Delmo Developments

The Bootheel of Missouri during the 1930’s was not a good place for sharecroppers. After the Little River Drainage District completed most of their work, the area became farmland. With cotton being over produced, prices collapsed, small farm foreclosures encouraged consolidations increased by the 1920’s.

With the mid 1930’s introduction of the Agriculture Adjustment Act (AAA) plow-up programs, sharecroppers were becoming homeless in larger numbers. Between 1926 and 1936 the Farm Security Administration (FSA) estimated that more than 60 percent of Southeast Missouri’s sharecroppers were forced to look for day labor jobs.

In the two decades ending in 1930, over 17,000 arrived in the Delta of Southeast Missouri looking for work. Many of them were sharecropper recruited from Mississippi with the promise of land to farm. Landowners provided the seed, farm implements, mules, and meager housing with the sharecropper worked the land from planting to harvest for a share of the crop.

With the Stock Market collapse in 1929, cotton prices dropped drastically. Over production had glutted the market. Thus was the reason for the AAA programs. Under these programs the planter was required to share federal money with the sharecropper. Instead of dividing the payment, the landlords unlawfully evicted tenants, or converted them to day labors.

Farm labors were not helped, in fact hurt, although government planners tried farmers found a way around these laws. Sharecroppers, aided by the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, applied for help from the government. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) and a division of the Department of the Interior responded to the increasing number of homeless and unemployed. They funded the construction of over 100 agricultural communities throughout the cotton-producing South.

One such community, named Southeast Missouri Farms, was located on 6,700 acres near New Madrid at the small community of LaForge. Thus, the residents knew the development as LaForge. The FSA, in 1937 moved in 100 pre-fabricated housing. This was a segregated (40 black and 60White) community of sharecroppers. Each wooden house had two bedrooms without running water, however, a well and privy was provided each unit. Also included with each house was a wood or coal burning stove, cabinets and enameled sinks.

As this was a segregated community in Southeast Missouri where the Southern ethical cultural was dominate, racial tension simmered. Nevertheless, for the most part, families managed to exist in reasonable harmony and form a cooperative society.

Pooling their resources the farmers at LaForge worked the land, pooling their profits. With low interest government loans, they were able to purchase the equipment and farm animals (mules, horses, and cattle) needed. Cotton remained the major cash crop which feed their cotton gin; however, the cooperative also raised cattle, hay, chickens, hogs, and vegetables. They also enriched their lives with a library, a night school, knitting clubs, softball teams, and churches

Local landowners opposed the idea of sharecropper resettlement communities as it gave the working class a changed to organize politically. This in spite of the fact, communities such as LaForge helped only a small number of sharecroppers.

A professor of history at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri visited the demonstration and was sickened at what he saw. In his classes he described what he had seen. His students gave up their Senior Prom, donating the money to help the croppers. Activist Fannie Cook organized a citizens committee to arrange for relief to dissenters. Lincoln University students and Cook’s Committee donated enough money for Owen Whitfield and some of the sharecroppers were able to purchase 93 acres near Poplar Bluff, Missouri. This community became known as Copperville.

Survival the first year was difficult. They constructed houses and began working the land. Sickness sweeps the village; there were even some deaths. The residents were often hungry. Yet, Copperville slowly began to thrive. A school became part of the scene along with a church. Community gardens not only help feed the residents, but gave them a feeling of community.

After the roadside demonstration in 1939, the number of homeless in the Bootheel multiplied several times over. After about a year, emotions were not so pointed; then changes brought about by the protest were becoming evident and wider excepted.

Widespread evictions were set for 1940, or so Whitfield heard. He informed governor stark that if something was not done immediately, there would be another roadside demonstration like that of 1939. Contrasting his earlier actions, he quickly acted.

Missouri’s Governor Stark held a conference in St. Louis, inviting the planters, Owen Whitfield, and officers of the FSA to seek the best way to solve the housing problem. In marked contrast to his attitude in 1939 where he regarded any FSA Projects in the Bootheel as upsetting to the social order, the governor requested an expansion of the agency whole rehabilitation programs in the area.

Along Highways 60 and 61 with the demonstration was been one year earlier; on the second day of the St. Louis Conference, signs appeared reminding motorists of the landless family’s plight. “Lest You Forget”, the sings read, “One Year Ago, sat on this roadside, 1,500 croppers shelter less for days in snow and freezing cold”. “Little had changed”, one message stated, “except the abuses remain and grow. Another suggested another strike unless the federal government does something.

This symbolic protest, organized by local union groups, reawakens visual memories of the 1939 demonstration and gave a new urgency to the negotiations.

Coming to the conference, the FSA not expecting the same stiff necked resistance as before came with a plan that included the social Security administration, the WPA, and other state organization and including local civic groups.

Now that the Bootheel’s and governor’s attitude had turned to favor the FSA present in Southeast Missouri, Phil Beck, the FSA regional director, was enthusiastic about the chances of success. FSA, if necessary, was willing to carry the full economic burden for their plans.

During the conference, Stark ask the planters to delay eviction set for January 10th until February 1.This would give state and federal agencies time to carry out relief measures. Trying further to help the croppers, he requested that if all possible, not to evict any tenants or sharecropper for the coming season. Many of the landowner followed the Governor’s request.

With rumors of more demonstrations, the planters and landlords also had a change in attitude. In several ad hoc meetings before the St. Louis conference they had agree with Stark’s plan to solve the sharecropper problem. The simple fact the landowners’ wiliness to even discuss a change in farm tenancy showed a major change in their thinking.

Emotions had cooled down and the Governor-planters met with FSA officials with a plan having two objectives. Stark wanted a short term solution to the housing problems for tenant farmers. Secondly, he desired a tenure answer which solved the homeless sharecropper dilemma. The he saw as requiring a resettlement program with small tracts of land and the assistance of the FSA.

A large landholder from Sikeston offered the most popular plan His suggestion included small tracts of land, five to ten acres, leased to the FSA with them building houses for the tenants. An alternative plan was having the planters build housing and leasing them to the FSA with the occupant paying a low rent to the agency. Both plans had the FSA increasing their loan program to permit tenant to purchase farm equipment and all materials needed for farming.

During the January Governor’s Conference, Stark announced the establishment of a special landlord-sharecroppers committee. As a first step they were to study the tenant eviction problem in the Bootheel. Orders were also issued to the State Employment Service to cooperate with this committee and state and federal agencies in an attempt to register all tenant and sharecroppers unable to find a place to live.

Three thousand Bootheel landowners received questionnaires from the State Employment Service wanting then names of families they planned to evict and list land available for lease or rent to displaced workers. The agency was seeking five to ten acre plot to possible establish subsistence farms.

Immediately following the January Conference, the FSA accepted the new invitation and sent more personnel to the Bootheel. They had instruction to increase the number of loan application quickly as possible. This was to be a supplement until the State Employment survey was completed.

On February 2, 1940, Governor Stark again asks landowners to delay eviction. At least delay them until the State Employment was completed. Again most landowners complied. The survey was announced as complete on February 15 by Carl Wedeking, head of the District Employment Service. The survey found 925 farm families in seven Delta counties that in 1939 had been on farms and were still looking for other farm locations.

On the survey, landlords were also asked to list job opening available for tenants. Only 98 job listing were offered. A majority of these opening were not for tenants, but for clearing leases on new ground. In heavily timbered land, clearing enough land for a crop would have been near impossible was the judgment of Wedeking of the Employment Service.

The FSA saw the LaForge project a success. When the families entered the project in 1937, they had possessions averaging an estimated $28. In 1940 this had increased to $1,400, plus, after all cost were subtracted, an average of $377 cash. This included all five year loans and interest being met for the year.

Because of local opposition, project such as LaForge could not be built. In spite of the political climate taking a dramatic change since 1939, Public opinion was against “Socialistic schemes that but farm families in colonies. Landowners, while they agreed to the government providing some kind of housing, they strongly objected to families being housed in communities unified in project like LaForge. There was a fear, among the planter, that such community project would become hot-beds of political resistance to planter rule.

This January Conference encouraged the federal government to become involved in the Bootheel. The FSA agreed to provide new forms of assistance. The agreement called for the creation of ten communities in seven counties. Within a year the governor’s committee was effectively working in the Bootheel.

Known as the Delmo Farm Labor Homes Project, they were to provide housing for displaced sharecroppers. As a result, this plan involved the construction of 595 prefabricated houses as well as community buildings, wells, electricity, pluming, storage space, garden space and a porch in 1940 and 41. Each community contained from 50 to 75 units, averaging $800 each to build and set on four-tenth of a acre.

The Delmo project was approved by planters because it would keep farm labor available for seasonal work. To be eligible to be an acceptable home owner in a Delmo community, one had to be a farm worker agreeing to make himself and his family available for work when needed.

During World War II when labor became scarce the landowners pressured the residents of Delmo villages to work as day labors. However, now the farm workers in these communities had enough economic security to bargain with the planters.

In Mississippi County, landlords cut a deal with state and local officials to purchase the house in a federal village just outside Wyatt and scattered the dwelling. David Burgess, a social activist from St. Louis suggested that when the planters did not need farm labors, they cast the off, but now that they are needed they are buying them out.

