This book uses oral history to tell the human story of 339 square miles of countryside on the hardscrabble western edge of the cotton South, a farming and ranching landscape that became the giant military base of Fort Hood in central Texas. This area occupies southern Coryell and western Bell counties, on the northeastern perimeter of the Hill Country, but in many ways it could be anywhere on the southern periphery where soils become marginal, rocks lie close to the surface, and rain thins out. Like a lot of other southern places, this does not look much like "cotton country," but it once was.
Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in 1793 had triggered an explosive expansion of cotton culture to the west. From a high of only 6,276 bales in 1792, national cotton production soared to 16,736 bales in 1794, only one year after Whitney's gin, to 115,073 bales in 1802, to 337,720 bales in 1820, on the eve of the settlement of Texas. Southerners had gone "cotton crazy," and soon the cotton boomers moved west, launching a wave of cotton expansion that rolled inexorably westward through time and space to 1930 and the blue, arid hills of Coryell County, at the edge of the Texas Hill Country.
With Coryell and Bell county farmers contributing their part, the last big expansion of Southern cotton came in Texas. All across Texas during the 1920s, people cleared cutover pine forests, sandy-land hillsides, and floor-prone bottomlands and broke the ground for cotton. Texans plowed a record 16,813,000 acres for cotton in 1929. During that year, the value of Texas agriculture was over $11 billion—three times the value of oil, and cotton still remained the king. Texas far outdistanced all other southern states in cotton, producing over one-third of all the cotton picked in the United States throughout the decade of the 1920s. By 1924, 56.7 percent of all Texas cropland—16,658,356 acres—lay in cotton. Mississippi came next with 44.9 percent of its cropland in cotton (but only 3,011,444 acres).
Texas produced over 25 percent of the world's cotton each year, ginned it in nearly four thousand gins, and led all other states in percentage of gross income derived from cotton. One economist estimated that one-third of the total population of the state was directly involved in cotton farming in 1929 and that many thousands more were involved in ginning, warehousing, merchandising, compressing, and transporting cotton or in cottonseed processing.
Cotton farming, however, was a gambler's trade. The value of lint cotton at ginning time ranged from 5 to 45 cents in the two decades after 1910, and every season the inexorable and unpredictable play of weather determined how much each farm family had to sell. As one retired farmer told me, dry-land cotton agriculture had always been a "crapshoot," with each year a new roll of the dice.
Cotton farming also was the great unifier, and the stories told in this book about plowing and hoeing and picking and wagoning to the gin could just as well have come from sand-hill East Texas or upstate Mississippi as from the edge of the Hill Country. In Coryell and Bell counties, as at other marginal places across the zone of cotton culture, local farmers hedged their bets on the great gamblers' crop with sideline money enterprises, raising cattle, goats, sheep, corn, and small grains, and sometimes the sidelines become mainlines. They further hedged their bets by producing most of the food consumed on the family farm—garden vegetables, field peas interspersed in the corn, hogs in the woods, chickens, turkeys, milk cows, and all the rest.
This rural world was very different from the present, and during oral history interviews former natives of the place struggled to convey its essential strangeness. Across a single human lifetime, the cultural change had been immense. Grandparents who had grown up hauling drinking water from the spring creek to their homeplaces, a barrel at a time, with a one-mule farmer's "sled," found it hard to explain this practice to their incredulous grandchildren, who were growing up surfing the Internet.
We know the mule-powered, coal-oil-illuminated countryside was different, but I am not sure how well we appreciate the nature of that difference and what it felt like to live out there. Many of us, even some historians of the farmer's lost world, have the grandchildren's problem of understanding. Interviewees seemed well aware of the difficulty. At some point during most of our oral history interviews, the elderly persons hesitated, then tried to find words to convey just these things. They told of an isolation so severe that every passing stranger became a object of great interest and where "fifteen miles down the road was like another land." They described the darkness of the nights and the brightness of the stars in a time before electricity. They commented upon the immense silence of the countryside at a time before humming machines—when farmers shouted back and forth to each other from distant fields, the next Model T on the dirt road could be heard coming from miles away, and the only industrial sounds were the distant steam whistles of cotton gins and passing trains.
