Howell County Was Once a Land of Cotton
Wed, 08/04/2021 - 2:40pm admin
Since its creation in 1857, Howell County has depended on agricultural products to sustain its populace and economy. Farming can be a struggle in our part of the Ozarks. Much of the county is rocky with thin topsoil, and the weather is often inconsistent and severe. But this marginality has fostered resourcefulness, and our farmers have been great at wringing a living from the soil. Two crops we are not known for producing today are cotton and tobacco. At one time, both were an important source of cash here.
Cotton was slow to get started. The 1860 and 1870 federal agricultural censuses showed zero production of cotton. Cotton was not even listed on the 1880 forms. I think cotton was not produced for reasons including a lack of cotton gins to remove the seed and the fact that cotton was sold at four hundred pound, later five hundred pound bales. With no railroad nearby, it was impractical to raise cotton in large quantities. The early settlers preferred woolen garments, and some flax was grown on many farms to make linen on home looms.
But cotton grows well here, especially in the townships along the Arkansas border. Both cotton and tobacco have a long growing season, and the harvest for both crops usually occurred in late September.
Tobacco was not a late starter. It arrived with the first settlers from Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee familiar with its production. The early crops were small for home or community use. In 1860, 2,270 pounds of tobacco were grown. The Lost Camp township reported the biggest yield of 850 pounds. That's a lot of tobacco for a population of 3,100 people. In 1870, 5,300 pounds were produced, and 2,955 pounds were raised in the West Plains township. Women in those early years were avid consumers, both chewing and smoking the crop in pipes - for medicinal purposes, of course.
By 1880 cotton was being produced in quantity for export, and with the arrival of the railroad in 1882, West Plains became a hub for shipping to markets in Kentucky.
In an article published in The Springfield Press in 1929, a railroad conductor on the Kansas City, Fort Scott, and Gulf Railroad reminisced that "the greater portion of the cotton was marketed at West Plains, and after the railroad building the public square was the cotton market. Often there was so much cotton piled around the square that the boys could leap from one bale to the other and encircle the square."
The volume of cotton produced varied with the market, most of it being shipped to Memphis and a large portion to clothing mills in England and New England. In 1916 the West Plains Journal Gazette reported, "There are two cotton gins in Howell County, one at Moody and the other at Lanton. Considerable cotton grown just across the Arkansas line is ginned at these gins." Another two gins were built in West Plains to accommodate a boost in production in the 1920s.
In December 1924, the Journal Gazette reported, "'Looks just like old times in West Plains,' remarked an old citizen Tuesday when several wagon loads of cotton drove on Court Square, and a number of men crowded around the wagons. Just about that time, several trucks loaded with baled cotton whisked by on their way to the railroad station. The cotton in wagons was on the way to the gin here. The baled cotton was being shipped to the Memphis market."
They also wrote, "Cotton growing is coming back to its own again in the country. At least 3,000 bales will be shipped from West Plains this year, just double the shipments last year. Up to this date, approximately 2,300 bales have been shipped. The cotton is grown in Howell and Ozark counties and Fulton and Baxter counties in Arkansas. The Chelsea Ginning Company of Chelsea, Oklahoma, has a three-stand gin operation on the Frisco tracks in West Plains and has already shipped 1,500 bales to market from this point this year. Six carloads of cotton seed also have been shipped to the cottonseed oil mills. The company buys cotton in the bale. Their business has far exceeded the estimate for the first year."
Earlier in October, the West Plains Chamber of Commerce got in on the excitement, writing in October 1924, "While the men are greatly interested in the wonderful cotton crop grown in Howell County this year which is now being marketed, the women are also becoming enthused. Monday, a number of the society women of West Plains went to the farm of Judge George T. Humphries in Howell Valley, three miles east of this city, to pick cotton. The women were attired in various garbs. Some had donned overalls, others had on gingham dresses, wearing sunbonnets or broad-brimmed hats. It was an ideal day for cotton picking, and the women 'went to it' just as though they were brought up in a cotton patch."
The event was competitive, and the twelve chose sides, the losers to entertain the winners in a dinner at the Oriental Hotel in West Plains. Mrs. John R. Reed picked the most cotton, at 28 pounds, and Kitty McFarland was second, picking 23 pounds.