Because the races were to be housed in separated Delmo community these FSA villages were more acceptable that were the LaForge projects. Unlike the earlier project, there were no demonstrations, or newspaper editorials condemning them. There seemed to be no general resentment, no cries about a socialistic scheme being forced on the projects neighbors.

Ten Delmo Farm Labor Homes Projects were laid out by the FSA in five Southeast Missouri counties. The Kennett Group in Dunklin County, the East Prairies and North Wyatt Groups in Mississippi County, the Morehouse, North Lilbourn, and South Lilbourn Groups in New Madrid County, the Gobler, North Wardell, and North Wardell Groups in Pemiscot County, and the Gray Ridge Group in Stoddard County. Four of these groups, North Wyatt, North Lilbourn Gobler, and South Wardell were designated as African-American communities.

Several of the communities use the same design as North Lilbourn, two parallel streets joined by four streets. Similarly constructed communities are South Lilbourn, North Wyatt, and North Wardell. East Prairie and Morehouse were based on a variation of this design with the two parallel streets being connected by three streets. The Gray Ridge Colony was designed as the Morehouse Group but without the cross streets and was named Circle City after its shape.

The largest and most unique of the Delmo communities is the South Wardell Group bearing no resemblance of any of the other. It was built in the shape of a baseball diamond, including even having what appears to be an infield, outfield, and “on deck” circles.

Over time these communities has have several name changes. Briefly the Kennett Group was recognized as Independence Village then sometime before 1947 it was annexed to the City of Kennett. The North Wyatt Group was Wyatt Junction before becoming Wilson City. Now, the South Wardell Group is known as Homestown. For obvious reason, the Gray Ridge Group was renamed Circle City. The Delmo colony south of Morehouse is listed on maps as Delmo.

Each Delmo Groups was designed around a communal, park-like, open space containing a community building with laundry faculties, showers and offices. Most of the houses were oriented conveniently towards this open space.

Each unit was set on a one acre garden spot and furnished an outhouse. The government also supplied each household with a stove, table and four chairs, tow metal chests, three wide mattresses as well as the gardening supplies of a rake, plow, hoe, and a pressures cooker of canning the gardens products. This cost the residents $3 a month, (in 2011 purchasing power this is equivalent to $36.70).

Comprehensive medical insurance for Delmo residents became available in 1941. This experimental plan from FSA was administrated by the Southeast Missouri Health Service was designed to provide affordable routine and emergency care costing participation family six percent of their monthly earning. Small co-pay was charged for a doctor’s visit but not of medicine. Although the plan would not become effective until 1943, 1,220 families signed up early.

The Delmo Security Homes attracted powerful enemies especially Kennett native Orville Zimmerman. In 1943, the local congressman sat on a select committee in the House of Representative formed to investigate the FSA’s activities. In his view, the FSA objective was communistic as they planned to lease and control all the land in the United States. That agency would become one gigantic supervising agency. The Delmo homes were full of union agitators dominated by social leaders, a Mecca for people that aim to cause confusion in communities. To him the image of rural poverty conjured during the roadside demonstration was a perversion of the realities found in Southeast Missouri.

As the attack succeeded, Public Law 76 was passed. It became unlawful to use federal funds to improve the wages, hours, or living condition of agricultural workers. As Zimmerman intended, the act destroyed the FSA’s programs. Because the Delmo Farm Labor Homes and a few other migrant labor homes were now supervised under the War Food Administration (WFA) they survived. The WFA was part of the Agriculture Extension Service, an agency with little interest in FSA’s programs.

Back in Dunklin County Zimmerman pushed the Dunklin County Medical society leave the Southeast Health Service. Doctors complained about the federal subsidies given the Service created unfair competition.

In early 1945 the European war was coming to an end. Enemies of the Delmo Housing Project increased their offensive. In January the WRFA announced it no longer needed the communities as a war time program. Oversight of the housing project was returned to the FSA. Enemies of the Delmo Farm Labor Homes now control that agency. Frank Hancock, the FS Director, reported that Delmo was an unprofitable burden and now ample housing existed for farm workers elsewhere.

In March Hancock announced all the projects would be sold at public auction. The announcement included a statement sub-contracting the Health Service care to a private medial insurer, Blue Cross.

Activists in the Delmo communities launched a furious campaign to the privatization process. All 505 client families sign a petition, protesting the selling of their homes without due process at public auction. Taking their petition, in April, the representative of the Tenant Committee went to Washington to make their case. Before sympatric congressmen, they told of their plight at a St. Louis meeting that was coved by the national press. Their petition was forwarded to the White House. President Roosevelt died a few days later in Georgia.

With the Delmo housing sure to be sold, the committee began searching for way for the resident to retain their homes.

Late in 1945, these interested citizens in St. Louis formed the Delmo Housing Corporation. These were citizens had been concerned since the 1939 Demonstration. They worked with Mitchell and other STFU officials (contributed $4,500) to help at the eleventh hour to raise money for the purchase the homes for the government then resell them to the residents with long term low interest notes. The Sherwood Eddy Foundation of New York, along with contributions from the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, NSCCP ($1,000) Marshall Field, ($12,500) and Alfred Baker Lewis helped finance the initial down payment for the St. Louis group.

Altogether, $285,000 (equals to $3, 560,000 in 2011) was raised without political support. The purchase includes the houses, lots, household furnishing, community building and roads within the community. Each family paid $800 to be repaid in $7.50 (equals $61.91 in 2011 if wages were $0.45 an hour in 2011 wages would equal $9.43 for unskilled labor) payment would be for eight years.

Although FSA still had problems in Southeast Missouri, the project proved to be the most successful and longest lasting was the labor homes program providing farm workers low cost rental housing. The pilot Group Workers Homes Project, popularly known later as the Delmo Homes project, allowed the FSA to purchase land, build homes and rent them at a low cost. Then, for all partial purposes, the Federal government was the landlord.

While most of the residents in these Group Workers Homes Projects no longer had ambitions to be landowners, they were in position to exploit the changing Southern agricultural economy as farms became more mechanized. More farms were in the early 1940’s were employing only a few tractor drivers for most of the year. Large numbers of day laborers were needed for a few months for chopping and picking cotton. During the Southern off-seasons, many FSA residents became migratory farm workers picking fruits and vegetables and returning to the Bootheel in the spring and fall.

While Negros led in the roadside demonstration in 1939 as well as relation with FSA, and with the State of Missouri, they lost when it came to housing numbers and against racism in the Bootheel and with the New Deal. Yet they gained when the FSA was terminated and they were forced to purchase the house they lived in. Then they no longer rented the building they lived in, but purchased a home.


Within the Deep South the STFU had encountered bloody resistance. Believing the Bootheel had a better political climate; Whitfield decided this was a better place for a massive demonstration. In1940, the union said conditions in the Bootheel were not worse than the rest of the cotton growing regions, but because the reaction was expected to be less violent.

After a series of meeting between Whitfield and the sharecroppers, a final assembly was held the First Negro Baptist Church in Sikeston. Some 350 croppers, mostly black, met and final plans were make for a roadside demonstration. It was to be a mass exodus from the land. Whitfield chose not to tell STFU headquarters in Memphis of his plans. The union leaders were as surprised as the citizens of the Bootheel.

If plans for a move to the highways became known before hand, Whitfield believed the authorities would try to stop it. So, the word spread quietly among the croppers about the upcoming protest without a mention of it leaking out. He also hoped the shock of the demonstration would be more dramatic thus attract more attention. The only outsider informed beforehand has the director of LaForge, Hans Baasch. Even his friend and advisor Thad Snow was uninformed until the eleventh hour.

On Sunday, January 8, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch carried newsman Sam Armstrong’s story about the coming demonstration set for Tuesday January 10. Whitfield leaked the papers’ this front page story with permission for an early printing. He seemed to have gauged the attitude of most Southeast Missourian as they reacted with shock when they read the story. They were unable to believe the croppers would carry out their threaten demonstration.

Plans were for the demonstration to start Wednesday morning January 10 the day the sharecroppers were required to be off the plantation they had worked for that year.  Most of the participants followed the plans. However, several hundred started out after sundown the night before to spent the night on the highway. Early the next morning, motorists along U.S. Highways 60 and 61 were stunned to see the roadside lining up with broken down autos, old wagons, truck piled with bedding, pots and pans, wire chicken coops, and of course, the poorly clad croppers.

By noon, the Highway Patrol estimated 1,000 camped along the highways. The precise Number of individuals and families participating was impossible to count. Some counts make the number closer to 1,500. People were coming and going as they looked for friends and families. It was several day before authorities were able to locate and Number all the camps as the Number increased and decreased slightly daily.

Later the Highway Patrol reported a total of 1,307 people representing 330 families were living along the highways. The FBI probable had more accurate information when they reported there were 251 families comprising 1,161 individuals.

As Highways 60 and 61 crossed in Sikeston, it was the center of activity. The FBI recorded 13 camps on the 70 mile strip of Highway 61 between Sikeston and Hayti and the 38 miles on Highway 60 connecting Charleston and Sikeston. Where these highways crossed in Sikeston seemed to be the center of the activity.

Each of these camps varied in size a great deal. Several were small with the largest located in Mississippi and New Madrid counties that numbered several hundred. It was reported that on January16, the New Madrid County camp at Lilbourn had 291 people.