Some memories of the historic sounds of the countryside had already disappeared into Coryell and Bell county graveyards by the beginning of the twenty-first century, doubtless along with many other unrecorded details of rural life. "The grassroots historian must do his work before the night cometh, in which no man can work," C. L. Sonnichsen once observed, in properly biblical tones. In 1992, 102-year-old Walter Cole of Jasper County told me of the sounds of the mule- or horse-powered bale presses of his childhood. As the animals went around and around the bale press, compressing the boxed cotton under the wooden screw, the squeal of wood grinding on wood rose to a crescendo that carried for miles across the autumn landscape. None of the people interviewed in Coryell and Bell counties between 1998 and 2001 was old enough to recall the squealing of the bale presses in cotton season, though this doubtless had been an authentic sound of the place. For how many other common details of rural life had the oral historians arrived too late?
At most locations, this exotic rural world transformed into something else during the two decades following World War II. Roads improved, schools and stores and gins and churches consolidated into bigger and better versions of themselves in nearby market towns and county seats. Small-scale, dry-land cotton farms could not compete with the new large-scale, fully mechanized agriculture and became obsolete. Existing farms became larger, and "cattle and coastal" (bermuda hay) replaced much row-crop farming. Many people still living in rural areas now commuted to jobs in town.
However, none of these trends fully worked themselves out in this stretch of the Coryell County and Bell County countryside. There, a still-vital rural society died within a few weeks in 1942 with the forced sale of land for the U.S. Army tank-training facility of Camp Hood.
Army bases had to go somewhere, and by the nature of things in a democracy authorities usually established them "nowhere," in areas of empty countryside, where the taking of private lands was least disruptive to people's lives. That was perhaps the case here, but triangulated between the three market towns of Gatesville to the north, Belton on the southeast, and Copperas Cove to the southwest lay more than twenty island communities—"settlements" in the southern lexicon—dispersed, informal rural communities whose time had run out.
This doomed nowhere was a complex place, akin to thousands of similar landscapes across the eastern half of Texas and the South. Pidcoke, Sparta, Antelope, and one or two other settlements had discernible community centers, where church, school, and store were close together. Most had a more dispersed infrastructure, with the elements of community scattered across the landscape along with the farmsteads of the families that gave them their allegiance. Most settlements had a church, or churches, and a school. Some had a store or post office, or had previously had them. Somewhere in almost every settlement was a farmer who also operated a syrup mill or a grist mill to provide the community with the survival staples of molasses and cornmeal.
Some of these settlements might look like "remote countryside with scattered farms" to a stranger passing through, but when questioned, farm families almost always professed a community membership. They believed they lived somewhere—that they were part of some settlement, some community, no matter how faint or far away.
Historians often have failed to recognize the importance of the settlement as a basic social unit of the southern countryside, Frank Owsley argued in his classic study of the Old South. Typically unincorporated and unplatted, settlements were poorly represented on official maps, and historians have turned out to study them only after obliteration by reservoirs or military bases triggered mandatory salvage research.
Overlapping fields of membership linked a farm family to its home settlement—ties to church and school. Of the two, schools were more important. There might be multiple churches in a community, and the congregations might or might not cooperate, attending each other's services on alternating Sundays, but the schools cut across congregational lines and served as core social institutions. They functioned as community centers, filling important social needs beyond education of the young. Major social affairs and entertainments centered on the school, as did political "speakings" and other community-wide events. If any issue rose to general community concern, people gathered to discuss it at the school. In many ways, the school and the community, the settlement, were one, and as some rural people said, "When the school dies, the community dies"—ominous words, even before 1940, considering how many smaller rural schools were consolidating into larger ones. Local officials or distant scholars rarely had reason to map the array of informal settlements across a rural county, but the common school district maps of the 1920s and 1930s came very close. As anthropologist Oscar Lewis noted in his study of the Texas blacklands farther east, rural school districts and settlements tended to coincide.
