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From Can See to Can't

From Can See to Can't
Texas Cotton Farmers on the Southern Prairies

An insider’s view of Texas cotton farming in the late 1920s.

September 1997
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
328 pages | 6 x 9 | 28 b&w photos, 2 maps, 1 figure |

Cotton farming was the only way of life that many Texans knew from the days of Austin's Colony up until World War II. For those who worked the land, it was a dawn-till-dark, "can see to can't," process that required not only a wide range of specialized skills but also a willingness to gamble on forces often beyond a farmer's control—weather, insects, plant diseases, and the cotton market.

This unique book offers an insider's view of Texas cotton farming in the late 1920s. Drawing on the memories of farmers and their descendants, many of whom are quoted here, the authors trace a year in the life of south central Texas cotton farms. From breaking ground to planting, cultivating, and harvesting, they describe the typical tasks of farm families—as well as their houses, food, and clothing; the farm animals they depended on; their communities; and the holidays, activities, and observances that offered the farmers respite from hard work.

Although cotton farming still goes on in Texas, the lifeways described here have nearly vanished as the state has become highly urbanized. Thus, this book preserves a fascinating record of an important part of Texas' rural heritage.


Citation Award, 1998 San Antonio Conservation Society

  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Texas Cotton
  • 3. Lay of the Land
  • 4. Midwinter
  • 5. In the Fields
  • 6. Picking, Ginning, and Hog Killing
  • Epilogue: A World Ends
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Thad Sitton and Dan K. Utley are Austin-area historians and writers with extensive experience in collecting oral history.


In late nineteenth and early twentieth century Texas, farmers were not just one economic interest group among many. Their story—in many ways—is the story of the people.

—Kyle Wilkison


On October 10, 1907, farm families living near the little Henninger community of Fayette County, Texas, held a harvest parade as preliminary to the barbecue and dance that evening. First came Herman Bunger carrying the United States flag, then a wagon with the small Henninger Band, then a float representing the local blacksmith. Then, one by one, came the farmers, proudly parading the decorated tools of their craft before an audience that must have had tools just like theirs back at their own farms. Driven by individual farmers and pulled by mules and horses, turning plow, middle-buster plow, sweep plow, harrow, planter, root cutter, cultivator, mowing machine, and hay rake each passed in its turn, followed by wagonloads of cotton choppers holding hoes, cotton pickers wearing pick sacks, and finally a bale of cotton. Thomas Jefferson's proud yeoman farmers were on the march, and when they paraded they chose to celebrate themselves.


Many people still live in the Fayette County countryside, but the world the Henninger farmers celebrated has passed away in a generation, so swiftly that, as one historian observed, "the rural traveler sees constant reminders of the agricultural system that once characterized the South": decaying barns and country schools, falling-down gins, empty mule lots, and rusty farming equipment in front of rural antique stores. These museum pieces stand juxtaposed with a New South of brick houses, mobile homes, tractors, and cattle pastures,


Understandably, historians have been so impressed with the enormity of the transformation of the Southern cotton-farming life—what Jack Temple Kirby called "the Southern exodus"—that they have focused primarily upon the change itself: the impacts upon the farmers' world of a growing rural population, rising tenancy rates, the Great Depression, New Deal programs, World War II, and the mechanization and commercialization of agriculture that took place in the two decades after the war. The titles of major histories interpreting Southern rural life during the twentieth century clearly demonstrate this preoccupation with transformation and change: Gilbert Fite's Cotton Fields No More: Cotton Agriculture, 1865-1980 (1984), Pete Daniel's Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures Since 1880 (1986), and Jack Temple Kirby's Rural Worlds Lost. The American South, 1920-1960 (1987). In Texas, dissertation scholars also have been in the field, and some of the same focus on change permeates their work. The long lapse in historiography since Samuel Lee Evans's pioneering study, "Texas Agriculture, 1880-1930" (1960), ended in the 1990s with important dissertations by Neil Foley, Mary Rebecca Sharpless, and Kyle Wilkison.


While agreeing about most of the factors making for change, including the disastrous, and probably intentional, effects of New Deal programs on renters and small landowners, these historians disagree profoundly about whether the displacement of millions of American farm families from the land was inevitable or for the best. Demographic change was massive, all admit. As summarized by Pete Daniel: "In the eleven southern states, farms declined from 2.4 million in 1940 to 723,000 in 1974, while the average size grew from 86 to 235 acres." In the end, "Farming as a culture was superseded by large-scale farming as a commercial enterprise."


