yesterday's tennessee

Yesterday's Tennessee


G. Tillman Stewart

Excerpts from G. Tillman Stewart, Henderson County, Tennessee County History Series, Memphis State University Press, 1979.

The first plows used in Henderson County were wooden and only scratched the surface; however, this was all that was needed in the county' s rich topsoil. Iron points used on turning plows came into use about 1829 and became popular as they increased the furrow depth. A larger, wooden wing could be added to the plow above the point. Section harrows were made by placing wooden pegs through holes in split logs and were used to pulverize soil. The wood beam shovel plow and the wood beam turning plow were the main farm equipment with the exception of the hoe, which was used constantly in the cultivation of cotton and corn. Without the use of the hoe, grass would have damaged or ruined the crops. Hoes also were used to thin cotton.

Principal garden crops were corn, beans, whippoorwill peas, onions, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes. turnips, turnip greens, squash, cabbage, and carrots. Before sugar became available, wild honey was used as a sweetener. Some early farmers made beehives, captured bees, and produced honey.

Some corn was used to make whiskey, and local distilleries provided a market for the surplus corn. During the 1820s there were distilleries at Independence, Jacks Creek, Lexington, Mifflin, and Pleasant Exchange with local saloons providing waiting markets.

Homemade drum planters were being used for cotton by 1850. A wooden drum with holes one and one-half inches in diameter, four inches apart, dropped the cotton seed into small furrows made by the plow in front of the drum and attached to the same wooden frame as the drum. A small drag or roller was attached behind the drum to cover the seed. Such a planter was crude and heavy, but it planted cotton.

By mid-1840 cotton was king in Henderson County. An estimated 13,000 bales were produced in 1850 and sold at four and one-half cents per pound (seed cotton). Approximately 1500 pounds of seed cotton yielded a bale of lint cotton and an average of three acres yielded one bale. A farmer who could produce one-half bale per acre was considered to be a "real" farmer and one who owned "mighty" rich land."

Swine production supplanted wild game for the farmer's meat supply. Hogs were allowed to run wild, subsisting on nuts and roots. Each Fall the farmer put in a pen those hogs planned for slaughter. They were corn fed until the weather was considered right for slaughter. A hog usually had to be two years of age to be large enough for slaughter. Hog killing day was a festive occasion when farmers helped their neighbors.

Trapping was an additional source of food for the farmer. During the winter, furs were prime: beaver, mink, muskrat, and raccoon furs commanded good prices. Wild pigeons were plentiful during the migration period, and their flesh was considered a delicacy.

Although farm tools were crude compared to modern equipment, Henderson County produced such outstanding farmers as John Anderson and his son Jack of Poplar Springs:

John W. Cawthorn of Mifflin who had 1000 acres and more than 30 slaves; Columbus Davis of Browns Creek noted for fine livestock, excellent corn and wheat, and soil conservation practices; John Gray in Lone Elm Community; Ransom Cunningham and his son, A. B., who owned over a 1000 acres, noted for cotton, near the Sand Ridge Community; Moses Diffee, a cotton grower of White Fern Community, with 450 acres, fine livestock and pastures; Thomas M. Dodds in what is now Chester County, an outstanding farmer who owned several slaves; Joshua Foster, a successful farmer who later moved to Arkansas and then to Texas; and Ephriam Fuller, near Lexington who accumulated more than 1000 acres.

M. J. Galloway, a good farmer, who first lived in various sections of the county, was also a school teacher, a member of the Legislature, and served as steward of the county poor farm. William B. Hall, who lived in the 3rd civil district, in addition to being a successful farmer, served as sheriff and as a member of the Legislature. William Howard settled approximately four miles east of Lexington in 1825 and was known as an agriculturist before coming to the county. He owned over 1000 acres of land and 35 slaves. Edmond Knowles settled six miles west of Lexington in 1824 and became one of the most prosperous farmers in the early history of the county, owning at one time over 3000 acres and some slaves. His farm had cattle, sheep, hogs, mules, horses, chickens, geese, turkeys, and guineas. Andrew McCall, Sr., settled east of where Chesterfield is located and purchased 300 acres.