No efforts were made to hinder highway traffic or impede its activity in any way. Most of the demonstrators simply moved out of the way of traffic to settle on the side of the road. In most camps there was a stove, a few pieces of shabby furniture, pots and pans, some bedding, an occasionally dog, however, all were without permanent shelter of any kind.

At one time Mitchell reported 90 percent of the demonstrators were STFU members. Government investigators credited the STFU for organizing the event; however, many of the campers, they reported were unfamiliar with the organization. Not all the members of Whitfield’s church were union members; therefore it is likely, as they were also affected by the evictions surely they would join the demonstration. This government report set the Number of Negro campers at 90 to 95 percent.

Union member or not, the majority of the demonstrators did not have a place to live as they were evictees. Officials later told Roosevelt that many, while not union members had jointed the mass on the roadside because of dissatisfaction with working and living conditions.

Landlords led the press to believe that all would be forgiven if the demonstrators would return to the plantations, that there would be work of anyone desiring it. To the dissatisfied they saw only a future as day labors if they returned to the plantations working at menial jobs and living in the same shacks, and treated totally at the landlord’s discretion. They majority simply felt they would be unable to make a decedent living if they returned to the plantation.

Josephine Johnson of the Post-Dispatch on January 23, 1939 wrote that one large planter was greatly perturbed because the croppers wanted better conditions. He called it “something nearly as bad as sedition.”

Interviewers found many of the strikers, including both the evicted and those who had not, joined the movement on the highways in hopes of moving into a permanent home in a RSA project like LaForge where Whitfield lived. Many of the participations have been led to believe, or thought they had been promised if the government became aware of their situation, the FSA would establish a similar project for them like LaForge. During February of 1939, the manager of the LaForge Project, Hans Baasch received more than 10,000 applications for housing.

The local non-farms reaction to the demonstration was hostile. Local newspapers blamed the situation on outside agitators. As most of the ex-farm workers did not have written eviction notices, many newspapers suggest that the farmers had left, not because they were forced but under their own free well. They make light of the roadside situation saying they expected a life of guarantee luxury.

Area planters claimed that 90 percent of the croppers were non-resident of Missouri but transient from other states. Twenty-four landowners from New Madrid, Dunklin, Pemiscot, and Scott counties met at New Madrid on January 12. Prosecuting attorney J. V. Conran of New Madrid County presided passing a resolution calling for a public meeting and a FBI inquiry into the strike along with the affairs of Owen Whitfield and Hans Baasch.

Then on January 13, some 50 Mississippi County landowners met at the Charleston Courthouse passing a resolution requesting a full government investigation to determine the full extent of outside influences regarding the strike, also hinting at communist influences. This motion asked that all government and private relief be withheld so as not to encourage the movement by giving aid and assistance.

A common theme of the news story was a variation of the Sikeston Herald reporting. The good people of Sikeston had been good to the colored people. Therefore, it was unwise to blame the blacks as they had been misled by Union agitators that had been influence by those who are believed to be ‘fifth columnist.

Both Resolutions from the planters were sent to the Missouri governor, the two United State senators, congressmen representing the district, the Dies Committee on Un-American Actives, Vice-President Garner, and Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace. Senator Harry Truman had the document printed on the Senate side and Orville Zimmerman putting them in the House Record, thus both resolutions was printed in the Congressional Record. Truman made no comment While Zimmerman made a long proclamation declaring the planters were not responsible in any way. That overzealous reporters looking for a good story had distorted the facts.

On the state level, government officials were equally unsympathetic with the demonstrators. State Senator James C. McDowell drove from Jefferson City to attend the meeting in Charleston. He saw it his duty to find out who was behind this damnable scheme. Then he blamed the CIO. As the Senator was one of the biggest planters in the area, his views may not have been entirely objective

Many local officials repeated the same theme as the Mississippi County planter’ resolution that government aid to the campers would be foolish, only encouraging them to demand more. Quoting a local county prosecutor, the New York Daily Worker on January 14, 1939, to give in to their demands encourages the croppers to demand more year after year.

Governor Lloyd C. Stark was convinced the roadside demonstration was the work of transient from outside the state. That a large Number of the blackss were town Negro’s that had been promised federal aid and individual farms of their own. Writing Henry Wallace demanding an investigation, he was sure, would show that those behind this un-American embarrassment would show a communist led conspiracy. This point of view was supported by most of Southeast Missouri planters.

The planters were sure at the FSA project at LaForge was “communist. When the project was being constructed in 1937, there was a general outspoken criticism of it. Orville Zimmerman, the Bootheel’s state representative reported he received editorials, letters, petitions, resolutions against the scheme, but not a word of support for it.

The landlords, incised by the picture being painted by some northern newspapers, claimed the demonstrators were not really evicted tenants but impressionable fools wanting federal money. This idea and example being set by the request and example came from a “nigger preacher, living on government pay. After all was Whitfield not living on the Far Security Administration Coop at LaForge?

The Red Cross did not recognize the roadside protest as falling under their mandate, thus they offered no aid. This situation, they claimed was a matter to be met by the state and federal governments. Red Cross mid-western director William Baxter later told the FBI that as their investigation indicated the croppers were not in want of shelter or foodstuff, thus no help from them was needed. That local communities and farm owners were able to help any demonstrator that required it.

In response to the planter request for an investigation, the FBI, on March 8, 1939, concluded the strike was spontaneous, simply an expression of indignation by outraged cropper. The STFU was not responsible or a sponsor of the demonstration. The planters hold a lot of the blame because of their apathy. The report concluded, the landlords underestimated the sharecroppers’ disaffection and misunderstood the situation.

Upon receiving the FBI report about the roadside protest, President Roosevelt suggest the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation (FSCC) make available any supplies they had on hand, especially milk, eggs, butter, citrus fruits, meats, and cereals. The FSCC responded and made food supplies available. However, food distribution was put in the hands of state officials who declared as long as the croppers remained on the highway, no commodities would be delivered.

Up until March, the situation remained the same. An emergency subsistence arrant were offered, $2 per month ($32 in 20011 buying power), for one month available now and for three months with applications required each month. A request for National Guard tents was stopped by Louis Means the states adjutant-General. He told the War Department he had the situation in hand and not federal aid was needed.

Since the STFU had not been informed of the demonstration, they had not made plans for emergency relief. They claimed Whitfield telegraphed them at the start of the walkout; Mitchell and Butler were to keep out of the affair. Whitfield and the STFT leadership were at odd not only about the protest but also about the St. Louis Industrial Union Council, the city’s central CIO body.

Altogether the Union raised $3,293.56 for relief (about $45,000 in today’s money). Almost all of the money went directly to aid the campers with cash, food, clothing, and other supplies. With Union headquarters over an hour away from Sikeston, the center of the strike in Blytheville, Arkansas, supplies were show reaching the strikers.

The St. Louis Industrial Union Council (CIO) desperately tried to help the camper but their funds were low. They sent request to President Roosevelt ask him to have the War Department send tents to the Bootheel. Two CIO representatives, with a few items to distribute, stopped at camp near Charleston when almost immediately, to deputized planters threatened them with blackjacks, telling them to move on.

Student from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis were stopped from delivering foods and supplies. Deputy Sheriffs told them they relief would only make the situation worse.

With temperatures near freezing on Thursday night January 12, snow started falling leaving an inch and an half on the ground by morning. Please for the National Guard to supply tents still went unanswered.

Without tents, the croppers improvised the best they could. They used quilts for windbreakers, or sheets thrown over poles; oil drums became stoves, and corncobs or whatever was available became fuel.

Coverage of the demon station now drew reporters from across the nation. Representatives from governmental and privates agencies migrated to the scene. Officials from the AAA, the FSA, Social Security, the State Labor Department, the State Highway Patrol, the CIO, the STFU, the Red Cross and the Communist Party.

By week’s end, on orders from the President, National Guard truck were headed south loaded with field kitchens, tents, and assorted other supplies. They never arrived. State officials had removed the ugly unpleasant, and highly vision of failed economic plight, from the highways.

Friday, January, the State Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Parker walked through the campsites. He saw a lake of sanitary facilities and good drinking water. He decided they were a threat to public health and could possibly cause an outbreak’ of epidemic meningitis.

Using the county sheriffs and deputized citizen, the State Police began moving the campers for the roads. Some tried to return to their former employers, some became day worker, others simple left the area.

Campers choosing to remain in the demonstration were removed from the highway in 24 Highway Patrol truck. Whites and black were purposely placed in segregated camps. About 100 families, making up approximately, the largest group, were taken to the Bird's Point-New Madrid Spillway in New Madrid County. They were left on a 40 acre field not far from the LaForge Project. The area, later referred to by the campers, as Homeless Junction. It was a swampy uncleared region recently covered by the1937 flood, were there were no portable drinking water. All which suggest the removal was not for health reasons, but a elimination from public view.

One group of whites, were placed near the levee in Mississippi County near Dorena. One sizeable group was taken to the Sweet Home Baptist Church between Wyatt and Charleston. A later FBE report stated one group was placed in a Negro cabaret. Other groups of blacks were settled in an empty barns or shacks. The state police, government officials, and local newspapers openly referred to the demonstrators’ new homes concentrations camps.

Senator Harry Truman announced the demonstration was at the instigation of agitators claiming to represent the government. Governor Stark knew that if the FBI investigated they were find un-americium and communistic practices could be traced directly to some employees of the Farm Security Administration.