The interpretations of Gilbert Fite and Pete Daniel stand in sharpest contrast. To economic historian Fite, depopulation of the countryside and commercialization of agriculture were a merciful transformation of a rural world where farmers had been caught in an "agricultural trap" of too small farms, too much cotton, and not enough money. "The answers to the condition of farm poverty could not be found within the agricultural sector," Fite believed. Nor was there much to salvage in the rural world, where Southern farm families lived Hobbsian lives, nasty, brutish, and short, "Life was dull and difficult for the great majority of people on American farms, but nowhere was this more evident than among Southern farmers. Their low incomes were reflected in poor housing, inadequate diets, lack of education and health care, and hopelessness that permeated so much of farm life."


Pete Daniel disagreed, believing that much had been lost with the demise of Southern farming cultures.


Cotton farmers lived in a fragile balance with nature. They constantly studied such variables as soil, insects, climate, and seasons and cultivated their crops with individual flourishes. There were almost as many nuances in growing a crop as there were cotton farmers. They watched the sky and the earth and moved in harmony with nature and in accordance with the collected wisdom of their forbears. Whether tenant or owner, each cotton farmer had certain tasks that were tied to the pages of an almanac, to experience and the weather.


Nor was the demise of the rural world inevitable, or even for the best; the United States could have preserved Southern rural folk cultures and the small-farming life, as some nations of Western Europe had successfully preserved their traditional farming cultures.


It is far too easy to see technological change as inevitable, as part of some cosmic predestination. The South contained one of the richest folk cultures in the nation—or, rather, contained some of the richest folk cultures, for the South was as diverse culturally as it was in other ways. Building on the strengths of the old culture and reforming its abuses, there were options that could have kept people farming and preserved the culture and community that gave a deeper meaning to life in the rural South. Larger farms, mammoth implements, killer chemicals, and government intrusion were not inevitable.


For Daniel, a single, prosperous, horse-powered, Amish farm, flourishing in the Pennsylvania countryside of 1990, rebutted economic historians' arguments of economic inevitability. Having judiciously considered the first generation of tractors available to them, the Amish long ago had decided what they thought about them and never changed their minds: "They don't make manure."


While readers may surmise which scholar the Henninger farmers might have agreed with, virtually all historians participating in the great debate about the transformation of Southern rural society in the twentieth century are open to one criticism; they have written little about how farm families actually farmed and lived their lives—the subject of this informal ethnography of the farming life in Fayette and Washington counties of south-central Texas. Until recently, few oral historians have ventured out to collect the recollections and opinions of the farm families themselves, while there is still time to do so. This was an animal-powered society, but little research has been done about work stock. It was a society of plowmen, but little has been written about techniques of breaking the land. And it was a society where "Self-sufficiency had been a way of life as well as an economic practice," but little data has been collected about the subsistence side of farming: gardening, domestic livestock, food preservation, and all the rest. Is there so little to learn about early-twentieth-century farm life that we need not discover how farmers went about their seasonal round? Town and countryside were very different places during the first three decades of the twentieth century, but has the town so triumphed that we are in danger of writing a "townsmen's history" of the farmers' lost world?


Written memoirs about Southern rural life are rich in the elements most scholarly histories neglect, the substance and daily details of farm families' lives, and we learn much from reading them. Ned Cobb, Ed Brown, Cecil Brown, Harry Crews, Troy Crenshaw, Claude E. Good, William A. Owens, Eddie Stimpson, Dorothy Howard, and George Lester Vaughn produced eloquent accounts, and in the Washington and Fayette County area, so did Robert Skrabanek, Kermit Fox, and Mance Lipscomb. For one thing, these memoirs show the universality of cotton culture across the South. What Harry Crews wrote of the south Georgia farm family he came from holds true in every word for the Texas farmers we interviewed. Cotton farming was a gambler's trade, and the role of luck was understood: "The world that circumscribed the people I came from had so little margin for error, for bad luck, that when something went wrong, it almost always brought something else down with it. It was a world in which survival depended on raw courage, a courage born out of desperation, and sustained by a lack of alternatives."


