Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Ten Wagons of Cotton
The thirty-one year old farmer entered the Fulton Bank on a cool Mississippi November morning during the fall of 1947. The lanky young man, dressed in his Sunday-best clothes consisting of a white starched shirt and khaki work pants nervously sat on the wooden chair waiting his turn to talk with the banker. His name was finally called and he was quietly ushered to the cluttered desk of the bank president.
”Sit down, son,” the banker said as his eyes surveyed the young farmer from beneath his banker’s visor. “What can I do for you?”
The timid young farmer told the banker his mission and dream. He had found a 73-acre farm east of Mantachie Creek and on that land he wanted to plant cotton and start a family. The kind banker busily scribbled on his notepad the entire time the young man talked. The young farmer expecting the worst, but hoping for the best, desperately needed the $1,500 to purchase the land and modest farmhouse. Looking up from his notepad to the young farmer, the banker asked curtly, “Who’s your papa?” “Thomas Walker Franks, sir” the young farmer replied. After a little more scribbling on the note pad, he tore the sheet from the pad and handed it to the nervous young farmer. “If you have one ounce of your dad in your character, then this is a secure loan,” announced the banker as he secured the loan with a handshake, instructing the young man to take the note to the teller to get his money.
That $1,500 loan at the Fulton Bank was the end of a long and often difficult personal journey – a journey than many in the hills of rural Itawamba County had endured for way too long, beginning back during 1929.
The Great Depression hit Itawamba County swift and hard. With a lack of money, many farms throughout the countryside were lost due to foreclosures and tax sales, forcing many families into the sharecropping system. It was hard times, but the thrifty hardworking citizens of Itawamba County endured. During the years of my youth, my dad told me many stories of the Great Depression in Itawamba County, Mississippi – simple stories of hope and survival.
My dad was a young man of 18 years when the president came by train to the hills of northeastern Mississippi during the depths of the Great Depression. It was a big day for the entire area. Farm families from miles around made the journey to Tupelo in automobiles and wagons to see Mr. Roosevelt. My dad and his brothers left home before daylight, walking the entire distance to Tupelo, ten miles away from their tenant house on that chilly November Sunday morning in 1934 simply to see and hear their president.
He often recalled how the town was packed with thousands of citizens from all over hills and valleys of the area – young and old, men and women, farmers and town workers, black and white. My dad climbed a tree with other young boys so he could catch a glimpse of Mr. Roosevelt as he spoke. It was on that day the president told my dad and the thousands of other northeast Mississippi citizens congregated near the train station: “And yet today I see not only hope, but I see determination and a knowledge that all is well with the country, and that we are coming back.” It was then my dad and his brothers made the unanimous decision to help their family any way they could. The sharecropper strikes had been taking place in the Arkansas Delta. Many young men and families were leaving the hills of northeastern Mississippi, heading to Arkansas for seasonal work with picking cotton. My dad and his brothers left with such a group, spending a month in the cotton fields of the Arkansas Delta picking cotton for seventy-five cents a day.
Throughout the Great Depression years, my dad, like many others, survived simply by a strong determination and will, along with much needed work provided by the Works Progress Administration. Throughout Itawamba County, public projects were developed putting local citizens to work and providing much needed money. My dad helped dig the Mantachie Creek canal, straightening the old creek alleviating flooded croplands and also worked with building modern brick community schools.
As World War II came along, and the country was coming out from under the Great Depression, my dad left the beautiful hills of Itawamba County to serve his country in time of need. In coming home from war, he found times much better in his native northeast Mississippi yet times were still quite hard. Two years after coming home from war he found that 73-acre farm for sale and decided that piece of land was the chance he was looking for.
After buying the farm, with assistance from the Fulton Bank and the GI Bill offering low interest loans, he attended the veterans’ trade school at the local college during his limited spare time. Planting cotton the following spring, he and my mom worked hard throughout the summer all the while hoping and praying for a good cotton crop. After much sacrificing, and back-breaking work tilling the soil, the cotton crop proved to be a huge success. I always remember my dad telling the story of hauling their cotton off the farm heading for the nearby cotton gin in Mantachie during the fall of 1947.
For an entire week he and my mom spent long hours from dawn until dusk, picking cotton and hauling wagonloads of the fluffy white commodity to the gin. Uncle Billy Cockrell lived out on the main road to Mantachie and kept a detailed note of the number of wagon trips my dad had made to the gin that week. Finally on the last day of harvesting, as he hauled the last wagonload of cotton to the gin Uncle Billy yelled to my dad from the shaded porch of his house “Well you have your place paid for now!” My dad, with an aching back, sore fingers and dirty clothes from hours in the field, just grinned and tipped his hat, never slowing down. He held within him a strong feeling of self-accomplishment knowing that tenth wagon of cotton had paid the loan note in full. He had honored his dad’s name as well as his own. This land was theirs now, and this crop was the young couple’s entirely – all produced by the sweat of their brow and nothing to “share” as a tenant on someone else’s farm. It was a good feeling indeed.
Today sitting on the front porch of my house the remnants of the old farm remain to the west. Viewing that same old road the young farmer traveled with his ten wagonloads of cotton sixty years ago, these old stories come back to me. I know through my dad’s stories told to me while growing up, I received one of the best educations money simply cannot buy. I learned that a person might lose what they have, or hold little in the way of material possessions - but they can always keep their name and dignity. I also learned that many times, just a gentle push or a helping hand is all that is needed to pick someone up, getting them on their feet again during times of struggle and need. To me, these are nothing but simple yet essential life lessons.
The above post was submitted for Blog Action Day 2008: Poverty.
Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection