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Cotton country: Part 2

The Southern Cotton Ginners Association is holding its summer meeting in Little Rock next month, and I’ve been invited to speak.

That invitation has given me a reason to research the fascinating history of cotton cultivation in the South, a subject that already interested me. As I stated in the previous post, you can’t really understand the history of Arkansas without fully understanding the history of cotton cultivation in the state.

Cotton is still grown in Arkansas, though the acreage is a fraction of what it once was.

In an article last fall, the Delta Farm Press focused on the harvest season at the Rabbit Ridge Gin near Lepanto.

David Bennett wrote: “As tufts of cottonseed debris swirl in the late October air, Tri Watkins walks across the Rabbit Ridge Gin yard warmly greeting employees. This is northeast Arkansas — Lepanto is a few miles west of here and Dyess, where Johnny Cash was raised, is a few miles south — and the gin is one of a shrinking number. Watkins — who is the incoming president of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association — is in business with his cousin, Ernest Portis. The pair are distant cousins of acclaimed Arkansas writer Charles Portis, author of ‘True Grit’ and ‘The Dog of the South.'”

Watkins explained: “Ernest’s father and my grandfather were brothers, and their father actually began the business in 1911.”

Watkins’ great-grandfather had worked for northeast Arkansas cotton king R.E.L. Wilson.

Of his own involvement in ginning, Watkins told Bennett: “We ginned together in Lepanto at two small gins for years. In the early 1970s, after Ernest graduated from college, he and his brother came out here and built the gin. Meanwhile, my side of the family continued to run the gins in town. By the early 1990s, they had become too old and difficult to maintain. So at that time we bought back in with Ernest. He had already been out here for 20 years and was looking for a partner.”

Watkins explained that Rabbit Ridge is “the local name. Around here, a ridge can be two feet high running through a field.”

When running 24 hours a day, Rabbit Ridge can gin 30 bales per hour. The record year was 36,000 bales ginned. Last year, fewer than 10,000 bales were ginned.

Watkins came back to northeast Arkansas to farm with his grandfather after graduation from law school in 1986.

He told Delta Farm Press: “At the time, we had basically a land-only operation, a couple of gins, a farm store — now shut down — and a small bank. I came back and got involved with all of those facets of the business and still am to some degree. I knew I would be back when I was in law school. I graduated college and wasn’t quite ready to come home. My father said, ‘Go to law school. Even if you never practice, you’ll at least have that to fall back on if you decide agriculture isn’t for you. If you do like it, though, given our banking interests, a law degree would be very useful.’

“Our primary business at Portis Mercantile Co. is managing and renting out land. My family has 20,000 acres, and Ernest has about 10,000 acres that he and his son, Bradsher, own and manage. Some of that is in timber. This year, we grew about 1,500 acres of cotton with Ernest growing about the same. The most cotton we’ve grown on Portis Mercantile ground was about 6,500 acres. Obviously price is critical to cotton remaining viable. You’ve got to have a good price for lint. You’ve also got to have a good price for cottonseed. The price of cottonseed is what’s helping keep gins open. We have two seed houses. One has a capacity of 2,000 tons, and the other is just under that.”

Much of the cottonseed is sold to the dairy market, where it’s blended with rations to increase milk’s butterfat content.

Nearby Lepanto is where the made-for-television movie “A Painted House,” based on John Grisham’s best-selling novel of the same name, was filmed in 2002. The 2001 book is a fictionalized account of Grisham’s early days on a cotton farm. The farmhouse used in the filming is still there.

The movie was first screened in April 2003 on the Arkansas State University campus at Jonesboro at an event that raised $170,000 for ASU’s nationally recognized program in heritage studies. Grisham and his novel were presented the Arkansiana Award by the Arkansas Library Association. That award recognizes authors and books that make a significant contribution to Arkansas heritage and culture.

Grisham was born at Jonesboro in February 1955. His parents were helping relatives on a cotton farm at Black Oak in Craighead County at the time (there’s also a Black Oak farther south that’s roughly on the Crittenden County-Poinsett County line). His family left the area when Grisham was four as his father worked in various construction jobs. The family eventually settled in Southaven, Miss., but Grisham spent large parts of each summer on the Black Oak farm with his grandparents.

People began settling in the Lepanto area after the Civil War. It was in the northeast Arkansas Sunken Lands, and most of the area consisted of swamps and thick bottomland hardwood forests. Growth began in the early 1900s as lumber companies started harvesting the virgin timber in the area. Tree stumps then were burned, swamps were drained and the land was plowed for cotton.

Cotton: The common theme in the region’s history.

“In 1902, Steve Ralph and Henry S. Portis built a cotton gin in Lepanto so that harvested cotton would not have to be shipped downriver to Memphis,” Steve Teske writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “The next year, Chris Bryan Greenwood, who had recently moved into the area from Harrisburg, commissioned four engineers to plat the city. The five main streets of the city were named for Greenwood and the engineers. William C. Dawson built the city’s first sawmill in 1905, and a new logging camp was built between Lepanto and Marked Tree.