The politician and the public quickly forgot about the unfortunate demonstrators. If Gardner Jackson, the UCAPAWA, and the STFU had been more concerned with the fight against the planter that fighting each other, the outcome might have been different.

For a few years during the Great Depression President Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts through the New Deal programs affected no rural American sector more than the rural South. The STFU attempted to serve as an advocate of these rural tenant farmers and wage laborers in the Bootheel. These groups were caught between the forces of chance brought by the New Deal programs designed to meet immediate economic. These plans however, did not address the long-term social problems of southern agriculture nor blunt the continuity forces of a discriminatory and often oppressive plantation agriculture system.

Government price controls and plow-up programs made changes in many aspects of southern agriculture. Yet peonage, an institutionalized form of debt slavery was to remain a fixed part of the plantation cotton agriculture for a few more years. This was especially true of attitudes.

By substituting tractors for mule power, it was possible to raise more cotton on more ground cheaper. In a 1931 comparison, an economist records of 36 Mississippi Delta tractor-powered plantations with 28 mule-powered farms. Using general purpose Farmall tractors for preparing the ground, and planting with four-roll equipment and cultivation. On the other test farm, mule’s power preformed the same operations. On average, using tractors it took 6.2hours and cost $3.90 power acres to plow, to bed plant and cultivate an acre of cotton. With a mule power, it averaged 43.1 hours and cost $5.91 per acres to this work.

While tractors help reduce the man hours, 136 hours, needed to produce, an acres of cotton. Field hands were still needed to hoe, and pick cotton. To do this with mule-powered, one-row equipment averaged 150 hours per acre. As more and more mechanical tools became available to the farmer, fewer and fewer man hours were required. Tractors, harvesters, and chemicals slowly added to the complete demise of the sharecropper system that replaced slavery after the Civil War.

The Forgotten Farmers

The historian Conrad called the landless farm worker in the Bootheel and the cotton South, The Forgotten Farmers. Within this mind set The Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU) was born. Organized at Tyronza in July of 1934, the STFU held out hope for what at the time must have seemed like a hopeless situation. Their circumstances had pushed hope to the bottom of their expectations.

The STFU was fathered by two socialist, H. L Clay and East Mitchell. Mitchell had at one time been a sharecropper. During the depression, both were small time business men in this small community in Northeast Arkansas. Mitchell had a dry cleaning business while East operated a gas station.

After failing in an attempt to organize socialist locals in Arkansas, the two men turned their efforts to organizing a union. Inspired by Norman Thomas, several times candidate for United States President as a Socialist; a person already truly interested and knowledgeable about the conditions and problem of the sharecroppers in the Arkansas Delta. Thomas feared the Communists would find American’s farm workers a rich field for exploitation wanted to offer the sharecropper the Socialist option.

With the complete blessing of Thomas, Mitchell and East set about organization a sharecroppers’ union. The purpose of the union would be, according the STFU preamble, “dedicated to the complete abolition of tenantry and wage slavery in all its forms”.

One of the favorite means of white plantation control was the practice of playing the black and whites against each other. As neither side trusted the other, it was really effective. For most white farmers, regardless of his place in the social-economic scale, saw the blacks as less than human and avoided contact when possible. In spite of knowing these feeling, Mitchell and East, early on, decided to form one union including both races. Both groups of renters, sharecroppers, and day labors saw their situation so bleak they put aside their fears, distrust, and prejudice to joint this effort to better their lives.

Although a Negro minister was named vice-chairmen, and the membership biracial, the leadership was white. This was especially true in the early days of the organization. East became the first president; Mitchell, the executive secretary and the key figure in directing union policy. Later J. R. Butler served as president while Howard Kester served as Norman Thomas’ personal representative to the STFU.

AAA officials were aware of the possibility that the planters would find a way to keep most of the parity payment. Rules were again written into the contracts to prevent planters for changing the status of their workers. However, little could be done to prevent it. One of the reasons the checks were made out to the landowners was political. To make the plan work, the government needed the cooperation of the planter.

Another was practical. This was the days before computers. Over a million contracts were in force. There were an unknown Number of renters, sharecroppers, and share renters. Keeping this large Number of workers straight would have overpowered the system. So the AAA had to trust the local county committees, so they were given broad powers. The county committees were to judge the landlord’s intent as to whether the landlord, in eviction croppers, intended to chisel them out of their parity payment or if his action was honest because he legitimately no longer needed their help. These county committees were makeup of the planters.

The STFU questioned the election of the AAA county committees, while all farmers theoretically were eligible to vote, the elections were seldom held on a uniform date even within one state. More importantly, if a tenant or chopper attempted to exercise their voting right this usually trigged the wrath of the larger planters.

If the status of cropper was changed to day labor, it was up the cropper to prove the change was economically necessary. County committees were usually quick to inform all planters when a cropper complained. A lowly cropper found himself in an unattainable situation. To complain or fight the landlord and owner after eviction would possible kill his changes of even working as a day labor in the area.

The STFU quickly became the New Deal’s AAA cotton programs critic. The union charged the government was helping those farmers needing the program least the large planter, while at the same time hurting those who needed it most, the croppers and tenants. By 1930, almost 90 percent of the cash income came from 50 percent of the total farm population total farm population while the other 50 percent struggled with the rest of the farm income. With the AAA insisting that the parity payment continued pouring into the hands of larger cotton farmers, the STFU became the voice for southern tenant farmers and quickly acquired an enthusiastic following during the early days of the New Deal.

By 1935, the union claimed a five-state membership of over 35,000. Their influence had spread to include members not only in Arkansas, but also in Tennessee, Mississippi, Missouri, and Oklahoma. In Southeast Missouri, union activities were slow in stating. Primarily, this was because in the early thirties, the major efforts were focused on eastern Arkansas, where like Bootheel of Missouri, the cotton culture was relative new with the problems seemingly worse than elsewhere in the South.

Essential a reign of terror erupted in Eastern Arkansas during the earlier 1930’s. Planters violently resisted the union’s organization efforts. The challenge to their control, their power, was met with panic and shock. To the southern white male, this challenge awakens their great fear, nobody tells me what to do, and that had been part of the psychic sense before 1800. Even being a major cause of the Civil War.

STFU headquarters had to be moved to Memphis because the planters’ resistance grew so violent. Union organized had to frequently fled across the Mississippi River to escape the furious Arkansas planters and their hired thugs. The greatest insult, as seen by the landlords, was not the efforts to organize the labor they needed to produce crops, this was bad enough, but to do it bi-racially was way beyond the pale. This insult to the white race went way beyond endurance.  It went against human nature and God’s plan. It was an unforgettable sin. Thus, violence was justified.

Regardless of the opposition, the STFU gradually make its voice heard. Mainly their efforts brought the growing tenant farms plight to public awareness. The problem grew so large by 1935, President Roosevelt appointed a special committee for the study of farm tenancy in the United States.

Because of the Arkansas problems, it was not until 1936 that STFU’s union organizers were sent into Southeast Missouri. Survival filled the early years. Union efforts started in the Bootheel largely because of Thad Snow, a reasonable large plantation near Charleston, Missouri. They came at his invitation.

Several nick names were attached to Snow: the “Cotton Field Confucius”, the “Bootheel philosopher”, or the “Sage of Swampeast Missouri”. As a letter writer to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he was a regular correspondence talking about the region and the actives of the populace. The phrase “Swampeast Missouri” was one he frequently was referred to jokingly.

His 1000 acre farm supported about 20 families. For a prosperous man, he was somewhat difference as he often lectured the other planter in the area on their failure to provide for their tenants better. Snow recognized the sharecroppers had a miserable life full of hard labor. His neighbors respected and admired him. At the same time, they were suspicious of his radical ideas and little doubt where he would stand if a planter –tenant confrontation in the Bootheel took place.

Educated at the University of Michigan, a product of Indiana, Snow was an immigrant into Missouri. This explained his not sharing the traditional Southern attitude about sharecroppers in general and blacks especially. He once wrote in a letter to Post-Dispatch, “In so far as we have a class struggle in the cotton county, my sympathies are definitely with the poor devils that bend their back to do our work.” He saw his being born and bred in the North was an advantage in that he could observe the southern-planter psychology with a degree of objectify

Snow was reared in the tradition of Civil War-era Republicanism. However, he had abandoned the Grand Old Party before moving to Southeast Missouri. Then, he generally favored the Democrats, but gradually advancing towards being an independent political thinker while flirting with the Progressive Party. After making contacts with Socialist, he supported the Democrats’ for a while before he started criticizing the New Deal. Late in the 1930’s, his political views became more radical.

While Snow was generally accepted by those who knew him as a friend even if he was eccentric and a radical with foreign idea. Not so by those that only knew him through his writings. To them he was a Communist. Many Bootheel citizens believed the rumor that he kept in his basement a shortwave radio on which he make regular calls to Russia, presumable to talk with Joseph Stalin and other high ranking Soviet government officials.

Snow liked for others to think of him as a real farmer who got his hands dirty tilling the soil. In reality, his profits came from the work of hired hands, and sharecroppers.

At Snow’s request the STFU send John Hancox, a young black poet and songwriter to set ups the first Union local in Missouri. Hancox was sometimes called “John Henry”; organized dozens of local in Missouri while planter Snow worked at convince his fellow planters that the union was a good thing.