W. C. McHaney developed a western portion of the county and immediately became prosperous as a farmer, merchant, and community leader, owning over 1000 acres. His brother, Lafayette F., owned 800 acres in the same community and later served in the Legislature and as deputy sheriff. Peter Pearson, political leader, owned 808 acres that were considered to be a model farm. Pearson became a member of the Henderson County Court and the Legislature. Shadrach Pearson located north of Lexington in 1836 on 200 acres of land that produced above average crops; in 1848 he moved to Carroll County. Benjamin Smith, whose farm was considered model, moved to the 6th civil district in 1827 but later relocated in the 11th district. His two sons, T. A. and John A., were also considered good farmers and political leaders. John owned over 700 acres of well-cultivated land.

* * * * *

Local agricultural practices were upgraded by the use of better methods and equipment. This progress was due, in part, to an act passed in 1855 by the Legislature which created fairs for displaying agricultural and home products. Under this act, fair associations were established for each of the Three Grand Divisions and for each countv. R. S. Bradford and William B. Hall, both considered successful local farmers. were West Tennessee Fair Association officers.

The West Tennessee Fair was first held at Jackson and has continued there to this day. It was at this fair in 1856 that two-horse and one-horse wrought iron and cast iron plows were first displayed. One of the earliest owners of such a two-horse plow was William Morgan. The first Henderson County Fair Association was organized in 1856, with John Brook as acting president. Later, Obidiah Hendrix was made permanent president.

By 1858, the average price for an acre of land was $4.60, and the average cost of a slave was $865. In 1859, the 1658 slaves in the county were valued at $3,823,055; property was valued at $505,953, and gross taxable property equaled $10,826,059.

The county's largest industry remained that of cotton gins with gross sales of cotton from 30 gins totaling $1,200,000 in 1856. Between 1855 and 1860, a woolen mill was established on Piney Creek near the Petty cotton gin; the mill operated until the Civil War closed it. It made the farmers' wool into thread and for one-fourth of that wool, cloth could be woven.

* * * * *

The years that immediately followed the Civil War were those of hardship, strife, and gloom. Both sides in the county were defiant and felt mistreated. Two battles in Henderson County, grain and hay wasted, robbing of stores and residences, destruction of farming tools, and other deprivations of war left the people with little money, food, or clothing. The road to recovery for business, industry, and agriculture in the county was rough and rugged.

Both armies had confiscated virtually all good horses and mules in the county; consequently, it took nearly five years to replace stock to enable agriculture to begin again. Good breeding animals frequently were imported from the North to aid this effort: A. B. Cunningham purchased a first-class work stallion; Clark Diffee and Columbus Davis owned expensive mules; Davis' jack was imported from Spain; James Dodd, Euphrates Flake, and many other farmers purchased good breeding stock.

As work stock became plentiful, more ground was cleared for cultivation. Within a few years, many former slaves settled into a sharecropping pattern of living. Many even continued to live in the same houses in which they had lived before the war. Domestic services also were continued for landlords. This arrangement enabled many former slaves to accumulate enough money to purchase their own farms. These industrious sharecroppers are the ancestors of many fine families who still live in Henderson County.

By 1870 most cotton gins had reopened, and the market for cotton was good with seed cotton usually selling for about seven to ten cents per pound. Henderson County farmers were once again able to produce enough corn and wheat for consumption.

The first hay mowing machine was brought into the county by Ashley Cunningham in 1886. Auburn Powers described an incident of interest involving this machine and its owner:

Mr. Cunningham mowed a field of red top for W. M. Friendship, and it is reported that people came from far and near to see the machine work. The blade clicking a rapid rhythm. and a wide strip of red top being cut as last as the horses could draw the machine were manifestations of a great step forward in the production of hay, for heretofore all hay had been cut by hand with a scythe or "cradle." And it was rare to find a man who could wield a cradle skillfully.

* * * * *

Agriculture progressed substantially during these years, primarily due to the rapid improvement in farm equipment. Most farm equipment was drawn by either horse or mule, since it was not until 1918 that the first tractor was used in the county. Jake Benson of Reagan purchased a Moline tractor in that year, and later became the agent for that brand of tractor. The Moline tractor was different from most on the market at that time because the breaking cultivating plows were positioned in front of the driver. R. L. Diffe also purchased one of the county's first tractors, a McCormick Dearing, forerunner of the International Harvester.

