We Was All Poor Then: The Sub-Economy of a Farming Community 1900-1926

Black and white photo of deteriorating wooden building

David Jenkins

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 2 No. 2/3, "Our Promised Land." Find more from that issue here.

Land in Independence County, Arkansas, was attractive to the perenially displaced poor of the rural South. It was cheap land and its location not too far west of the Misissippi offered the natural advantages of river transportation. Poor whites pioneered this north central part of Arkansas from the early 1820's until the early years of this century. During the Civil War, settlement increased considerably as people entrapped by the fierce fighting to the east and south sought refuge in the wilderness of the Arkansas backlands.

These nineteenth century farmers generally labored alone with their families, cleared small parcels of land for a cash crop, and ate what they could catch, raise, and grow. Luther Milton, whose father came to Independence County a few years after the Civil War, recalled how farmers reproduced their life in the bottoms, where he was born ninety-one years ago.

Did most of the people back in those days, say 1906 and 1907, make a living farming, or did they work in the timber, or how did they make a living?

They made a livin' by raisin' garden stuff n killin' rabbits. They eatin' possums. Did you ever eat a possum?

Uh, no, don't believe I ever did.

We. . . as far as I know . . . I've heard of it. . .but as far as I know we never et a rattlesnake. But I suppose they're good.

I've heard people say so . . .

I never did either, but I never know'd none of them old people eatin’ a rattlesnake. But I suppose they're good to eat, cuz we ate everythin' else here. . . . 

Well, were there any of these big saw mills going back long 1905, '06?

When we first come here, no. They cutdown these little ol' trees 'n there wasn't a stick of lumber 'n none of the log fences ya had. I was born in a little ol' log pen.

The working life on small Independence County farms required creativity and continuous hard work. Attaining even the simplest comforts involved time-consuming labor from all members of the family. A pattern of self-sufficiency quickly emerged and was broken only occasionally, as when a farmer would travel to the nearest store for coffee and sugar.

Some of the poorest among them, recalled Albert Wilson, former miner and farmer, substituted sorghum molasses for the sugar and parched corn for coffee. Besides the money obtained from growing a few acres of cotton and raising some livestock, very little cash was seen by these farmers in the early years of this century.

The following article highlights a number of the features of the sub-economy which united these self-sufficient farms. Derived from lengthy interviews with people whose families have tilled the soil for generations, it focuses first on the relationship of farmers to landlords, and then on the early introduction of outside banking and government. 



By 1910, 3,683 farms in Independence County covered 224,121 acres, of which, 92,280 were improved farmland for an average of twenty-three improved acres per farm. Half of these farms were farmed by share or cash tenancy, either by individual farmers or by tenants and property owners together. The county, in 1910, had a total population of 24,776 persons, of which, 17,114 or 69 per cent, inhabited farms. A significant number of the remaining male population probably worked in related enterprises such as ginning, farm supply, and marketing. Although Batesville was a major marketing center for northern Arkansas and contained several small companies, agrarian enterprise dominated activity in the county.

Three types of farming arrangements prevailed in the early 1900's, all carried over from older arrangements that existed in ante-bellum years. Tenant farming involved a man who would supply his own machinery, seed, and general equipment and would rent a parcel of another man's land for either cash or share rent. Under a second type, sharecropping, the individual would supply only his labor and would receive a smaller portion of the harvest. However, sharecropping appeared more commonly in the black plantation areas to the east and southeast than in predominantly white Independence County. The third form was individual family farming: a man owned his own property and supplied his own labor and materials. Structurally, this latter type of farming, involving roughly half of all Independence County farmers, differed from tenant arrangements; yet the following pages illustrate that the arrangements were intimately tied to each other. Tenancy did not withdraw incentive to improve physical plants and production, and often, as agreements between poor farmers, it cooperatized farming of cotton and stimulated localized services.

Although large landholdings were few in number in these early years, they represented one form of landlord-tenant relations. Colonel V.Y. Cook, Civil War and Spanish-American War veteran, typified a landlord considerably more wealthy than his tenants. He owned 6,337 acres of bottom land around Oil Trough Bottoms, an area notable for large plantations. Colonel Cook's records show that between 1898 and 1922 thirty-five tenant farmers worked a "thriving business" on his land.