 Hancox’s influence soon disappears and replaced by Owen H. Whitefield a local Negro sharecropper and part-time traveling preach. He joined just a few months after the Missouri local was formed. He soon emerged as the unquestionable leader of the region’s union. Whitfield was the mastermind behind the 1939 roadside demonstration that brought more nation-wide awareness to the plight of the farm labors of the South.

After what Owen Whitfield had what he considered a deep religious experience, he decided it was not the Lords fault he had to work so hard and his family was still hungry, but his own. Shortly after that he joined the STFU even through it was dominated by whites. He soon became enthusiastic about the potential the union had for improving the lives of both black and white tenant farmers.

Whitfield had been preaching for 14 years when he joined the union in 1937. At this climacteric time he was pastor of a Number of rural Bootheel churches. His unionizing efforts became centered, indispensable, within rural churches. This was where he had most of his personal contacts. Within these churches, most of the membership was farm labors of one type of another. Union membership grew quickly from within these churches.

Churches could be used as clandestine meeting places for many of the early union meetings. There, night meeting could be held without alerting the planters. Perhaps more importantly, the pulpit served as place where Whitfield could express his ideas and hopes as well as pass along union news to members and potential members.

It is reported that his messages were social gospel delivered in an eloquent and powerful style. His is credited using colorful phrases his audience related to like: “Take your eyes out of the sky because someone is stealing your bread.”  Another quote to make a nation publication was: “I’m not preachin’ ’bout heaven. No sir! I’m preacin’ the brotherhood of man . . . the applied religion!”

It did not take long for the charismatic Whitfield to attract a large following. He also carried his message into the fields to the white workers. As a recruiter, he carried to hand drawn cartoons with him. One pictured two mules, on black and one white, pulling against each other towards two piles of hay. The other showing the mules yoked together with them getting both piles of hay. This was the way he showed that working together more was accomplished.

One of the surprises he found in the fields was that the white workers hated the planters more than the black labors did. Many of the whites wanted to take violent action, burning barns or killing the offending planters, after Whitfield numerated the overlord’s offenses. Black workers reacted more calmly, seemingly to more readily accept their mistreatment as just another part of their normally difficult life.

Whitfield was not candid with all the white persons he met. When he suspected hostilely from an encounter, he converted into his favorite character, the role of a “poor dumb nigger from Mississippi.”  Thus letting the hostile individual assume that in is presence is just another happy, carefree darkie that knew his place. Thus, the situation was defused.

As Thad Snow and Owen Whitfield lived less than ten miles apart it did not take long for the two men to meet. Snow was a student of Thorstein Veblen, an economist and sociologist whose writing stressed his social conscience and problems of the poor. As Whitfield was a ferment social reformer of a more practical nature, the two men messed, the idealist and the practical.

That Snow was Whitfield’s sounding board. He openly discussed the problems of the sharecropper with Snow, one of the few plantation owners the croppers trusted.  Snow was a man Whitfield respected and listened to attentively when he asked how to solve a problem or what approach he needed to take in a given situation. Snow became a close personal friend and official economic and political mentor.

The federal government has acquired 608 acres of land in the LaForge, Mo., community, where a resettlement project is planned; the government intends to take title to 5,100 acres more within 10 days; the program is being worked out by the Farm Security Administration and is a rehabilitation effort to assist sharecroppers, farm laborers and renters who now live on the land the government is buying.

In 1937 the Farm Security Administration, (FSA), build housing to help rehabilitate displaced share croppers in New Madrid County. LaForge was an experiment trying to determine the effectiveness and worth of a family-type cooperative farm in solving the problems of sharecroppers and tenants. A 6,700 acre tract was purchased in an attempt to re-establish 100 sharecropper families. The plan was to provide them with a four or five room house for each family with a loan averaging about $1,300 to purchase livestock, feed, and machinery, along with other farm equipment.

Along with the house and farm equipment, FSA would provide trained experts and home supervisors to teach farming practices like soil conservation and crop diversification. Wives would learn canning, food utilization and budgeting, and other vocational house whole training. The LaForge Cooperative Association after establishment would provide the community with a gin, a warehouse along with other modern services such as running indoor water.

Before this effort was over, the FSA spent close to $500,000 in the Bootheel and helped about 11,000 families. While a worthy program, it was doomed to failure. The farm plots were too small to be economical feasible. With the introduction of the tractor in the 1930’s, it was recognized by most farm experts that larger plots of land was needed.

In later interviews by federal officials, many black said that in 1937 and 1938, they had applied for help from WPA and FSA and were refused. The WPA kept putting them off telling them to apply at a different office; or they there told to go home and wait for a notification which never came.

Hans Baasch LaForge Project manager’s 1939 February report stated that more than10, 000 applications to joined the project had been received. When the STFU surveyed the project, they found that of the 286 individuals interviewed, 250 stated they had a job on a farm under FSA control.

In 1937 Owen Whitfield became vice president of STFU. Among the perks of the position was a monthly income of $100.

One of the qualifications to be eligible for residence in LaForge was to live in New Madrid County. The Whitfield’s did not meet this qualification as he resided in Mississippi County. It was believed that Snow used his influence at the urging of the STFU.

By the end of 1938, Southeast Missouri had 20 STFU locals. The estimated membership was nearly 5,000. Whitfield saw the union as an indispensable tool to improve the conditions of the people that labored in the fields. Now even the lowliest labor in the Bootheel had a way to express their discontent.

One of the prime purposes of the STFU was to call attention to the plight of the conditions faced by the farm labor. One of the most effective means of doing this was by calling labor strikes and pulling workers from the cotton fields during a critical time such as the harvest. Strikes were called by the STFU in 1935, 1936, and 1938 in hopes of raising wages for farm workers. Such efforts in the Bootheel were largely unsuccessful because the planters brought in strikebreakers for southern Illinois.

In 1938, the enticement to change to day labor was greatly increased. Because to the bumper crop the year before the AAA was again facing a large surplus and wanted to eliminate it by a 40 percent reduction in acreage. Because in part of the STFU criticism, the New Dealers acreage cutting in the past had eliminated farm jobs the new regulations were changed in early1938. With a new reduction they knew more jobs would be lost. To preserve the sharecroppers’ income the AAA planners increase his share from 25 cents, based on the 1937 regulation to 50 cents in 1938.

In 1937 that meant the landlord got 50 percent of the parity check, the renter received 25 percent and the cropper 25 percent. Or if there was not renter the check was divided 75-25. According to the new 1938 law, the landlord received 25 percent, the renter 25 percent with the sharecropper receiving 50 percent and if there was no renter, the money was divided 50-50 between the landlord and cropper. In theory, the landlord was to turn over an additional 25 percent of the crop payment to the cropper.

In the Bootheel a common arrangement was the absentee owner and sharecropper overseen by a hired manager. Under this agreement, a 75-25 crop payment in 1938 would become 50-50. With a renter contract, the 50-25-25 would convert to 25-25-50 with the renter getting the 50 percent. Now the temptation increased for the landlord to evict both the renter and the sharecropper, thus keeping the full payment. Under the 1938 law a new wrinkle surfaced. Some of the larger renters and salaried managers evicted some croppers after the 1938 harvest without informing their landlords and keeping the difference in pay.

Whitfield observed closely the action of the salaried agents and maintained that agents and overseers frequently cheated their companies and the croppers. It was easy for overseers to keep checks from croppers, if he so desired. The cropper simply did not see the check even if he was aware he had money due.  This was the temptation of the landowner, large renter, and salaried agent, that to double, or at least increase their share of the government payments by simply removing the cropper as it happened in the mass eviction at 1938’s harvest end.

In reality, prior to this in Southeast Missouri evictions had been taking place, not however, on such a massive scale. Enough evictions, that in 1934 and 1935, the AAA sent investigators into the area. The investigators reported that the accounts were wildly exaggerated. By year’s end, 1937, near Sikeston 21 families were evicted and 25 from Wyatt.

Complaining of the evictions, Whitfield in 1938 wrote Roosevelt. He requested protection under the farm law for croppers. The government’s response urged the croppers to take their complaints to the FSA supervisors, which was made up of planters.

However, the new 1939 law requiring doubling the croppers’ share of parity payment in 1939 triggered extensive evictions. At the end of the 1938 harvest, approximately 70 planters eliminated the position of sharecroppers. If they did not have the financial means to become renters, they became day labors.

It was ironical that attempts to help croppers by increasing their parity payment by the AAA turned to harm them. The laws became the direct opposite of what the planners hoped. Instead of making the sharecropping system fairer, the laws and rules in fact had exactly the opposite effects; it rapidly broke the system down.

The absentee landlord, being away from dealing with the evicted, was removed by the suffering it caused. The resident owners who lived and worked the Bootheel’s farms, complained with some justification that the new rules could be destructive to him. That the government payment was needed to make his land payments, to cover the money he borrowed for furnish, and if much of his land lay unplanted these and other obligations could not be met.

Thad Snow observed that the cotton program was a failure to make the labor payment based only for labor preformed. Snow, knowing these men remarked, they were not bad men but men operating within a bad system.

The normal practice on Bootheel cotton plantation was to give two evictions notices. The first was given on the first of November. Sharecroppers then would have 60 days to find another place to work. Final eviction notice came by tradition on New Year’s. Then “Moving Day” came after a ten day grace period.