Like most farming efforts, the boom was a temporary thing, affected by price fluctuations, weather, and government regulation. Newspapers noted a shift in population demographics after the railroad arrived, as more people from northern states moved into the county. Their lack of familiarity with the southern cotton culture induced a trend toward corn farming and livestock production. One paper lamented dairy farming along the south border of Howell County was replacing cotton fields with fescue. Ultimately Washington administered the coup de grace in the 1930s through its programs paying Howell County farmers not to plant cotton to decrease overproduction. Low prices and the high costs of fertilizers and pesticides favored large producers, using mechanization and irrigation in the Missouri Bootheel and deep south.
A similar trajectory is found in the Howell County tobacco story, though its production lasted several decades longer. A neighbor east of me at Hutton Valley, holding all the tobacco allotments in the county, produced a significant crop of Burley tobacco in the 1980s.
The peak in Howell County tobacco production occurred through the mid-1920s and early 1930s. I find it significant that despite the stock market crash and the start of the Great Depression, prices held. In October 1924, the West Plains Journal Gazette related, "There is something about the tobacco grown in Howell County that the manufacturers like. This is the good news brought to West Plains by B.F. Myers, a tobacco merchant of Horse Cave, Kentucky, who is here visiting his brother, H.P. Myers of Howell Valley, and making arrangements for marketing the crop of tobacco grown here this year."
"Mr. Myers handled the crop of tobacco from Howell County in 1923. It was sold at the Peoples' Loose Leaf Warehouse. There were 8,600 pounds that brought 29 cents a pound after all expenses were paid and 8,000 pounds that sold for 28 cents per pound. There were 200,000 pounds on the floor of the warehouse that day, and the Howell County tobacco topped the market, bringing 4 cents a pound more than Kentucky tobacco."
"Most of the tobacco grown in Howell County is produced on farms around Chapin. In Howell Valley this year, the acreage is three times as much as last year, and the crop is estimated at 40,000 pounds in the county. It is the best crop of tobacco grown here in many years as the season has been ideal. The acre yield this year has been large. Elmer Dix of Howell Valley made an average last year of 1,200 pounds to the acre. This year his crop will average 1,500 pounds to the acre. In the Kentucky tobacco section, 800 pounds to the acre is considered a good yield, although sometimes it runs up to double these figures if the planter works hard in his crop."
"According to Mr. Myers, who has made a study of tobacco growing and marketing, hillside land, such as is found in Howell County, is the best for growing fine tobacco. The land should be well-drained, and for this reason, low flat land should never be selected for tobacco growing. Good clear red tobacco such as is grown in Howell County is in strong demand. The grower must know when to cut the tobacco and how to cure it in order to get the best results. When properly cured, this tobacco always brings more than market quotations."
"Almost all of the tobacco here has been cut and is in the barns curing for the market. The weather has been warm and dry this month (October) and most favorable to the proper curing of the weed. In fact, tobacco growers have never had a better season than the present one. The tobacco is shipped in hogsheads, each holding from 800 to 1,200 pounds. Sixteen of these are loaded in a (railroad) car, and the approximate value of one car of Howell County tobacco at the present market price is $7,840. Growers here make their own hogsheads from native oak trees.
In 1929, the Howell County tobacco shipment was thirty thousand pounds, and in 1933 it was almost fifty thousand pounds. During the Depression, to control supply and maintain higher prices, the federal government stepped into the market and set up quotas or allotments. The system was designed to favor smaller farms but also displaced many tenant and black farmers. As older farmers retired, a young farmer was forced to lease or buy an allotment to raise tobacco. Like cotton, tobacco is susceptible to insects and diseases that initially were not present. Fruit orchards enjoyed similar freedom from pests when first planted here. Over time these problems arrived, and the cost of production raised with pesticide and fertilizer costs, and the industry faded out.
Few today are aware of the diversity of crops that can be and were raised in Howell County. Wheat was commonly cultivated by small farmers who ground and consumed it locally. Also on the list is rice, oats, and hemp. Field corn was grown in far greater quantities than today. Looking at our history of over 150 years of agriculture in Howell County, one thing is sure, things change.