One such tenant farmer, O.C. Cook, now lives near the old site of Elmo, Arkansas. In an interview with Cook, AC. McGinnis, editor of the Independence County Chronicle, discussed the land as it was then:

O.C. Cook, who is no relation to Colonel Cook, began farming for himself in 1904, at the age of twenty-one. Describing the area at that time, he says that only about twenty-five per cent of the land had been cleared for farming. The remainder of the land was forest of huge white and red oak trees with dense canebrakes along the river and scattered here and there among the big trees. A characteristic of the virgin forest was that there was no underbrush; a man could ride horseback through the trees without difficulty.*

Before he could even begin to farm the land, O.C. Cook had to cut the logs and, using five mules, haul them out of the bottoms over rough country with no roads. O.C. Cook's original agreement with the Colonel called for payment of a one-fourth share rent. He made his first crop of six bales of cotton in 1904 on five acres of cleared land. In 1905, he continued this arrangement with the Colonel (who then lived in Oil Trough) and farmed forty-five acres of land. The soil was rich, and he made enough that year to buy a Studebaker wagon for $45, a one-row cultivator, a breaking plow, a one-row planter and a Georgia Tooth, all tools necessary for making a crop. When harvest time came along he had enough cash to hire the children of neighbors for thirty-five cents a day to chop cotton. All in all, he was on his way to becoming a successful farmer.

Colonel Cook remained in the bottoms until 1908, when he moved to Batesville, the only sizable town in the county. McGinnis said the decision for this move probably came with the "increasing use of automobiles which made it possible for him to travel between Oil Trough and Batesville, at least in good weather." And, O.C. Cook remembered the "Colonel coming to the farm in his Maxwell, driven by a chauffeur."

Once established in Batesville, the Colonel delegated the administration of the land to a third party, the Pelley Brothers, Asa and Erwin, of nearby Dunnington. The new arrangement called for the Pelley Brothers to operate Colonel Cook's gin, rent out his land, and pay Cook $4 for each acre rented. They in turn charged tenants at the "usual one-fourth of the cotton and one-third of the corn and other crops," thus freeing the Colonel from any direct administration of his property in Oil Trough Bottoms.

Cook's formalized relations with his tenants, administrators and ginners, emerged in the form of written contracts. "Colonel Cook always did business by the pencil," O.C. Cook recalled, "and he never took your word for anything and never expected you to take his." It is not known if he used written contracts before his move to Batesville, but with his move he had access to lawyers and legal

authority. He contracted the Pelley Brothers to administer his affairs in the "Bottoms" until 1917, when he once again resumed direct control over his property. Remaining in Batesville, Colonel Cook, a very wealthy man, engaged in banking and other enterprises until his death in 1922.

Normally, landlords did not charge tenants rent for houses they might occupy on the farmer's land. But a typical contract used by Colonel Cook in 1915 (see box) shows he received five dollars per acre for all uncultivated land where dwellings and barns stood. The contract required the farmer to take all crops to Cook's gin, and assume all responsibility for damage to buildings on rented property. After delivering the crops to the gin, the tenant must "deposit in such bank or trust company as they (trustees) may designate the full amount of the proceeds or receipts on all crops sold." From this clause it can be assumed that Cook reviewed, from a distance, all income, and then paid the farmer. O.C. Cook said he complied with the requirement to take his cotton only to "the gin of V.Y. Cook," and paid five dollars per bale for ginning or one-twelfth a toll in lint. Since cash was scarce, customs allowed for a man to pay his debts with a toll or percentage of his procedure, which would eventually be turned into cash. What appears to be a reflection of Colonel Cook's practicality in covering his interests with a legal contract is more a reflection on his distrust for the people who had been working for his interests for fifteen years or more.