Towards the end of 1938, Whitfield learns about the wholesale evictions due at the end of the year. He estimated some 900 families were to be evicted. As written notices were not given, it is impossible to have an accurate count. Most of them, according to established custom were simply told their services were not long needed.

Later, the Sikeston Standard, the Charleston Enterprise Courier, and the Cape Girardeau Southeast Missourian charged as there were no written noticed the croppers had not been legally evicted.  Technically this was true, just the entire question was ideographic. To legally evict a tenant, an evictions order had to be register with legal authorities. Even the few receiving written notices of eviction, the order had not been properly registered. Those leaving would have a hard time proving their leaving had not been voluntarily.

As many of the croppers were too docile, especially blacks, very few of them were forcefully evicted at gunpoint. Therefore, only a verbal notice was necessary to prompt a tenant to move. For years, one of the efforts by the STFU was the practice of farmer-tenant contracts. In 1935, 80 percent of the farm leases were oral agreements only. Unless a tenant heard otherwise before the 60 day period of tenancy termination he assumed he had contract for the next year.

When Whitfield heard of the eviction after the 1938 harvest, wanting to help the homeless croppers, he went to St. Louis speaking to several service organizations. While there, he became involved in the rapidly growing power struggle between the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU) and the United Cannery Agricultural Packing and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA).  While Mitchell and the other leaders were cool towards the UCAPAWA, Whitfield looked more favorably towards this group. He believed their connection to the St. Louis Industrial Union Council, the city’s central CIO body, would give the STFU more power.

The UCAPAWA was so impresses with Whitfield‘s enthusiasm for their group and the CIO, after he hitchhiked to Denver in 1937, to attend their meeting. For a while he took a salary from both groups. At this meeting, the two groups merged. With the STFU a part of the CIO, Whitfield was one of the six STFU selected to the UCAPAWA executive council of 21 members in 1938.


During 1880 the six Bootheel County of Dunklin, Mississippi, New Madrid, Pemiscot, Scott, and Stoddard, produced 15, 357 bales of cotton. This represented three-fourth of Missouri’s cotton harvest. Cotton needed at least 200 frost-freed days to mature and Southeast Missouri had barely 200 days, thus the Missouri Delta lay on the extreme northern edge of the “cotton belt”.

Southeast Missouri in 1880 had a population of 52,885. It was a thinly settled frontier with fewer than 16 persons per square mile residing on 3,320 square miles. Of these 5,052 were blacks.

Despite the threat of frost, Missourians managed to raise two-thirds of a bale per acre. While it was possible to raise cotton, the Missouri Delta Farmers planted only one per cent of the available land, 23,448 acres in cotton. By contrast they tilled 165,086 acres of corn yielding 5,275,619 bushels. The corn crop far exceeded the corn harvested in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas delta.

Much of this cotton crop was shipped to St. Louis. In remote Dunklin County, farmers worked the ridge lands because the bottomlands of the St. Francis and Little River were too wet to cultivate. These farmers hauled cotton gales to distant river landings at Cape Girardeau for shipment by riverboat.

Dunklin County farmers paid $2.25 per bale to transport cotton to St. Louis. From Stoddard County, farmers hauled cotton bales to the railroad for shipment to St. Louis at a cost of $2.50. By contrast, Pemiscot, New Madrid, Mississippi and Scott county farmers, closer to the Mississippi, shipped cotton to Memphis, St. Louis, and New Orleans, for less than $1 per bale.

Midwestern farm crops during the early 20th century were still grown more than cotton. In Mississippi county farmers planted one one-sixth of their land in cotton, with the rest in corn, wheat, and hay. The Southeast Missouri Delta was the last frontier of the Midwest. The area attracted many Midwestern grain farmers seeking richer, more productive lands.

The post-World War I, the Missouri Pacific, Cotton Belt, and Frisco railroads carried agricultural products to market. During this period the sharecropping system annually provided train loads of cotton and at that time cotton belt traditions, of wage peonage, entered the Bootheel and became a pattern that lasted until World War II

Just after the Civil War cotton prices were high; sharecropping was a fairly good idea. The economy was in ruin, ex-slave holders needed labor, and the freed slave needed work. Sharecropping, in theory, seemed a good idea. It seemed to offer the landless  opportunity.                                                                                                                          

However, the system never worked in reality as it did as a hypothesis. As many of the landless black farmers did not know how to read and write, coming from slavery he had never been allowed to think for himself, and depended on his ex-master for help, he soon fell into debt. The systems impact went far beyond the misuse of individuals but producing many negative consequences for the entire region.

Not all of the district’s effects on Southeast Missouri have been positive for everyone. Draining the swamp concentrated ownership of much of the land in the Bootheel into a smaller Number of owners. Sharecropping became a way of life for the areas to create an underclass. Once the timber was cut down, workers were stuck here; it turned into a landlord and share coppering. Small farmers couldn’t pay their taxes, thus losing their land. Bootleggers were thick.

After the land was drained, cleared of trees and their roots, crops were planted. This was especially rick soil, made so by centuries of flood by the Mississippi River. Land rich in humus from hardwood tree they reach high and block out the sun in summer and drop their leaves in the fall.

Some western historians claimed the frontier closed during the last half of the 1890’s. Because the large-scale migration into the Bootheel occurred after this, the Southeast Missouri Deltas region has been referred to as one of the last great American agricultural frontiers.

Midwestern farmers moved into the Bootheel during the nineteen-teens attracted by the rich bottom lands. Most grew corn, wheat, hay cowpeas, and hogs, all crops that grew well in Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio. Many purchased land still not cleared of trees and stumps. Many were not able to overcome the debt load, gave up and returned to the Mid-West.
In the early 19th century, thanks to an efficient rail service, many Missouri Delta farmers focused on farming grain. The area was serviced by the Frisco, Cotton Belt and Missouri Pacific along with their trunk lines running east and west from the main lines north and south lines between St. Louis and Memphis grain for the railroads to transport.

There were also several, mostly dirt, roads running through the region. A few were graveled and fewer paved with concrete. These roads followed the high spots that ran through the Lowland. The main through-faire, King’s Highway also connected St. Louis to Memphis and furnished a reliable route for motor vehicles. While trucks could economically haul cotton bales to markets, railroads were more efficient in shipping low-value commodities like wheat and corn

Farmers harvested abundant grain crops, wheat on ridge lands and corn in the bottom lands, and shipped it to market at St. Louis. Grain elevator and flour mills dotted the railways throughout Southeast Missouri. During World War I the demand for grain increased as did the price that reached record highs. However, in 1920, grain price started free-fall. With wheat costing $18.97 per acre to raise and selling for $14.35, farmers were losing $4.62 per acre. Corn, on the other hand was making about $7.00 per acre profit.

Cotton offered a greater reward. In 1922, an acre of cotton in the Bootheel cost $33.57 an acre to raise, very labor intent, yet at market it brought $60.40 per acre giving $26.83 profit per acre. After 1920, cotton farming spread across Southeast Missouri. Even with the short growing season, because of cold weather arriving to shorten the growing season, the farmers formed a marketing cooperative, the Missouri Cotton Growers Association. This co-op aim was to gin, store, and sell the crops from Southeast Missouri.

Then to meet the demands for fiber during World War I cotton became the main crop. Especially this was true during the twenties after boll weevils invaded Arkansas and Mississippi in the 1920’s pushing planters into southeast Missouri. In the five years between 1920 and 1925 the acreage in cotton increased more than 330 percent with cotton production jumping more than 200 percent in the Bootheel.

Helping to feed this hunger for new cotton land between 1900 and 1919 was the frenzied rise in the prices of raw cotton fiber and cottonseed. During the early years, the spread of the boll weevil thought the cotton south caused foreign and domestic textile mills to demand more cotton. America’s entry into World War I set off war time economic boom.

Inflation and the increased demand along with the reduced supply drove the farm price of cotton lint from nine cents a pound in 1900 to 32 cents a pound in 1919. The farm price of cotton seed, which was pressed for oil, went from $12.90 a ton during the same period to $66 per ton.

Although vast land resources were available in the region, few of the people arriving in the Bootheel made a fortune. This was one of the differences in this frontier than the earlier ones. Few of the landless farmers arriving in the region became landowners.

Several reasons explain why landownership was reduced to a relative small Number.

The Little River Drainage District was financed by bonds to be retired by a tax on the landowners. This was one cause of the lack of small land owner farmers. During the depression of the 1920’s and 1930’s, with drainage taxes as high as three dollars per acre, many small farmers were forced into foreclosure. As 70 percent of the Bootheel land was in the drainage district, few small farmers in Southeast Missouri survived the depression.

Ownership of small landholding was also discouraged by high development cost. Interest in quick profits prompted large land speculators to invest huge sums in cleaning up the overcut lands. Land speculators were quick to increase their holding as small famers were forced to sell. Thus, the trend towards large-scale consolidate was at the mall farmers expense on through the 1930’s.

Early in the 1930’s, the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) reported that cotton had commandeered they Bootheel. Nearly all the trees were gone. Corn and wheat production had shrank to the point at below Malden cotton dominated the farms. Soother plantation agriculture prevailed.

In the northern Bootheel counties, especially in the Sikeston area, the pattern still favored the Midwestern diversified land use. Many farms of 200 or more acres produced livestock, corn, melons and berries. Many of these farms also raised some cotton.

