The great disasters

You really can’t understand Arkansas without understanding the effect the Great Flood of 1927, the Great Drought of 1930-31 and the Great Flood of 1937 had on this state.

Those events combined to create an image of Arkansas as a place you wanted to move away from rather than move to.

That exodus lasted long past these three landmark natural disasters. In fact, Arkansas lost a higher percentage of its population from 1940-60 than any other state.

This has without a doubt been a bad year as far as flooding in east Arkansas. April rains were common in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, and that water flowed south, inundating almost 980,000 acres of farmland at an estimated cost of $175 million.

Extension agents reported damage to row crops in 21 of the state’s 75 counties.

The counties impacted the most in terms of acres flooded were Poinsett (194,900), Greene (138,000), Prairie (125,000), Lawrence (80,000) and Randolph (60,000).

As bad as this year’s spring floods were, they pale in comparison to what occurred in 1927 and 1937.

Those events changed our state forever. Combined with the 1930-31 drought, the mechanization of agriculture and the Great Migration of black sharecroppers and tenant farmers, we’ve seen the inexorable decline of the Arkansas Delta, which once was the richest area of the state with the most powerful political players.

The 1927 flood covered almost 6,600 square miles in Arkansas with 36 of 75 counties affected.

Nancy Hendricks writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “In Arkansas, more people were affected by the floodwaters (more than 350,000), more farmland inundated (more than 2 million acres), more Red Cross camps were needed (80 of 154 total) and more families received relief (41,243) than any other state. In Arkansas, almost 100 people died, more than any state except Mississippi. In monetary terms, the losses in Arkansas surpassed all other affected states.”

The September 1927 issue of National Geographic described the scene in Arkansas City. The streets were dry at noon one day. By 2 p.m., according to the magazine, “mules were drowning on Main Street faster than people could unhitch them from wagons.”

Hendricks describes what was going on across east Arkansas this way: “Water poured in and had nowhere to go. Homes and stores stood for months in six to 30 feet of murky water. Dead animals floated everywhere. Rich Arkansas farmland was covered with sand, coated in mud or simply washed away, still bearing shoots from spring planting.”

She contends that the 1927 flood had its origins in both nature and man. She explains: “In the late 1920s, technological advances kept pace with the growing economy. Heavy machinery enabled the construction of a vast system of levees to hold back rivers that tended to overrun their banks. Drainage projects opened up new, low-lying lands that had once been forests but had been left bare by the timber industry.

“Feeling protected from flooding by the levees, farmers borrowed money with easy credit from banks booming with the record levels of the stock market. They expanded their fields to low-lying areas on their own property or moved to new lands that were fertile from centuries of seasonal flooding. They felt safe behind the levees and secure in selling their crops to new markets, now accessible by railroad, truck, automobiles and even international shipping. The buy-now-pay-later mindset of the 1920s encouraged people, including farmers of modest means, to purchase washing machines and other labor-saving devices on installment plans. Even nature seemed to be cooperating as the summer of 1926 brought rain instead of drought.

“The spring of 1927, however, saw warm weather and early snow melts in Canada, causing the upper Mississippi to swell. Rain fell in the upper Midwest, sending its full rivers gushing into the already swollen Mississippi. Its destination, the Gulf of Mexico, acted as a stopper when it too became full. Then, in the South, it began to rain.”

The Mississippi backed up into the Arkansas, St. Francis and White rivers.

The White backed up into the Cache, the Little Red and the Black.

The St. Francis backed up into the L’Anguille.

Near its confluence with the Mighty Mississippi in southeast Arkansas, the White even ran backward at one point as Mississippi River water poured in.

“Levees could not hold, with every one between Fort Smith and Little Rock failing under the enormous surge of water,” Hendricks writes.

Almost twice as much farmland was under water in Arkansas as in Louisiana and Mississippi combined.

“Radios broadcast warnings,” Hendricks writes. “Airplanes helped locate survivors clinging to rooftops or tree limbs. Motorboats aided the evacuation, and trains carried people to shelters on high ground. The American Red Cross, as well as fellow citizens, responded quickly with emergency workers arriving by trains, trucks and automobiles. In Arkansas, 50 refugee camps, using Army tents and cots, were hastily built by the Red Cross, with one in Forrest City holding more than 15,000 of the homeless. But victims kept arriving from all around Arkansas — cold, sick and hungry. Some found shelter in public buildings or other makeshift locations. Nearly all found themselves without food, water or dry clothing. The segregated tent cities on high ground could barely hold them all. Disease ran rampant in overcrowded camps. Conditions then worsened.

“With the floodwater having nowhere to go, much of Arkansas remained under water through the spring and summer and into September 1927. Farmers could not plant crops. The carcasses of thousands of dead animals lay rotting in stagnant pools. Mosquitoes found perfect conditions to breed that summer, carrying malaria and typhoid to refugee camps already burdened with dysentery and the threat of smallpox. Emergency workers at the camps were also shocked at the extent of pellagra, a vitamin deficiency disease brought on by lack of protein.”