In a separate contract Colonel Cook required that his ginners "keep sharp watch and advise said Cook promptly of any of the tenants on his land not bringing his or their cotton to their said gin at Oil Trough to be ginned." In other words, he appointed his ginners as spies, and held them responsible for every bale of cotton farmed on his 6,000-plus acres. If his ginners failed to look after his interests, that is, if he discovered that cotton from his property found its way to another gin, they were to nevertheless pay Cook the one dollar per bale due him out of their own pockets and collect it from his tenants if they desired to make up their own losses. The ginners were to report by mail every day all the transactions of that day.

Although Colonel Cook's departure from the Oil Trough Bottoms in 1908 signified the weakening of personal feudal bonds with O.C. Cook and other tenants, he still retained some degree of paternal authority over them. In August, 1915, the White River flooded and left the bottom land farmers no time to replant. As a result, unless tenants could come up with cash (since they had no crops and were liable for damages), they faced violation of the contract between themselves and Colonel Cook. However, Colonel Cook absorbed the loss and paid tenants for the little they could grow. There was little else he could do in these extreme circumstances. His tenants already faced destitution, and his administrators had gone bankrupt. As old-timer Paul Goodwin said, good tenant farmers were hard to find, and Cook probably did not wish to lose their services.

Another of the Colonel's paternal gestures concerned the construction of a church at Elmo, a few years prior to 1920. O.C. Cook believed it was Colonel Cook's idea to build the non-denominational church for his tenants. Although Colonel Cook did not attend this church, his position as an educated banker and one of the largest landholders in the "Bottoms,” allowed him to assume responsibility for financing the new building. He accomplished this by charging each one of his tenants a twenty-five cents "tithe" per acre of crop land rented from him. Country churches outside of Batesville were usually built and financed directly by local farmers and laborers, rather than by Cook's unusual method of raising money to hire a contractor. Cash was so scarce that the imposition of a tax would have met with at least some resistance — unless someone was in the position to coerce people to contribute. Colonel V.Y. Cook had such power. The money was collected, the church built, and if there were any objections to the manner in which he financed it, they are not known.



Landholdings the size of V.Y. Cook's were few in number in Independence County. The Colonel's relations with his tenants were more formal than those between small farmers and their tenants, but at least Cook did not involve himself in the vicious peonage through debt-credit that permeated the eastern counties. While the relationship between Colonel Cook and his tenants was basically one of a petty bourgeois landlord and peasant farmers, the tenants was characterized by personal agreements and marked by one or both being free to expand the farming interests and extended services to the local economy.

Once cotton left the hands of the small farmer, his contact with the external capitalist markets ended. The farmer received the price offered to him for his cotton, and that price was low, depressed by many middle men taking profits, including the railroads which amassed wealth on the farmers' sweat. For small farmers who lacked the capital to invest in more advanced farm implements, cotton farming remained labor intensive, with a strong reliance on the extended family and local labor during planting and harvesting seasons.

John Ellis recalls that tenant farming was usually done by the poorer people. "No matter how poor yer was," he said, "they was always people that was poor." He recalls that often a sharecropper might be kinfolk, perhaps a son just starting off on his own. Neil Northcutt said that sharecropping arrangements were always welcome unless a farmer had a large family who could assist him. Sometimes these small farms resembled communal farms, with several families of kinfolk working one farm and living in separate dwellings. There was plenty of labor to work the fields and informal agreements in the splitting of the proceeds. Although these arrangements continually dissolved, kin usually stayed close by, extending cooperative activities beyond the structural limits of one farm. Several of the older people interviewed were related to each other through blood or marriage, and indicated they had lived with one or more of the others on the same farm when younger.

Rural communities actually grew in this manner, and, at the same time, widened the boundaries of local economy. Personal ties expanded and encouraged farmers to engage in services outside the subsistance farm. The cash crop, cotton, was important in that it circulated cash within the local economy, alongside traded items. It also served to add new commodities to the countryside experience. But at this time, cash was scarce, and a farmer could not depend on it for what he needed; other forms of value exchange developed. For example, sharecropping or paying rent and debts with a share of one's crop rather than cash accounted for over a thousand farm operations in the county in 1910. Although it was not always a permanent arrangement, the narratives attest that it was a beneficial arrangement in that it lessened the concentration on cotton growing and allowed for expansion of services. These relations offered a flexibility for both the farmer and the share tenant. Unlike relations with absentee landlords, such as Colonel Cook, the arrangements remained personal and stimulated the local economy.