Perhaps most important, each of the twenty-odd settlements that ultimately became part of Fort Hood had functioned as mutual-aid communities, domains of neighborliness, face-to-face societies in which neighbor stood ready to help neighbor in time of trouble. If your house burned, or you needed help building a new barn, or someone got sick and could not get weeds from the cotton or put meals on the table, neighbors sprang into action to help out. They did this in a spirit of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood but also in full knowledge that the next time their families might be the ones needing help. Kin group and community functioned as the only social net anyone had, and to be thought of as a bad kinsman or neighbor was not something you could afford.
The first settlements of Coryell County emerged in the wilderness, soon after the establishment of Fort Gates in 1849 on the Leon River at the present site of the county seat of Gatesville. By 1852, when most troops pulled out of Fort Gates to relocate to new forts farther west, four first-generation settlements had established themselves to the south. These were Ruth, Spring Hill, Antelope, and Old Sugar Loaf, all of them on army roads. Additional settlements came later, ten in the Fort Hood area by 1868 and about thirty—the maximum number at any one time—by 1913.
Before the Civil War, frontier stockmen sparsely inhabited the area, with farming mainly for subsistence. Farmers had no easy way to get cotton to market until the coming of the railroads in 1882; cattle, and to a degree sheep, could be driven to the railhead. Families distributed themselves across a semiarid landscape of flat-topped, brush-covered hills, intermittent grassy prairies, and heavily wooded bottoms of the Leon River, Cowhouse Creek, Brown's Creek, and their feeder streams. Indian raids by Comanche and Apache harassed settlers into Civil War times, and periodic drouths marked Coryell County as a marginal farming area. Corn was critical for a subsistence agriculture, providing "fuel" for work stock, feed for domestic animals, and food for human diet, but the local corn crops failed from lack of rain in 1856 and 1857, causing considerable hardship.
Every southern agriculturist breathed a huge sigh of relief each year that his main subsistence crop of corn grew big enough in the field to form ears. Then and only then did he know that no one in his family would actually go hungry that season. However, during a long succession of years, perhaps one each decade, from the drouth of 1856 to the drouth of 1925, local fields produced little corn.
This was a backwoods frontier society until after the Civil War, as historian Martha Doty Freeman noted in her overview of agriculture at the settlements that would become Fort Hood.
Recollections of life until the Civil War emphasized the self-sufficiency of the agricultural unit, normally comprised of two parents and their children, the males of whom stayed at home to help with production until they reached their majority. Typical housing consisted of log structures that had stone or board chimneys, dirt floors, and hide doors. Furnishings were simple, and those described by members of the Blackburn family near Palo Alto were not very different from those described by a former slave who had lived on a small "plantation" near Gatesville. A table in the Blackburn home was made of 3-foot-wide post oak boards, and a cradle was a hollowed-out split oak log. The family owned a spinning wheel, and after Mrs. Blackburn worked in the corn fields all day, she sat up at night carding, spinning, and weaving. Beds often were made of split ash logs through which holes were bored and rope threaded to substitute for slats. Cow hides, or occasionally buffalo hides, were put on top of the rope. In similar fashion, former slave S. B. Adams described the "log huts" in which the slaves lived, as well as furnishings such as spinning wheels and looms. Bedsteads were "corded cross-cross with cow-hide strings"; food was prepared in the fireplace; and, like their White neighbors, the slaves wore homespun dyed with colors extracted from vegetable matter.
Diet frequently was beef, and sometimes fish, but variety was achieved by killing opossums, squirrels, and rabbits, and by raiding roosts, where boys blinded birds and then "knocked them senseless with sumac sticks." Gourds were used widely, providing receptacles for milk, salt, lard, cracklings, hominy, and gunpowder. Even the family dog was not immune from the generally opportunistic behavior that characterized early frontier life. One settler recalled that "Bird Clements made shoes from dog hides, and my beloved dog Trip was slain for this purpose."
This "generally opportunistic behavior that characterized early frontier life" had not disappeared from the area by the 1930s, when winter robins still were blinded by torches at night and thrashed from roost trees with long poles, then used for robin pot pies, and when at least one old man went around wearing shoes made from a worn-out basketball salvaged from the nearby rural school. The tough skin of the dead basketball worked even better than dog hide.