Until after the Civil War cotton seed was planted by hand. A common practice was to wet the seed in water and ashes, then to roll the seed until it separated in the hands. The seed was dropped by hand into a furrow made by a shovel plow and then covered. Sometimes the seed was dropped into holes made by a hoe before being covered. Both methods were slow, but large farms and plantations usually had slaves do the work. Near the end of the war homemade drum planters commonly were utilized. These planters usually were constructed of wood in the shape of a drum with an axel run lengthwise through the center. Each end of the axel was attached to a wooden frame pulled by a horse or mule. Holes large enough for a seed to pass through were cut in the center of the drum about six inches apart. As the drum rolled over the ground, seed would drop out of the holes into the small furrow made by the plow attached to the frame in front of the drum. Small boards attached to the frame behind the drum would cover the seed with soil. The drum planter was a cumbersome and heavy machine, but it represented an important improvement. By 1900, the homemade drum planter was supplanted by factory-made planters that were much lighter and more efficient.

Corn planters also came into use at this time as did steam wheat thrashers. Alfred Parker of Sardis was one of the first to own one of these. He frequently took it chugging into communities and set up for farmers to bring their wheat to be ground into flour.

W. R. Wilson has been given credit for using the first commercial fertilizer in the county. It consisted of plain 16 percent phosphate, with no potash or nitrogen. Later an 8-2-2 fertilizer--eight percent phosphate, two percent nitrogen, and two percent potash--was used. Two hundred pounds of this fertilizer produced one-half bale of cotton per acre of good land.

The ginning of cotton was perhaps the biggest industry in the county early in the century, with gins located at Bargerton, Cedar Grove, Darden, Huron, Laster, Lexington, Life, Luray, Middlefork, Reagan, Sardis, Scotts Hill. Stegall, Timberlake, Warrens Bluff, and Wildersville. By 1900, all gins had changed from horse to steam power. Cotton was usually hauled to the gin in a wagon drawn by two mules, then carried in baskets from the wagon to gin stands to be picked clean. By 1920, all gins had suctions to take the cotton from the wagon to the gin floor where it was again sucked into gin stands. To handle the cotton before and after it was ginned, it frequently took a fireman, a ginner, two bale packers, two tiers, and a manager, who usually served as the cotton buyer also.

The Legislature passed an act in 1911 that required all cattle to be dipped in a prepared solution to kill cattle ticks. Dipping vats were located in every community so that no farmer would have to drive his cattle more than two miles to have them dipped. A dipping vat was usually constructed from a trench about 30 inches wide, 20 feet long, and six feet deep, lined with concrete and filled with water and the solution to kill ticks. Cattle were dipped at two-month intervals, by being pushed into the vat until they were completely submerged in water and then forced to swim to the other end of the vat.

Many farmers bitterly opposed cattle dipping and could not understand how it could work. Officials, known as "tick inspectors,' who were sometimes armed for their own protection, were appointed to enforce the law. On "dip days" farmers would bring their cattle to a vat; each vat sometimes served as many as 100 cattle. Failure to comply with this law resulted in a fine, jail sentence, or both. After several years the cattle tick was eradicated.

Jersey cattle were introduced into the county around 1906. Will Lawler purchased the first registered Jersey bull, which represented a real beginning for improved dairy farming in the county. High-grade and registered beef cattle did not appear in the county until after World War I. Wash Parks of' Darden produced the first purebred Poland China hogs. This breed and others were an improvement over the long-nose "ridge rooter raised previously. In 1917, the Legislature passed a private act for Henderson County known as the "No Fence Law" which required all livestock to be fenced. Before that, farmers had fenced their crops and permitted livestock to roam.

Beech River, the largest stream of water in the county, was crooked and fed numerous swamps, sloughs, and backwaters, making it impossible to utilize fully the rich bottomland; so, in 1916, bonds were issued and money was raised to drain this land. A steam dredge boat was placed in Beech River four miles from its head, and a large and straight channel was cut to the Decatur County line, opening hundreds of acres for cultivation. In the same year, Cane Creek was also straightened by a canal, and later other streams were drained.

