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.