John Barry notes in his classic work of nonfiction “Rising Tide” that a struggle that began as man against nature changed to one of “man against man. Honor and money collided. White and black collided. Regional and national power structures collided. The collisions shook America.”

Hendricks says that some of those man-against-man collisions occurred in Arkansas: “Planters feared that their sharecroppers, both black and white and mostly in debt, might not return home from the Red Cross camps, leaving them without enough labor to put crops in the fields when the land dried out. This led to a controversial mandate in which sharecroppers, particularly black sharecroppers, were admitted to and released from the camps only under the supervision of their planters. African-Americans needed a pass to enter or leave the Red Cross camps. Some were forced at gunpoint by law enforcement officials to survive on the levees indefinitely in makeshift tents as water rose around them while would-be rescue boats left empty. They were forced by the National Guard with fixed bayonets to work on the levees.”

She says the flood “spurred a mass migration of black sharecroppers who had tired of farming, poverty and debt. Thousands left the plantation as soon as they could, heading north to look for jobs in cities such as Detroit and Chicago. Mechanization and corporate farming replaced their labor.”

The misery in Arkansas didn’t end when 1927 ended.

Far from it.

Just as the state was starting to recover from the Great Flood of 1927, the Great Depression began in 1929.

The problems were compounded by the state’s worst drought of the 20th century in 1930-31. That drought affected 23 states. Just as had been the case with the Great Flood, Arkansas bore the brunt of the damage. Rainfall in June and July of 1930 was the lowest on record for those months. Temperatures reached as high as 107 degrees in July and soared as high as 113 degrees in August.

By Aug. 2, 1930, Little Rock had gone 71 days without rain.

Arkansas’ leading cash crop was cotton in all but five counties (Benton, Carroll, Madison, Newton and Washington), and average yield fell from six to two bales per 20 acres. T. Roy Reid of the Agricultural Extension Service noted that of the state’s 75 counties, only Benton County would have “sufficient food for its farm population and livestock feed to tide it over the winter.”

Indeed, there was a food riot in England on Jan 3, 1931, as more than 500 people demanded rations outside a Red Cross office.

Though the drought eased in 1931, it remained serious.

Historian Ben Johnson of Southern Arkansas University writes: “Drought-stricken Arkansas became a metaphor for anxieties spawned by the Depression.

“Without crops to sell or gardens to live off of, family food supplies dwindled, with tenant farmers often hit hardest, depending on fishing, hunting and the few surviving garden plants,” John Spurgeon writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Arkansas’ U.S. senators, Joe T. Robinson and Thaddeus Caraway, outlined a relief program using both state and federal money. Robinson described the drought as having brought ‘almost complete crop failure.’ Between 30 and 50 percent of Arkansas crops were lost. … Delta plantation owners did not want free food given to their tenants, fearing it would disrupt their labor force and destabilize already reduced wages.”

In 1937, there was another huge flood in Arkansas. It inundated 1,037,500 acres of farmland and 756,800 acres of other land. An estimated 40,916 families were affected, and 75 relief camps had to be established in the state. An additional 14 camps were set up at Memphis to serve refugees from Arkansas.

“Arkansas’ floodwaters came from tributary streams no longer able to drain effectively due to the cresting Mississippi River,” Spurgeon writes. “Bayou de View as well as the Black, Cache, L’Anguille, Little Red, Spring, Strawberry, St. Francis, Tyronza and White rivers spilled across agricultural terrain mostly bare of crops that time of year. While the Arkansas River was at flood stage at Van Buren for only one day, the White River exceeded flood stages below Calico Rock, and the St. Francis River had considerable flooding from January into March. The largely rural, agricultural Delta saw the spread of the floodwaters into tenants’ and sharecroppers’ homes and communities already struggling from the effects of drought, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.”

R. S. Hayden, a Methodist preacher at Forrest City, wrote in early February that the city housed “15,000 refugees with more coming, plus 20,000 mules, cows, dogs, cats and chickens.”

“The U.S. Army, Arkansas National Guard and volunteers prepared twice-daily meals for the displaced,” Spurgeon writes. “As floodwaters receded and families returned home, baskets of food were distributed. Law and order were the responsibility of the local authorities supplemented by the National Guard. A principal warehouse at Forrest City was established to collect and move materials to other sites. Recreation programs were instituted for adults and children at camps and centers. The Works Progress Administration’s Federal Theater Project had a mobile unit that offered a variety show touring Arkansas.”

In 1927, political and economic power in Arkansas were centered in the Delta. The poorest counties were in the Ozarks, where rocky land proved unsuitable for growing cotton. Companies such as Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt were still far in the future.

The shift began with the Great Flood of 1927 and continued with the Great Drought of 1930-31 and the Great Flood of 1937.

The mechanization of agriculture and the resulting loss of tens of thousands of Delta residents followed.

Now counties that were among the richest in 1927 are among the poorest, and those that were the poorest are the richest.

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