One such small farmer who extended his interests with the help of a sharecropper was Hugh Moore's father. The elder Moore owned 157 ½ acres of land in the early years of this century — starting off very small and accumulating first "ten and then 7 ½ and then 40 and then 20 acres that happened to be joined." Compared to his neighbors, Hugh Moore's father was quite successful:

He usually would have someone working with him or for him (a sharecropper). He spent most of his time — except when a harvesting the crops — buying cattle, horses, or trading, and he would have someone hired or in the hills. We had a man live who made what we call a sharecrop with us. And we would furnish the seed and fertilizer and the team and the machinery and everything else, and had a man who was an old bachelor and four sisters, and they would work the crop, and we'd split the proceeds. Pop would get up at four o'clock in the morning, and he'd get in usually in the summertime after dark.

By having a sharecrop tenant "working for or with him," Hugh Moore's father freed himself to expand into cattle and stallion breeding and trading with his neighbors, without sacrificing the cash income gained from a cotton crop. This local enterprise is very important in that it served to perpetuate a partially insulated economy, one not dependent on ser  vices or commodities produced outside the area of comfortable movement. Of all that the Moore farm produced — cotton, corn, wheat, cattle, horses, mules and hogs — only the cotton was destined for markets outside the rural countryside.

With the expansion of interests, Hugh said that his father learned related skills which he offered as services.

My father was also a veterinarian on his own. He would castrate cattle for himself, mules and hogs for other people. We would go around in communities around Oil Trough, Magness and Rosie, neighbors go in together and bring ten or twelve mule colts there together and we would castrate them.

Would you say that other farmers had different skills other people in the county needed?

Yes, that was quite common. There were some who could do things better than others and would go around sellin' these skills.

John Ellis' and Hugh Moore's fathers both shod horses for a little extra money. John Ellis said that cotton was still the major source of cash, with other interests, mostly involving tolls, small cash transfers, and trading.

John Thompson, age ninety, remembered that his father owned a scarce farm implement, a wheat thresher. Owning such a piece of machinery was considered a very valuable asset, and customary tolls rather than cash were charged by the owner for the service.

My dad get a thresher called a "Ground hog" and they'd thresh the wheat, round the neighbors and they'd run it through that cylinder and knock the wheat out and they'd rake a straw up and then they'd put that chaff of wheat in a pad, they call it, and they'd turn that by hand, pan that chaff out. Finally they got it separated and go all over the country you know, my brother went with it, my dad never did go with it. But anyway he’d go and they'd take so much toll, so much out of each bushel. After it was over with he'd take the wagon and he had a certain place to go and the other fellas, four of them they had a certain place they go and pick this toll up and bring it in and they haul it to Batesville and sell. 'Stead of takin' cash, people didn't have cash then, they couldn' pay for it, havin' it threshed. They'd take so much, like ginnin' cotton. They'd take so many pounds of cotton out of a thousand pounds, you see. . . . Whoever had their wheat threshed, say, fed the threshing crew. Some of them'd be close enough to come to go back, stay all night. Most of 'em whoever had their wheat threshed why fed the crews, and they'd sleep on the floor on the porch, lots of times in the halls of these old double logged houses.

John Ellis remembered bailing crews who would also travel to farms, "set overnight," and do the hay bailing for one-seventh toll payment. "We visited people we wouldn't see very often," said John Thompson, recalling the circuits they would travel as an important social event where men could be together a day or two to talk and generally renew acquaintances.

Hugh Moore recalled that other people sold their surplus. They would circulate throughout the area offering grain, fruit or beef. Moore could not recall exactly if anyone had a personal monopoly on any service or product, but he assumed that "to be the way they operated." For example, a wheat thresher was a considerable investment for a poor farmer, so other farmers would rely on the few men who had threshers for service. Since tolls were generally uniform, and several wheat threshers were not needed in any one area, competition was discouraged in favor of expansion into other services.