Populations of both Coryell and Bell counties swelled in the two decades after the Civil War and rose steadily to a peak between 1910 and 1920, at which time Coryell County's population topped 20,000. Bell County had over twice that. Stock raising and subsistence farming continued to be the norm until the 1882 arrival of railroads to Gatesville and Killeen triggered an agricultural boom. From the 1880s into the Depression 1930s, ccotton became the main money crop for the area. Waves of new settlers (mostly row-crop farmers from the deep South), the advent of barbed-wire fencing, and the terrible winters of the 1880s ended the frontier stock-raising era.
Stock raising itself did not end, of course, not in this landscape so marginal for row-crop agriculture. Most farmers kept some cattle behind fences. Locals raised many sheep from the late 1880s into the 1890s, though these proved even more vulnerable to harsh winter weather than did the cattle. An enthusiasm for "hair goats" struck Coryell and Bell counties in the 1910s and lasted into the 1930s. Angora goats (detractors called them "hooved locusts") thrived where no other stock could live and not even the most optimistic cotton farmers would try to grow cotton.
Cotton remained king until the government's anti-cotton programs of the 1930s, though cotton in this landscape was "a hard row to hoe," even in the best of times. Drouths occurred periodically, one just after the turn of the century and another in 1925. Beyond the local dice-roll of weather, international prices of the gamblers' crop followed a mysterious (to the farmer) boom-and-bust cycle from the Panic of 1893 to the Great Depression. Most farmers preferred to recall the rare good years of ample rain, bumper crops, and 40-cent-a-pound cotton.
During the cotton era, certain generalities held true. Being out on the limb with one-crop agriculture proved chancier for renters than for landowners, who had bigger gardens and more pork in their smokehouses. Agricultural "diversification"—the raising of other money crops and various livestock—was practiced by many farm families, just in case. Farmers here raised more small grains, broomcorn, goats, and sheep than did others on the blacklands farther east. Pressures on the limited arable land increased until, by 1910 in Coryell County, slightly more farmers rented land than owned it. Tenants "on the thirds and fourths" brought their own work stock and agricultural machinery to their rented farms and paid landlords with one-third of the corn and one-fourth of the cotton. Sharecroppers "on the halves" brought only their labor and that of their families and paid landowners with half of everything produced. Few big agribusiness sharecropper farms flourished in the settlements that became Fort Hood, however; here cotton farming was mostly small-scale. In a common landowner-renter situation, a farmer rented to two or three of his grown sons, to other relatives, or to neighbors.
The economic wild ride of cotton agriculture was even wilder for renter families, no matter who their landowners might be. In years of local crop failure, it was these families that temporarily relocated to pick for others in the cotton fields of West Texas, the Red River Valley, or any other place where farmers had "made a crop." Renter dissatisfactions (and the anger of small landowners with the railroads) show up in active Farmers' Alliance organizations during the 1880s and local majorities for Populist presidential candidates during the 1890s.
The Depression thirties followed the boom-and-bust twenties, and cotton prices dropped to record lows and remained there, and life became (as William Powell told me) truly "harder than hardscrabble." Some claimed to see the Great Depression as only business as usual; things had been tough in the past. The subsistence side of the farms supported families as before, no matter the price of the cotton. People scrounged and recycled and went without, somewhat heartened by observing that none of their neighbors, even those with large landholdings, seemed much better off. The area remained a backwater, although modernizations and consolidations went on as at other places across the South. Schools merged into larger rural schools, improved roads led to closure of country stores, community gins lost out to larger and faster gins in the market towns, farmers hauled crops to more distant markets by truck or tractor.
The 1940 Census for Coryell County revealed a marginal southern farming society in transition: 74 percent of farms had an automobile (down from 80 percent in 1930); 52 percent of farms hauled water from over 50 feet away from the house; 80 percent had outdoor privies (others had none at all); 87 percent had no indoor bath or shower; 51 percent did not have an icebox; 68 percent had no telephone; but 57 percent had radios, some of the quartz-crystal-and-headphone variety that required no battery power. Except for a few Delco battery and wind-powered systems, none of the farm families in the Coryell County settlements had electricity.