According to the 1940 census, the Number of farms in the seven Delta counties went from 24,117 in 1935 to 21,486 in 1940, a decrease of 10.9 percent. Meanwhile, in spite the government’s AAA program plow up program, the total cotton acreage increased. For example, in Pemiscot, New Madrid and Mississippi counties, the cotton acreage jumped altogether from 186,767 in 1934 to 230, 213 acres in 1939, increasing over 20 percent.

Tracts of land were usually sold in lots of 500 to 1,000 acres. This meant small growers were unable to afford. Adding to the woes of small landowners, land speculators frequently bought out the farmer only after he spent time and money clearing the land.

 While the method was simple, it was also high profitable. A large tract of uncleared land would be bought for between five to fifteen dollars an acre the sold at a higher price to a small farmer. Unable to clear the land and raise a crop at on it at the same time, he would get behind on is payments. When the mortgage was foreclosed, another farmer would buy the partially cleared land. This would happen several times until the land was cleared. Each time the speculator would sell the land for a higher price, making a larger profit each time.

Large tracts of land were bought up by insurance companies, banks, land development corporations, and large individual landholders in this way. By 1939, over half of the nearly two million acres of farmland in Southeast Missouri were owned by landowners holding 200 acres of more each. One-third of that was owned by landholder with 5000 acres or more each. At least one-quarter of the land owners had 1,000 acres or more. Insurance companies owned 200,000 acres or more with two companies alone held more than 40,000 acres each. Individual holding of 2,000, 3,000, and 4,000 acres were not unusual while holding from 500 to 2,000 acres were quite common.

These large blocks of land were divided into small lots then leased to sharecropper. Depending on the size of the lease-holders family, the renter farmed from 15 to 20 acres with many less than ten. Farms these sizes were inherently inefficient.

Except for the small farmers, those owning 40 acres or more, few of the land owners worked the land. More often than not, on the larger holding, which was the dominate type in the Bootheel; the owner was a landlord only. If the title was held by an insurance company, they hired managers to oversee the operations of their holdings.

Some companies and large land owners leased their land for rent. Often this rent was paid in a percentage of the proceeds of the crops. Cotton ginners frequently bought or rented leased land.  Starting in the 1920’s this option became more prevalent. As the cotton acreage increased, cotton gins mushroomed to meet the increasing demand. To increased profits and better control the work force, cotton gins and commissaries became common features on many of the farming operations. Between 1921 and 1925, there was a 300% increase in gins in the Bootheel; 53 gins1921 to 165 in 1925.

Commonly, ginners rented hundreds of acres of cotton land. Most already owned some land on which they grew cotton, or they leased to individuals. This assured them that their cotton gins would be profitable. Much of the lands they owned had been acquired cheaply at foreclosure sales. Renting land from banks and insurance companies were standard practices of ginners. As money was scarce during the depression, crop rent was the general practice. In 1939 New Madrid County, ginners owned about one-quarter of all the farmland. On the 632 farms they possessed, on 87 of them they actual worked. During the next year they controlled 640 farms but farmed only 44 of them.

The ginners who rented land and the insurance companies hired agents; the middlemen became “over-tenants.” Technically these middlemen were tenant because they did not own the land, yet these over-tenants were virtually landlords in their own rights.

Over-tenants were responsible for the hiring and firing the tenants and farm workers that actually did the farming. To the farmer, the over-tenant was the rent collector, cotton buyer, cotton ginner, bookkeeper, and banker. He had almost total control over the life of those under him.

Ginner also frequently acted as money lender. In 1940, in New Madrid County, ginners made loans to over 600 farms that contained more than 7,000 acres of cropland. Using money the ginners borrowed at a low rate, he loaned it out from 6 to 12 percent. These New Madrid County ginners, one way or another, control the planning, the planting, processing, and disposition of the cotton crops on over 1,000 farms on over 100,000 acres of croplands. That was nearly 50 percent of the total cropland of the county.

Thus a kind of unofficial class system developed in the Bootheel . At the top were the nonresident landowners. Below them were the over-tenants. The landless tenant and the day labor that supplied the sweat were at the bottom of this economic hierarchy. This quasi-feudal system of cotton production developed because of this misdistribution of land ownership. A system developed not unlike that of the antebellum South

One crop farming, cotton the main crop with some corn to feed the work animal, was seasonal work. Farm labor in Southeast Missouri was patterned like the rest of the Cotton Belt.

Farm workers fell into three general groups: sharecroppers, day laborers, and tenants that paid a fixed among of cash or percentage of their crop for the use of the land. Those in the last category were normally referred to as “renters. These croppers, laborers, and tenants were completely dependent upon and were subservient to the landowners or their agents. Many spent a lifetime working land belonging to someone else.

Of all the farms in the Bootheel, 74 percent were worked by tenants in 1935. This figure is no higher than the rest of the South which was in1930 85 percent of all cotton raised was by tenant. In New Madrid and Mississippi counties, there was a concentration of tenants, 90 percent New Madrid County and in Pemiscot County more than 80 percent of the cotton farmers were tenants.

In the thirties, most of the tenant farmers were born outside of Missouri. Government officials, in 1940, interviewed the head of nearly 400 tenants in New Madrid County. Of those, only 75 were native to Southeast Missouri, which is less than one in five. In 1939 Scott County, the social security office reported that nine out of ten recipients came from other states.

Pemiscot County benefitted the most from this migration. By 1920, the county had 126,000 acres of cotton and 3,900 Negro residents. For a while it was a blend of cotton South and Midwestern Corn Belt. Most of the county’s land was owned by a small group. They sub-divided the land into 100 and 150 acre lots which they rented to white tenants on a cash basis. These White renters then sublet the land to black croppers for a shard of their crop.

The poorer Pemiscot County land was planted in alfalfa and corn. Alfalfa was a cash crop. Whatever corn the cropper was unable to sell was used to feed pigs and their work animals. However, the better land was grown in cotton. In spite of cotton being grown year after year on the same lands, the land yielded close to a bale each year.

For a short time, as cotton was a labor intent crop, the Bootheel suffered a labor shortage. In 1800, man hours required before harvest was 185 per acre and 601 man hours per bale to pick. By 1900, these figures were reduced to 112 hours per acres and 284 hours per bale. The wide spread use of cotton gins reduced the hours per bale as separating lend from the seed no longer done by hand. In the years between 1920 and 1945, the time preparing cotton for harvest remained steady at an average of 97.75 hours. Man hours per bale during this time averaged 235 hours with 182 hours required in the 1940 to 1944 period.

Black migrant workers were imported to harvest the cotton during the 1910’s. Long after Midwestern prairie grain farmers made the transition from hand to machine labor, the cotton South resisted mechanization due to conditions resisting mechanizing. By the 1930’s tractors were used to prepare seedbed, to plant, and cultivate, a large amount of hard backbreaking labor was required thinning and hoeing out the weeds from the young crop. Several years would pass before machines replaced picking cotton by hand.

 The weed problem was not solved by machines, but by chemicals. Herbicides were introduced in the 1950’s. However, it was not until the 1960’s that more reliable chemicals became available. Thinning was solved by a method called “hill-dropping” make certain the seed was spaced adequately to eliminate the need of thinning.

However, it was the harvesting of the cotton that required the most wearisome hand labor. Until the development of the mechanical cotton picker the harvest still remained the primary obstacle to complete mechanization.

Before tractors horses and mules were, besides man power, used where possible to do the heavy work required. Animals were used for plowing, planting and cultivating the land. Yet, Pemiscot County farmers had a problem at harvest time. In the early years, animal were of no value during harvest. Cotton had to be picked by hand. With a shortage of cotton pickers, croppers were often forced to leave part of the crop in the fields. The weather played a part in this being either too wet or too cold. The sharecropper did not always have to man power needed.

A population increase corresponded to the rapid expansion of the cotton culture. The reclaimed rich soil attracted southern farmers into the area. Between 1900 and 1930, to join the men that earlier had moved in earlier to drain the land, the seven counties population grew nearly 75 percent. While the growth during the next decade slows the increase was still nearly 30 percent. During this time, some of the county’s growth gained as much 50 percent. The total growth of Missouri during this time, by contrast, was only 4.0 percent with the national growth was 7.2 percent.

Boll weevil infestation in the traditional growing area of the Delta of Mississippi and Arkansas encouraged many cotton farmers from those areas to migrate to Southeast Missouri. At this time, boll weevils were not a problem during this time period. Cold weather arrived earlier and was more intent killing the larva hibernating in the immature cotton bolls.

Arkansas, Tennessee, and Mississippi supplied many of these workers and renters. Some were brought in by landlords when they moved to the state. Large landowners sent agents into these areas to recruit workers. One-third of the renters in 1940 New Madrid County named one of these three states as their birth place. The same was listed by more than one-half the sharecroppers and a third of the laborers.

Negro made up a large portion of these farm workers. During the 1920’s, the white rural population of the Bootheel increased by 3,183 compared to the Negro population increase to 15,267, two-thirds of these moved into the rural areas of the seven Delta counties, mainly Dunklin, Pemiscot, and New Madrid

In the distribution of Negro in the different groups there is significant disparity in the farm occupancy groups. Blacks were determinedly concentrated as day laborers and sharecroppers with fewer among the renters. While croppers and day workers furnished nothings but their labor, renters normally furnished their own working stock, food, and working capital.