Some of the poorest of the hill farmers, Albert Wilson remembered, were tied to their farms in the growing seasons, but worked in the mines during the winter to gain a little cash. "You worked hard all year," said Wilson. "Of course, in the winter time you cut a little wood and hauled and sold that. I've sold lots of chicken pens and grapes, catch old possums and sell their hides for a nickel and a dime." Cows provided another important source of extra income for farm families, for milk consistently remained a cash commodity throughout this period. A poem in the Batesville Daily Guard (October 16, 1923) exaggerates the probable monetary return from a few cows, but nonetheless reflects both the activity of local peasant economy and the growing dependency on banks for credit. Entitled "A Farm Wife's Ode to the Cream Can," one passage reads:

And when another baby comes.

We add another cow.

And look around and trade a bit,

Annex another sow.

And another passage reads:

With coats of fine silk

The proceeds from the stock and crop

Go into the bank,

The cream can has paid all our bills.

We have the can to thank.

Trading certainly dominated relations in an economy with a scarcity of cash and limited contact with the markets. Many farmers said that there were years during the first quarter of the century when they received as little as five cents per pound for their cotton. An average farmer might do ten bales per year and make less than $200. When he finished paying off debts and purchased supplies for the coming year, there was little need for a bank. If a farmer lived near Batesville, perhaps in Desha, Moorefield or Sulphur Rock, his contact with merchants and bankers was generally more frequent than if he lived in the "Bottoms." People in the countryside, ten or twelve miles from Batesville, kept their cash very close to their persons; the money was of no use to them in Batesville banks when purchases and debts were locally incurred.

"What I remember about tradin' with neighbors," said Neil Northcutt, "was that when you had somethin', yeh offered it to them first, before yeh sold it, if yeh could." Traveling was so difficult that if a farmer could not trade with neighbors, he became isolated. Trading, hunting, church-going and visiting served as the only social life a farmer and his family had. In retrospect, one can imagine the fear and anxiety countryside communities felt during the Civil War when their entire world of balanced personal services and relations was threatened or destroyed.



Survival for small farms frequently depended on securing readily available cash from local money lenders. Cash transactions existed alongside common barter and were most important in purchasing fertilizer and machinery for cotton farming. Specific people throughout the countryside offered loans to farmers who needed perhaps ten or fifteen dollars to buy supplies for a cotton crop. These local money lenders were usually farmers themselves, but they had managed through frugality to put a bit of money aside.

A system of informal countryside banking emerged from this accumulation of capital. Instead of traveling inconvenient miles to Batesville for a more complicated intimidating transaction, farmers could go to known lenders for money. Paul Goodwin recalled that he never had enough money to put into a bank and that banks were distrusted by poor farmers, especially since they inflicted such harsh penalties for payment defaults.

Did people hesitate going to banks when they needed cash?

Back then, oh yea, man kep his money close. Sometimes I 'member when a bank would take away a man's land for not payin' 'em back on time, you see. You know, sometimes a bank would get a man to take out too much money, credit you see, and that man couldn't pay it back.

While Paul Goodwin said that banks were generally distrusted, they were not exclusively used by the wealthier farmers. John Thompson, whose father was a poor farmer, said that in the spring, "Dad wouldn't have enough money to pay our taxes," so he would go to Batesville to borrow cash.

He'd go in to several places, take me along, and went into the First National Bank, and he told John Q. Wolfe, who used to be the cashier at the bank, and Nathan Adler used to be President of the bank. An John comes in there and wants some money, picks out a note and signs my name to it. We'd borrow ten or twelve, fifteen dollars, and then we'd that Fall, we'd sell a bale a cotton or two, and he'd go in and pay it off. He'd float it from one bank to another. He went to' school seven days in his life, my father, and he made it to higher arithmetic.

John Thompson recalled that "We wasn't afraid to go to the bank, 'cause Nathan Adler was a friend and I used to work for him." But Thompson admitted that most people he knew had a distrust of banks and would go to local money lenders instead.

Yes, banks charged high interest if they thought you could not pay it back on time. It wasn't equal, and people didn't like that.