Even the government's New Deal programs had no unusual impact in Coryell and Bell counties. The Federal Emergency Relief Act led to the killing of livestock. The Soil Conversation Service worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps to build fences, sod pastures, and terrace fields. A relatively small percentage of families went on federal relief. WPA projects employed only 7 percent of the total workforce of Coryell County in 1939.
By 1941, however, a much more drastic government intervention in local affairs loomed just over the horizon, and like a blue norther of early spring it swept swiftly down upon an unsuspecting countryside. In November of that year, appalled by what Hitler's Panzer divisions were accomplishing in Europe and in full realization that its notion of static tank defense systems now was obsolete, the U.S. government activated the army's Tank Destroyer Tactical and Firing Center. The army desperately needed a large base to train its new tank and anti-tank divisions to try to stop the Panzers, and it had nothing big enough. It began a hasty search to find a location for a base.
War arrived the next month on December 7, 1941, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. A week or so later, rumors increased about a possible large army base somewhere in the Temple-Waco area. The rumors seemed hard to believe for local farmers, but soon people saw strange, closemouthed army survey teams abroad in the land. Some people laughed when they first heard of a possible army base, but the laughter quickly died. The army considered several large sites west of Waco and chose one just west of Valley Mills. After furious political lobbying from boosters in Bell and Coryell counties, the army then reversed itself and chose a site mostly in Coryell County. "Camp Hood" was on the way, patriotically named for Texas Civil War general John Bell Hood.
In this time of national emergency, matters moved swiftly. On January 14, 1942, the army announced the establishment of its military base in Coryell and Bell counties. Lands quickly were taken by the government, acting under its Fifth Amendment powers of eminent domain, vastly strengthened by the Second War Powers Act of 1942. Some farm families had two months' notice or more to move out, some received as little as fifteen days' warning. Army estimators generally awarded low values for the land and did not compensate for improvements—farm buildings, barns, fences, pecan orchards, and the like. Government land payments trailed government eviction notices by months—in some cases by years. With so many land seekers forced on the market all at once, supply and demand (and greed) drove local land prices sky high, and farm families found it virtually impossible to take the money the government paid them for their farms and buy comparable farms just off the reservation.
Many of the farming families and settlements affected by the forced relocation had only just begun slowly recovering from the Great Depression, and the circumstances of their treatment during acquisition by the government caused them great hardship. In her study of the Fort Hood "taking," researcher Sylvia Edwards relied heavily on interviews with people who had been relocated, and she stated the situation bluntly.
Families who moved off their lands did so regretfully, but with a sense of patriotic commitment to the war effort. They held their tongues out of loyalty. The hope of future success on distant battlefields did little, however, to assuage the bitter draught of selling homesteads. Coupled with the personal blow of abandoning their homes was the criticism to which landowners were exposed from their neighbors if the landowners even questioned the sums being offered for their property by the government. Frequently, they were accused of being treacherous and reminded that they could be losing sons as well as homes. Many did both.
All families suffered economically and psychologically from the speed of the forced land sales; they had little time to adjust to circumstances. Reactions to the taking varied greatly from family to family but basically divided along renter-landowner lines. Restless rent farmers, who customarily moved to a new place every year or so, might shed few tears about the coming of the army base. They might even be at the front of the hiring line for the barracks construction crews. Landowners losing great-grandfather's hallowed ground had a much more painful perspective. A farm wife told her daughter-in-law that she was happy about the land seizure, since "That's the only way in the world I'd ever have got away from down there," but three agonized farmers committed suicide, one with his pocket knife as army trucks drove up to load his household goods. In any case, by mid-September of 1942 Camp Hood opened for business.
By the end of the twentieth century, the island settlements of Fort Hood existed only as archeological sites and in the memories of the hundreds of former residents, many of whom gathered yearly at reunions in the peripheral communities of Killeen, Belton, Copperas Cove, and Oatesville. Their numbers dwindled, however, and beginning in 2000 U.S. Army Fort Hood funded a major oral history project directed by Prewitt and Associates of Austin, Texas, to record those memories before it was too late.