“The city grew rapidly. Improved drainage was completed by 1907, and the city was officially incorporated in 1909. A bank and a telephone company were established in 1910 and a railroad depot was built in 1912. … Houses and stores were also being built, and a new school building was erected in 1913. The Portis Mercantile building was constructed in 1915, and a volunteer fire department was organized by 1919.”

As the timber was cut, cotton became king.

Tenant farmers and sharecroppers would pack communities such as Lepanto and Marked Tree as they came to town on Saturdays to shop and seek entertainment.

Van Hawkins explains the system this way for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture: “The most common lease arrangement in Arkansas called for crop rent, requiring a tenant to pay usually 25 percent to 50 percent of the crops harvested. These percentages vary from year to year, farm to farm and crop to crop. To guarantee crop loan repayment, lenders and sometimes suppliers took a first lien on the tenant’s share of crops and equipment used to produce them. Such liens meant that holders had a legal right to crop proceeds until loans were paid in full. Should proceeds not be sufficient to pay off the lender, a foreclosure could occur with collateral (the equipment and any other asset used to secure the loan) seized and sold to pay off the debt.

“Crop rent came from crops at harvest, and cotton or grain hauled to gins and elevators was split according to contract percentages. Tenants and landowners each received their respective shares of the crop. If a lien existed on the tenant share, checks for crop sale proceeds usually had both the lienholder’s and the farmer’s name so neither could cash the check without both endorsements. By this means, lenders helped enforce their legal rights and protected themselves from conversion of crop proceeds.”

Hawkins notes that many of the plantations “required sharecroppers to purchase business and personal supplies from commissary stores as a condition to farm the land. Farmers received doodlum books (vouchers) for credit at the company store. Prices there sometimes were well in excess of those charged at town stores. The March 1935 edition of Today magazine reported markups in the 25 percent range at Southern plantation commissaries. For example, company stories priced potatoes at $2.25 when they were $1.75 in town. Abusive practices such as these generated ongoing tensions between Arkansas tenants and landowners since many tenants never got out of debt. Some farmers sought to organize better treatment, forming groups such as the Agricultural Wheel for this purpose. An organizational meeting of one union was at the center of violence that erupted in Elaine in 1919.”

Grif Stockley, the author of the 2001 book “Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919,” called what happened in the Elaine area “by far the deadliest racial confrontation in Arkansas history and possibly the bloodiest racial conflict in the history of the United States. While its deepest roots lay in the state’s commitment to white supremacy, the events in Elaine stemmed from tense race relations and growing concerns about labor unions. A shooting incident that occurred at a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America escalated into mob violence on the part of the white people in Elaine and surrounding areas. Although the exact number is unknown, estimates of the number of African-Americans killed by whites range into the hundreds. Five white people lost their lives.”

The union meeting, attended by almost 100 black sharecroppers, occurred on the evening of Sept. 30, 1919, at a church in Hoop Spur, a small settlement three miles north of Elaine. The sharecroppers were seeking better prices for their cotton crops. A shootout in front of the church resulted in the death of a white security officer for the Missouri-Pacific Railroad and the wounding of a white deputy from the Phillips County Sheriff’s Office.

Stockley writes: “The next morning, the Phillips County sheriff sent out a posse to arrest those suspected of being involved in the shooting. Although the posse encountered minimal resistance from the black residents of the area around Elaine, the fear of African-Americans, who outnumbered whites in this area of Phillips County by a ratio of 10 to 1, led an estimated 500 to 1,000 armed white people — mostly from surrounding Arkansas counties but also from across the river in Mississippi — to travel to Elaine to put down what was characterized by them as an insurrection.”

More than 500 federal troops from Camp Pike arrived in Elaine on Oct. 2, 1919, and hundreds of blacks were placed in makeshift stockades.

An Arkansas Gazette employee named Sharpe Dunaway later would allege that the solders “committed one murder after another with all the calm deliberation in the world, either too heartless to realize the enormity of their crimes or too drunk on moonshine to give a continental darn.”

The commander of the troops at Elaine reported that only two blacks were killed by his troops.

As I said, you can’t understand the history of Arkansas without understanding the history of cotton.

“Tenant difficulties increased in the early 1930s when the Great Depression decimated agriculture along with the rest of the economy,” Hawkins writes. “Arkansas farmers faced nickel cotton (a market price of five cents per lint pound, which was the low end of its historic market range) and the locked doors of banks that become insolvent. Unable to borrow money to make crops, many tenant farmers joined the exodus made famous by John Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath.’

“The administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt created federal programs to help prop up cotton prices, including a plan to compensate farmers who agreed to forego planting acreage in exchange for parity payments from the federal government. Though the program stipulated that landowners share parity payments with tenants, some owners kept all of the money, and U.S. Department of Agriculture compliance efforts proved ineffectual. Additionally, owners evicted tenants since acreage reduction made them unnecessary, another violation of regulations. … The USDA financial assistance, developed initially as a temporary fix for Depression-era problems, became ingrained in agricultural economics and grew into a major source of income for state farmers.”

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