As the Bootheel moved into tenancy, a class of merchants who benefited increased as the credit institutions grew. With the growing emphasis on growing cotton expanded, a system of cotton buyers developed. They purchased nothing but cotton and financed only cotton growers.  Local merchants became the center of the cotton trade through the crop lien (the legal right to keep or sell somebody else’s property as security for a debt). As furnish merchant for tenants and sharecroppers, they assumed great economic power as well as risk. As banks formed in smaller towns, merchants sat on the boards of directors. Thus, crop liens allowed them to merge to functions of landlord, merchant, and banker.

 The cropper had “furnish”. That is the landlord supplied him subsistence against the crop. This survival was controlled by the overseer. Most of the plantation had a commissary the copper was required to shop at. Prices and interest was high as the landlord was usually living off loaned money also. Often, the cropper was given tokens good only at the landlord’s store never seeing money. Thus, he lived from harvest to harvest. As the landlord keep the only set of books and also sold the cropper’s crop, seldom was the cropper able to pay out of debt at year’s end.

At the bottom of the economic chain was the day laborer. His income was totally from the days he worked. Farm work being seasonal, he worked about one-third of the year, 120 days.

In Dunklin, New Madrid and Pemiscot counties, there was a survey in 1935 of 1,433 households covering 1,097 farm families by the United States Census of Agriculture. There were 298 white renters compared to 15 black; 181 croppers were white and 56 were black; while 285 laborers were Negros with only 79 whites depended on day labor. Of the total of head of households working the land, eight percent were renters while 30 percent of the whites rented the land they worked. Whites owning small holding numbered 145 with only 38 black farmers owning their own land.

For both blacks and whites, during the depressing, living condition were deplorable in the Bootheel for sharecropper and farm workers alike. A 1938 survey of the area by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) gives a picture on how most of the people lived. It concluded that the area could best be described as a paradox of rich land and poor people. The idea that a rich agricultural land will always support healthy, happy farm people that are secure and enjoying the benefits of a rich life was shown to be just that, a fairy tale.

Since low income groups seemed to be at a marked disadvantage in housing, education, and rights before the law; look at the annual income of the depressions Bootheel farm workers. The FSA surveyor discovered white renters 1936 average gross income was $845 for white sharecropper, $264 for white laborers and for all tenure of blacks was $215.

This was not the real income for the sharecropper. It was far less as he had to repay the landlord for the “furnish” supplied him between March and January, plus interest along with the cost of ginning his cotton. As the landholder kept the books, the amount of interest paid for “furnish” in the South was traditionally 10 percent or more even up to 35 or 40 percent. Bank interest at the time ran around seven percent. Few questions were asked the landlord about the interest rate, bookkeeping, or about the price the crop brought For the most part, the tenants were uneducated, in the case of blacks, they were too fearful to question a white man who was in charge; (A hold over from slave days.)  At settling up time, the cropper was lucky to break even.

A vast majority for the people in Southeast Missouri lived a miserable existence during the Great Depression. By far, most had little hope of changing the condition they were forced to live under. Circumstances brought on by low income, desolate housing, poor diet, and a constant disease, and the unconcerned overlord.

On March 4, 1933, Franklin Roosevelt assumed the presidency and assumed the responsibility for ending the depression which was four years old. Cotton farmers in Missouri beset by the post-World War One slump in natural disasters and falling prices. The turning point was 1929 when things started getting worse as cotton prices plunge from 18 cents a pound in April 1929 to 6.1 cents per pound in 1932.

Continued production of cotton, with a drastic drop in domestic and foreign consumption meant a continuing stock-pile of fiber in warehouses kept driving cotton prices down. As 1933 wore on the situation looked even worse. All evidence promised a bumper crop which would deflate the price even lower.

In September of 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration issued a cotton acreage control program. The cotton market that year had a surplus of 12.5 million bales. So it was decided to limit the amount of cotton grown. Speculators, encouraged by Roosevelt’s promise to reduce acreage, were buying the surplus cotton. In March cotton prices rose from six cents a pound to eight cents per pound by May.

More than 40 million acres of cotton was planted by U. S. growers as the price rose. This production would flood the world market and drop the market price well below production cost. In order to control these crop surpluses, the administrations’ farm bill allowed the federal government to pay farmers to withhold land from production. This was the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) in May. To oversee the program was the newly formed Agricultural Adjustment Administration.

In 1933, by the time the plan was formatted and put into effect, most of the year’s cotton crop was planted and growing. The AAA planned to plow up 10 million acres across the South. Farmers were offered contracts to plow up 25 to 50 percent of their cotton acreage. For doing this they would be compensated a cash payment of seven to twenty dollars an acre; depending on expected yield.

Another option was to participate in the “cotton option” program. For each acre plowed up, the grower could receive a cash payment for six to twenty dollars an acre. He would then be able to buy an amount of surplus government cotton, equal to the amount destroyed at six cents per pound. If the market price rose higher, the difference would be the growers to sell at market price.

The word went out that every third row of cotton, almost mature, was to be plowed up. This order was met with confusion and anger. To destroy a crop almost ready to harvest met lots of opposition. Yet, the AAA signed up more than one million farmers who plowed up 10.5 million acres. This reduced the harvest from an estimated 17 million bales to 13 million.

With the four cents a pound increase in cotton prices between 1932and 1933, an estimated $114 million was added to the cash value of the 1933 cotton crop. Added to this was $112 million in cash payment to growers taking part in the “plow-up” program, with the option on government cotton adding another $48 million. However, this wealth was not distributed among the cotton growers equality. The lion’s share of the AAA payments went to the land owing planters and farmers with the renters and croppers receiving only the leftovers which was little.

As was the common practice, only the landlords signed the 1933 plow-up contracts. Government officials at the AAA expected the plow-up payments to be divided with their tenants according to the interest each renter and cropper had in the crop. The government wanted a sharecropper to receive half a share renter two-third or three-fourth of the plow-up payment. Some of the landlords did as expected and divided the money. Most of the landlords used their tenants’ share of the government payments to pay off the tenants’ old, often questionable, debts, thus keeping the money. Some unprincipled planters even claimed no tenants occupied their farms and kept all the money.

Tenants were treated worse under the AAA cotton-control program of 1934-1935. This program was prearranged to favor the landowning cotton growers. Each participating landlord received an acreage allotment of 40 percent of their cotton production based on an average of 1928 to 1932.

 For taking part in this program and removing 60 percent of their land from cotton production, they received 3.5 cents per pound for previous acreage yields on areas removed from production as well as parity payments of 1 cent for each pound formerly grown. Rental payments went to the landlords; he had to offer half of the share to renters but none to the sharecropper. Cropper could, at best, hope for was half of the parity payment or half-a-penny per pound on cotton formerly grown.

According to the 1934-1935 law, AAA contracts were supposed to protect the rights of tenants. Croppers had little protection and offered little money. According to Section VII, landlords had to maintain the usual Number of tenants on their land. These tenants were supposed to live there rent free in their houses for two years. Despite that section of the contract, many landlords were tempted to evict part of their tenant as 40 percent of their cotton land lay idle. In spite of the contact they signed, many landlords, during 1934, disposed of surplus tenant families.

Not only did they evict tenant in violation the AAA contract Section VII but also ignored Section X that required landlord to share parity payment with tenants and rental payment with share renters. To get around the contract requirement, some landlords demoted share renters to sharecropper and sharecroppers became day labors, thus, they could collect all the parity payments.

Other landlords simply kept the tenant’s part of the government payments, or applied the amount against debt they claim owned them. Not all landowners behaved in this manner. Evidence suggest that landlords, more often than not, withheld money due the workers in their field if they did not cheat them outright.

With over one million cotton-control contract to process during 1934 and 1935, it was easy for the landlords to ignore and violate the law. After all, it was only good business to do so.

    Having grown up on Little River, I have been fascinated with it. Over the past several years, as a local historian, this area has been a special interest. 

     These areas have been treated much like step-children by Jefferson City and Little Rock. They seem to believe nothing has ever happened here.  Our history has been long and varied. Hope you enjoy my trip.  

    Near Puxico is the swampy Mingo Wildlife Refuge. One hundred and fifty year ago, most of the Little River Valley appeared that way. This valley covering two million acres was part of the largest wetland in America.

    Floods frequently intimated the Valley. Between 1815 and 2011, 15 major floods covered or threatened the area.

    Timber companies came in at the end of the 19th Century to clean cut the forest. Louis Houck, a Cape Girardeau lawyer and railroad builder, envisioned a rail network that covered the wetlands.

    Little River Drainage District (LRDD) Corporation was established in 1907 by an act of the Butler County (MO) Circuit Court. 

    Between 1909 and 1928 the LRDD dug nearly 1000 miles of ditches and constructed 30 miles of levees to drain 1.2 million acres of swamp and overflow land in Southeast Missouri. More dirt was moved than in building the Panama Canal.

    One surprise I had was the number of settlements in the area before 1811-1812. Another was the water connection between the Mississippi River and the St. Francis and I had no idea that Little River had enough current to run a grist mill.

    Norman Vickers


    January 2015
    November 2014
    October 2014
    April 2014
    March 2014
    January 2014
    December 2013
    November 2013
    October 2013
    September 2013
    August 2013
    July 2013
    June 2013
    May 2013




    Little River's Geographic Past