find these classic structures still standing and I’m guessing it is not by accident. Someone cares and though the maintenance they do is sparse, it is enough to ward off the inevitable. We should be grateful to these individuals for keeping our past in front of us. Though living in these conditions was hardscrabble at best, few will deny that it “built character.” (italics mine)
To read Joe’s entire Weekly Grist for the Eyes and Mind for June 29, 2014, click here. To view another of Joe’s Weekly Grist posts on an old abandoned Delta farmhouse, click here. To view Joe’s Weekly Grist post on a restored dogtrot house, click here.
Slavery on Arkansas Delta Plantations
“The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it.”
For a glimpse into the lives of those who occupied Delta plantation shacks, like those pictured above, here is a recent announcement from Lakeport Plantation of a conference on slavery held on August 28.
Slave Life in Chicot County: Toil and Resistance on the River
Kelly Jones, University of Arkansas (Ph.D. Candidate)
Thursday, August 28, 2014
(Note: To magnify the ad for the runaway slave, click on the photo.)
Wealthy planters, like Chicot County’s Elisha Worthington with 543 slaves on four plantations, benefited from the work of their slaves. However, slaves like, Toney, who in 1836 escaped twice from Chicot County plantations, sought ways to act in their own interests and not their masters. Photo courtesy of Annie Paden; Runaway Slave Ad, Arkansas Gazette, June 3, 1836.
In the antebellum period Chicot County’s economy was dominated by slavery and cotton. The labor of slaves, who cleared vast forests and cultivated cotton, helped make Chicot County one of the wealthiest places in the United States. Slave life in the peculiar institution was complex; while not free, slaves developed their own culture, married, worshiped and, at times, sought the freedoms they were denied. Kelly Jones, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arkansas, will explore the world of slaves and slavery in Chicot County through court records, the census, newspapers and WPA narratives.
For more information about plantation life in the Arkansas Delta visit Lakeport’s Web site at: http://www.lakeport.astate.edu/
The photo and quote about the Taylor Plantation were taken from the Arkansas Preservation site at:
The additional sites from Arkansas Online with photos and information on the Taylor House dig were taken from:
The photo and information about the Wilson Plantation from The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture were taken from:
The photos of the sharecropper house, the abandoned farmhouse, and the restored shotgun house were taken from Joe Dempsey’s Weekly Crist for the Eyes and Mind posts at:
The announcement of the conference on slavery in Chicot County, Arkansas, was taken from an email sent out by Lakeport Plantation on August 14, 2014.