* * * * *

Hugh Powers, an excellent county agent. organized pig and other clubs for young farmers. Vocational agriculture was available in the county schools in 1921 for high school boys who wished to have a project on some phase of farming. Boys in club work competed for places or judging teams that were sent to the West Tennessee Fair and to the Mid-South Fair for competition against other county teams. Area boys who were recognized for outstanding work were Lloyd Davis, Charles Deere, Carmon Duck, Warren Holmes, Roy McPeake, Troy McPeake, Frank Maness, Harry and Noble Mullins, Irby Park, Bobby Pope, Fay Pope, John L. Pope, Rex Pope, Auburn Powers, Ohlen Reed, Floyd Richardson, J. L. Ross, Tillford Sellers, G. Tillman Stewart, Charles Taylor, Edward Timberlake Loyal Tyler, Glen Walker, and Poley Walker. Georgia Roberts was the first home demonstration agent. Nell Jackson of Poplar Springs was among the first girls to receive recognition through the girls' club.

During the mid-1920s, the Fordson tractor became popular; it was followed by the Farmall (International) and John Deere. These early tractors had steel wheels with cleats for traction. Rubber tires supplanted the cleat wheels by the 1930s. The use of horses and mules decreased rapidly as the use of tractors increased. By the time World War II began, at least 80 percent of farm equipment was motorized.

Purebred livestock became even more popular with Hereford and Shorthorn cattle becoming common. Purebred bulls were used to improve the grade of cattle. Duroc-Jersey, Poland China, and Ohio Improved Chester were the leading breeds of swine, until the Hampshire was introduced in the mid-1930s by Griff Dodd.

Soon after the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt on March 4, 1933, Senator Frank Norris interested Roosevelt in a large experimental project in the Tennessee River Valley. People in that area were suffering from the full blast of the Depression, and the proposed project would furnish employment and electric power for rural areas while conserving the soil. It was through this initial agreement that the Tennessee Valley Authority later was to be born.

The project directly benefitted Henderson County. Powers resigned as county farm agent to work with TVA. Bob Darnall succeeded Powers as county agent. Eventually, some 25,000 acres of submarginal land in the eastern part of the county were purchased and taken out of cultivation. Farmers who owned these farms, usually poor hill farms, received good prices for the land which enabled them to buy other land or to move.

* * * * *

One of the drastic changes that was encountered in agriculture following World War II was the deterioration of cotton as the county's money crop. This was a result of the cost of fighting the boll weevil. By 1972, cotton fields ceased to exist, except in Middlefork and Rhodes communities. At the height d)f "White Gold." some 25 cotton gins had operated in the county; in 1978, only the one at Middlefork still operated. Soy beans supplanted cotton as a row crop, since they were less expensive to grow, brought good prices, and replenished the soil.

Livestock production increased by leaps and bounds. Although Black Angus became popular, the Hereford and Shorthorn breeds still were popular. Ernest Wallace was one of the county's best producers of high grade Shorthorns; Paul Flowers was responsible for introducing Charolais into the county, and Max Helms, for introducing top Hereford.

Hog farming for profit continued to expand after the war. The Snider brothers, John and Bobby, specialized in Landrace breeds. Their completely modern facility houses some 400 head. Other breeds common in the county now are Hampshire, Duroc, Yorkshire, and Poland China. Guy Walker owns and operates a sale barn for livestock, where sales take place every Monday. For the past six years, a feeder sale has occurred at the Roberts' barn on Natchez Trace Highway, where high grade feeder pigs command top prices.

The number of farms and farmers locally has decreased, but there are still many first-class farmers, such as Haywood White of Ebeneezer; Hyder White, J. T. Meggs, and Robert Presley of Scotts Hill area; the Youngermans of Shady Hill; Ralph Phillips of Sardis; Herman and Norman Wright of Sheppard; Gleeman Rhodes of Rhodes Town; Elbert and Jewell Britt of Palestine; Thomas McCullough of Park Meal; Cratis Wadley of the Middlefork.-Mifflin area; Richard Odle of Old Huntingdon Road; John M. Douglas on Old Wildersville Road; Williard Park, Philmore McPeak, and Rex Frizzell of Chesterfield; and Bud Overman of Old Timberlake Road. Auburn Powers, Lucian Cravens, and Herbert Lawler have promoted the county's bee industry.

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