In the foreword to his book Cotton, Harris Barnes wrote about growing up in the Mississippi Delta. Barnes graduated from what's now Mississippi State University in 1941, served in the Marine Corps during World War II, then went to work as a farm manager in Sherard, Miss. In 1957, he moved to King & Anderson/Oakhurst Co., where he was the general manager of a 12,000-acre plantation. Barnes was president of the American Soybean Association and in 1967 was Progressive Farmer's Man of the Year in Service to Southern Agriculture.
"In 1946, very little had changed during my wartime absence," Barnes wrote. "Tenant families were still chopping and picking their 5- to 10-acre crops. A happy marriage of mules, double shovels, International F-20s and John Deere A's was still the cultural norm. Available insecticides, for the most part, only fattened boll weevils and nurtured bollworms and bud worms. Herbicide for cotton? Forget it. That was a dream yet to come true.
"Tenant families still shook out their pick sacks, seven or nine feet in length, into their cotton pens. When a family had picked enough seed cotton--about 1,300 pounds to gin out a 500-pound bale--they raised a flag, and the day crop folks would pull up to the shed in a wagon or trailer that held one or two bales to 'load it out' with a woven white oak basket. Our two-stand plantation gin could process two bales per hour. On a really good day, we could tie out 25 bales in a single workday."
Most of the old sharecropper shacks and plantation stores in the Delta areas of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi are gone. The one reminder of that era? Abandoned gins. During the four years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority, I was intrigued by the gins I would see while driving throughout the region.
In Fayetteville, far from the Delta, a retired geographer and cartographer named Andy Feinstein also is intrigued by abandoned gins.
"I've undertaken a project to photographically document the abandoned cotton gins in Arkansas," he says. "The operating ones are interesting, but my focus has been on those now rusting away or repurposed by more recent tenants. Via Google Maps and Google Earth, I was able to locate about 75 gins in the Delta. I loaded up my camping trailer and spent a week in February in that area taking pictures of as many as I could. In three or four days of shooting, I found about 45, including that one way down at the end of the road in the community of Snow Lake that you wrote about. I hope to go back and shoot another 35 or so on the north side of Interstate 40 when conditions allow.
"I would like to flesh out the visuals with oral histories of folks who knew these gins when they were operating. I understand the issue of the advanced age these folks might be for firsthand accounts, but even secondhand accounts, if valid, could be valuable to the effort. I hope to show that these industrial artifacts are symbols of a way of life and socioeconomic system that's not so long gone. I would like to elaborate on the personal side of what these relics represent."
In his biography on the website of the Arkansas Arts Council, Feinstein explains that his involvement in the natural world is "critical to my well-being. The desire to express this relationship with nature to others has led me to the camera. I attribute much of my interest in art and botany to my mother, a prolific gardener who took me for frequent visits as a child to the flower shows at the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh. Attending high school in Belgium afforded me an early exposure to and appreciation of Old World art, particularly the Dutch still life. Now retired, I find more time to spend in the natural world."
There once were hundreds of gins in the Arkansas Delta. They had to be close enough for sharecroppers and tenant farmers to deliver the picked cotton in wagons. In her book Wandering Dixie, Sue Eisenfeld wrote: "Tenant farming and sharecropping weren't great for them, but the work was often all freed slaves had. After the Civil War, many white farmers and former planters were in debt and too poor to pay workers; former slaves didn't own any land, still lived in slave quarters and needed work. The two groups worked out an arrangement: On small plots of whites' land that owners mortgaged for supplies, black farmers did the work of the land.
"Tenant farmers, allowed to farm the land however they wished with their own mules and equipment, paid the landowner rent for the land and house from the sales of their crops. Sharecroppers rented the land and house but also all the animals, equipment and everything else they needed to farm crops of the landowner's choosing and were paid with a share of the crop. Tenant farmers and sharecroppers ran 87 percent of farms in the Delta by 1910."
Eisenfeld noted that the mechanization of Southern agriculture "provided only good news for planters and only bad news for tenant farmers and sharecroppers. The tenant farmers and sharecroppers ... now faced reduced demand for their labor, backbreaking work that they hated but needed. The factors contributed to the Great Migration between 1910 and 1970, when 6 million Southern black people moved north, where labor was needed, to find a better life."
There were also thousands of poor whites who were sharecroppers and tenant farmers in Arkansas. Now, there's a photographer in Fayetteville who wants to hear the story of both blacks and whites, along with the stories of those who ran and worked in the cotton gins that were once common here.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 05/30/2020