The full text of every interview has been printed in Just Like Yesterday: Recollections of Life on the Fort Hood Lands (2003), edited by Amy E. Dase, and all tapes, original transcripts, and other materials have been placed in the Texas Collection of Baylor University. Other publications published by the Fort Hood project are "Agriculture and Rural Development on Fort Hood Lands, 1849-1942; National Register Assessments of 71o Historic Archeological Properties" (2001 ), by Martha Doty Freeman, Amy E. Dase, and Marie E. Blake, and Imprint on the Land: Life Before Camp Hood, 1820-1942 (2001), by William S. Pugsley. Harder than Hardscrabble, the last work of history from the project, is the "popular" fruit of the oral history research.
This publication is different from the scholarly studies of the Fort Hood settlements mentioned above. If I had a guiding intent, it was to step out of readers' way so they could make direct contact with the primary sources, with the voices recorded on the interview tapes. The voices are powerful, even at times disturbing, and a little chaotic and redundant. Sometimes they are hard to interpret by the historian, but trying to make sense from contending voices is nothing more than the experience of "doing history." This should prove an interesting exercise for the reader. "Everyman his own historian," Carl Becker argued long ago, and so, I might add, is every woman.
My other "agenda," or intellectual baggage, was the beliefs that life in the countryside was stranger than we usually think, that the economic historians who have mainly held the field in scholarly interpretations of rural life have often been one-dimensional in their depictions of it, and that few scholars have listened very well to what the "natives" have to tell us. This book is one historian's attempt to really listen and an opportunity for readers to listen along with me.
Certainly, the natives are ambivalent; their message is complicated. You will read in the following chapters of the power of old-time family ties and community traditions of "neighborliness" that go far beyond current urban or rural practice. But to accompany the good memories are those of physical hardships also far beyond modern experience, seemingly unending work, mind-numbing isolation, and the threat of early death from what today would be considered minor medical conditions. Furthermore, when the close, face-to-face ties of kinship and neighborhood went wrong, they went very wrong. Long-simmering family antagonisms, "bad blood," and violent "feud" incidents are hinted at but are underrepresented in the accounts; some things were still too painful to put on strangers' tape recorders.
By design, our interviews were permissive, wandering, and allowed interviewees to place their own emphases and to bring up topics they deemed important to talk about. Many of the recurrent topics came directly from the natives' remembrance of place, and some are surprising. "Waste not, want not" ruled as the iron dictum of the countryside, but you will read of the frugalities of a true materialism, where daily dishwater became a component of hog slop and weekly bluing water from Saturday washday served also to bathe the family's children, one after another (then, as often as not, to swab the floors). "Worn out" files—good pieces of steel, nonetheless—were recycled into many different tools. Cotton sacks, dragged to death on the rocky land, became "jumper jackets," hand towels, and a score of other useful things. Historians consistently have evaluated family farm life from a cash-crop perspective, but former country dwellers were more likely to discuss memorable complexities of the subsistence side of the farm—gardens, milk cows, barnyard fowl, field crops grown for family use, hunting, fishing, and foraging. Everyone took great pride in "living off the place," with little more than flour, salt, sugar, tobacco, and coffee required from the store.
Even more unexpected emphases emerge in the oral recollections: dogs (to work stock and patrol for snakes), water sources, soil types, and more. In the Fort Hood settlements the "more" includes rattlesnakes, over and over again. I have been privileged to collect similar oral histories at several other places in rural Texas, but I have never recorded so much material about poisonous snakes, which abounded in the area. People joked about the snakes, but they were a serious matter; sometimes it was like cultivating field crops in a minefield. One woman narrowly survived a painful rattlesnake bite inflicted in the cotton patch, as did her three brothers; their father had not been so lucky.
There is much humor in the telling about these things, even about the hardships and the tragedies. I have not especially selected for this, it permeates the oral testimony. It is a wry, even at times a dark, humor, a far cry from nostalgia, born of people's sense of amazement at the enormous cultural gap between the world they grew up in and that in which they spend their final years.
Other former natives of the rural world tell similar stories to those of people from the Fort Hood settlements, but perhaps as a result of the takeover there seems a certain fervor of remembrance, a keeping of the faith more intense than at other places. This is visible at the yearly community and family reunions, though the ranks thin out. The Hill family still returns each year to take their ritual drinks, one by one, from the lost homeplace spring.