Another reason for the slow recognition of banks was the well-established personal relations between small farmers and local money lenders. These relations were characterized by flexible, but not always uniform, arrangements. One money lender might ask for a note, the other nothing. Unlike the banks, these local money lenders would give a farmer as much time as he needed to pay back the loan.

Owens Fetzer had an uncle who loaned out money, and who safeguarded his loan by securing a deed of mortgage from a justice of the peace.

Do you remember any of the local money lenders?

Yea. Well, one I remember very well was my uncle. He lived down there. James Hale. His people was from Alabama . And he worked hard and saved, and he saved, and he saved, and he got some money. He had a bankroll. He kept it at home and a man only needed $25 then, $30 would help him make a crop. Well, he'd come there and borrow that money from my uncle, and he'd fix up the mortgage, go and have it recorded, deed of trust. And that man'd come back, with interest, of course, and pay him.

What is a deed of mortgage?

Well, he would come to him and tell him, "I'll pay you a small amount of it, but I failed,” and my uncle would let the other go with interest. Once in a great while I known him to loan some dishonest men, but when he got through with them, that was all. They would not get any more from anyone.

Fetzer was sure that most of the local money lenders were not as cautious and demanding as his uncle, and he insisted that people would loan money because, "When a man told you a thing, you could depend on that." John Thompson recalled the flexibility of monetary transactions.

Well, they'd loan it out, $25 for so long. Take out $25 and hand it to him, no note. He'd go on and, well, time would come due and he'd go to him and pay part of it and say, "I haven't got the rest, but I'll pay it back as I can get it."

If you were tight one year you could go to Luther Milton, John Coles or Ewell Churchill's father, to whom your "word was your note."

When I asked Luther Milton, who has outlived his debtors, if money lenders received interest, he laughingly replied, "Well, yea, you got interest, sometimes yea." The fact is that Luther and the other informal bankers received a usurious ten per cent interest.** Victoria Forrester recalled a money lender from Cord.

Well, yes, you could borrow money from Ewell Churchill's father (a store owner in Cord). This son-and-law of mine say that you go to him and say, "Mr. Dave, I need so and so." He'd go get it, but okay, you knowed you gonna pay it back. So you'd pay it back with ten per cent interest. I am sure there was many more who operated. . . .



This informal system of banking helped retard bank accumulation in these early years of the century. By 1900, Batesville was a marketing center for north Arkansas, but the small farming economy continued to thrive in the countryside. The introduction of automobiles and roads slowly brought farmers into town and introduced more commodities into countryside life. When asked why roads were not built before the 1920's, Neil Northcutt replied, "We could get around to where we wanted to go." Luther Milton recalled the first time he ever came into contact with government in the "Bottoms” — when they came to conscript local men to build roads.

Were the roads dug here, in pretty bad condition? When did they first make a good road out here?

A good road! A good road! A few days ago! From Batesville to Cord was a mudhole, and now sometimes now they worked three days out of the year, when I was twenty-one, worked three days out of the year.

You mean everybody twenty-one years old and older was required to work the roads?

Buster Milton, Luther's son: — Yea, he cut some grass and put in them holes. They didn't all work. 

You being a good citizen, you worked the roads?

Luther: — I get out of it if I could, if I couldn't, I worked it.

Remember," said Luther Milton, "when they chased these young fellers all over the county to do the roads."

The state and federal governments were making more frequent contacts with rural farmers in the early years of this century. Clearly, their objectives were to stimulate rural production and bring the farmer out of his insulated community. Small farmers consistently opposed interference in rural Independence County; and their resistance often erupted into violence. Such was the response to the enforcement of federal cattle dipping and stock laws. In order to rid cattle of fever carrying ticks, farmers were required, by law, to drive their cattle to the dipping vats. With the scarcity of roads, this was a considerable inconvenience to many farmers. To compound the farmer's reluctance, vat solutions were sometimes too strong and cattle died. Owens and Lola Fetzer recalled the importance of cattle to farmers and the farmers' anger at interference with their source of livelihood:

Owens Fetzer: — The fever tick killed our cattle here, and they started dippin' long around 191 5. Well, they dipped those cattle in this solution, and some of it, they got it too strong and they killed some cattle. Well, that created lots of trouble around here. They felt that they was killin' their cattle and they objected. But it was a mistake; the government didn't.

Lola Fetzer: — People depended on their cows for milk and butter, you know.

Owens Fetzer: — And there was quite a opposition to it. However, you see, we was under federal quarantine. We couldn't ship cattle to St. Louis or anyplace, only after November.

The enactment of stock laws also brought quick and violent reaction from countryside farmers. The laws insisted that farmers fence in their cattle, in a move to protect crops and gardens from the trampling of hungry animals. Fencing in cattle was time consuming and expensive; moreover, if a farmer did not have a stream or pond on his property, where would his cattle get water unless he terraced his farm and dug a pond?

Lola Fetzer: — Another thin' that brought on trouble was the stock laws. When, a long time after we moved here, our cows run outside and maybe they'd come up in the evenin' and maybe they wouldn't. But, then they had the stock law, and we thought that that was just terrible. You had to keep your stock up and feed them, once you fenced them in.

How did people protest against the cattle dipping and stock laws?

Lola Fetzer: — They had their little farms fenced in. They didn't cultivate all the land.

Owens Fetzer: — A man killed another south of Batesville once.

Lola Fetzer: — What they did cultivate, they had to fence in.

Owens Fetzer: — This dippin', they killed a man up there. He's a government. Shot him. Because they felt like people, you see, when they get in their minds that you're imposing on them, naturally they get desperate. And they couldn't see it any other way. I can't recall exactly when they started this dippin'. But I do remember a man losing his life.

John Ellis said the "people didn't want nobody tellin' them how to do their farmin', and the government was doin' so then." "I don't think they had anything against the government, but they didn't have much faith in politicians," recalled Owens Fetzer.

They thought they was bein' imposed on. And they didn't think about startin' a rebellion or anything like that, you know. But they said, “You're tryin' to run me over." Thought they was against them. It wasn't the government, but the government's agents. They thought it was the agents tryin' to go against them, not the government.

The occasional intrusion by the federal or state government appears to be the only conflict small farmers had with the "state.” There were local sheriffs and justices of the peace, and for serious crimes, penalties would be dealt out in Batesville courts. But the effect of state intrusion had not been felt consistently since the Civil War. Luther Milton said he had no use for politicans and had not voted since 1915, the year he assisted a local politician whose opponent bought the election. Luther recalled that the man elected was so corrupt that he stole all the money used to hold court. As a result, Luther said, "the moonshiners was sellin' to each other." Buster Milton remembered that most disputes between farmers were settled by the farmers themselves and that very often "they killed each other."

A.C. McGinnis: — You know, I was over here one time at where Mr. Fast used to live. I was out on his farm one day an he is tellin' me where a little house used to be down there, an he says there was a woman murdered down there. I was tellin' that to someone out here, and he said that Cord was a mean place then. The people didn't have any roads, they couldn't go anywhere, they didn't have anything to do; and he said they had lots of whiskey stills 'round here. Did you ever hear of anything like that?

Buster: — Yes sir, they killed each other all the time. There was no law around here then. I remember 'em tellin' about that woman bein' killed, right down there. Says he got her pregnant. He settled it thataway. No, there's no law around here then.

Luther: — Well sir, I want to tell yeh.. . .what did he say? Cord was a mean place?

Yes sir, just what he said.

Luther: — I don't know how mean it was, but there was a lots of fightin' and they kill one another. But now then I'll tell yeh that I do know that happened. The man that had this here store, had four mules and a good wagon and he'd go to Newport and he get a load of whiskey and he'd come back here with this whiskey, and it was agin the law to sell this whiskey fer him. Now here's the way he done it — he's pretty slick. You come here and bring me yer money, and I'll bring you the whiskey, and he'd put it down on this here piece of paper. And when he would come back, he would bring you that whiskey, whoever it was you know, and he'd get drunk. He'd git into it. Some of whuppin' whiskey. And that's what happened; not too many stills, but later, further on down the line, yes they got plenty of 'em. Moonshines. Back then you went to Newport and brought it up here. I'm gonna tell yeh what I seen, boys seen too. If probably he had a pint or a quart or whatever he had, he just drink it up. Sometimes he just lie down out there and just lay there. He couldn't get up or he couldn't fight nobody or nothin'. He just be drunk as $700. They killed one another, too.



Changes in personal relations came slowly to the Independence County countryside. While small industry flourished in Batesville during the first quarter of the century, relations in the rural areas remained tied to kinship, home production, and a cash and barter economy. This certainly was not a romantic life; disagreements very often ended in violence after a few bottles of corn liquor. Yet the farmers interviewed for this study looked back on their relations with friends and neighbors as having a very special quality, one no longer apparent. Some bemoaned the fact that mechanical farming depleted the area of neighbors. Mrs. Massey regretted that holiday traditions of the family have given way to the distance between members of her family. Owens Fetzer, who farmed around Newark and Cord his whole life, said;

When I moved, I don’t mean to discredit the country or anything. There was hardly nobody livin' here at all. And when a man told you a thing, you could depend on that. You differ from him politically or religiously, but his word was his bond. Sorry to say now, mister, that it's not thata way now.

Albert Wilson recalled the honesty of the people in the countryside:

In the community where I was raised, before John come, I was raised that you helped a man when he was tight. I went and helped a man's crop, and helped plow when he take down sick, after he get a crop started. You go down the road and lose somethin' off the wagon, and you got it back . . . you had it back in two days time. And don't care what you lose you don't get it back now. There were some who were more freer to help than others.

"Well, you know," said John Ellis, "we was all poor then, and we needed to do so much for ourselves to live. It was part of life to help your neighbors when they needed it." Owens Fetzer noted, "You're on your own now, but of course there's a higher standard of living now." "There's reason to be bitter about the present," pointed out John Ellis. "It's especially hard now that I am very old."

"Yes, in those days," said Victoria Forrester, "we stayed close by . . .we didn't go way out yonder. We went where we could walk. As neighbors, we really had neighbors then, now you go a long time to learn the names of the people across the street."

The small farmers of Independence County understood their own poverty and brought about a balance of relations with the land and their neighbors, whereby the difficulty of that poverty was alleviated. The consistency of these relations is impressive. The investments of an industrial society had all along neglected the masses of southern farmers; but these small agriculturalists had developed and retained a way of life insulated from dependence on capital’s precious markets. Rural sociologists, the ministers of rural capitalism, indicted the farmer for his unproductivity and ignorance. In reality, however, the so-called "victim" of his own ignorance was not a victim at all, but a humble man who, in the early years of this century threatened to make capital his victim. With its bias toward capital accumulation and expansion, the "state" eventually had to eliminate the problem of peasants in a land bent on national urban growth.



In addition to hundreds of hours of interviews, the following works were helpful in preparing this article:

Bailey, Joseph. Seaman A. Knapp, Schoolmaster of American Agriculture. New York. Columbia University Press, 1945.

Batesville Daily Guard

Colonel V.Y. Cook. Personal ledgers, letters and contracts, in possession of John Morrow, Jr., Batesville, Arkansas.

Grubbs, Don, Cry From Cotton. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1971.

McGinnis, A C. "Farming in Oil Trough, 1 904— 1960," Independence County Chronicle, XII (July 1972).

McGinnis, A.C., "Business at Batesville, 1915," Independence County Chronicle, XV (January 1974).


*This quote and others related to Mr. O.C. Cook are found in A C. McGinnis, "Farming in Oil Trough, 1904 — 1960."


*Although ten per cent interest is quite usurious, it was not compared to the interest charged to small cotton farmers by banks. Bizzell in his monograph on the evils of farm tenancy, documents examples of banks throughout Texas and Arkansas consistently charging sixty per cent interest or higher! "Tenancy," wrote Bizzel, "results in the hopelessness of acquiring a farm home, intranciency, thriftlessness and inefficiency." Never calling these high interest rates usuary, Bizzell justified the profit. Wherever this usuary occured, one can be sure that counter-finances were made available by local money lenders at a "reasonable" ten per cent interest.