This book describes the daily life of German-, Czech-, Anglo-, and African-American farm families as they went about their seasonal rounds during the late 1920s, on the eve of the Great Depression. Not that the great economic downturn changed very much for some of them. Robert ("Bat") Dement of Washington County often remarked to his sons: "There's not any Depression. Everybody else just got in the same shape I've been in all of my life, and they think it's a Depression."


An ethnographic study of farm life might have been conducted in many locales across the eastern half of Texas or the American South, but in Texas a research area centered on Fayette and Washington counties had certain advantages. The area had been part of Austin's first colony, where Texas cotton agriculture began, the site of the state's initial cotton boom, and an important producer of the great staple crop well into the middle twentieth century. Culturally diverse, the area is environmentally diverse as well, a landscape of red-soiled alluvial bottomlands, blackland prairies, and sandy-land post-oak timber belts. As Jack Temple Kirby noted, before World War II there was not one agricultural South, but many: row-crop, black-belt areas where cotton dominated all; worn-out cotton areas retrograding toward subsistence farming; dairy product and livestock areas, and "the self-sufficient South," where free-range livestock and growing one's living on the farm took precedence over growing cotton. Elements of all these "Souths" could be found in Fayette and Washington counties in the first three decades of this century, and afterward.


Furthermore, a strong case can be made that of all Texas cottongrowing regions, south-central Texas was where the beleaguered Texas yeomanry of hundred-acre cotton farmers made its last stand. According to the U.S. Agricultural Census of 1964, Fayette County had more owner-operated farms than any other Texas county. Kyle Wilkison has documented the decline of independence on farms in the eastern half of Texas, as cotton and renter status displaced subsistence crops and landownership, but in Fayette and Washington counties the tenant-landowner percentages remained for decades at only around fifty-fifty, and the subsistence farming economy—evidenced by farmstead production of hogs, chickens, potatoes, and dairy products—continued at the highest levels in the state.


Clearly, the hundred-acre cotton farmers of the area did not want to quit farming, did not wish to leave the land, long avoided "living out of paper bags," and—at least some of them—refused to convert to tractors. As late as the 1950s, over one-third of Fayette County farms still used work stock in the fields, and stubborn farmers such as African-American Ed Lathan and German-American Herman Schoenemann still broke ground with mules during the late 1980s. In 1974, the Farmers' Coop Gin at Burton ginned its last bale powered with the original 1925 Bessemer diesel engine—a bale hauled to the gin in an antique cotton wagon pulled by Gus Draeger's tractor. He explained, "We kept going, I just stayed with it that long, I don't know why, we just toughed it out." Twenty years later, stubborn locals powered the Burton gin back into life as a living history exhibit, the only functioning gin of that vintage in Texas. By 1990, Houstonians had bought many area properties, and land values had risen until few families could afford to farm in these counties, but some, like the Roscher family of Fayette County, persevered. Eroy Roscher had been born on the farm as had his father and grandfather before him, and his family farmhouse was an evolutionary product of all those lives and years. "That kitchen and pantry there," he noted, "Grandpa always said they told him he was six years old when that was built, so that must have been about 1872. And this part here was added on later, I'm sure before 1900 because Mamma was born in 1901 and this was already here." For many years, Roscher had won the "best corn" category at the Fayette County fair, and 1995 was no exception. According to records of the Heritage Farm Program of the Texas Department of Agriculture, over one-hundred farms in the county have been in the same family for more than a century, more than in any other Texas county.


No wonder, then, that in the old counties along the Colorado and Brazos rivers, oral historians found many people with information about life on the family cotton farm. Much more than usual in grassroots researches in rural social history, the authors benefited from interviewers who went before them. Using metal disks and the earliest sound-recording technologies, John Henry Faulk recorded the accounts of ex-slaves and Brazos valley sharecroppers during 1941—the earliest oral history recordings we have ever heard. Oral historians collecting information for the Winedale Historical Center interviewed a score of Fayette County farmers and farm wives during the early 1970s on the topics of cotton, corn, and gardens, and at about that same time young Glen Alyn conducted his remarkable interviews with Mance Lipscomb, Lily Lipscomb, Bubba Bowser, Ed Lathan, and other black residents of northeastern Washington County. Collecting information for his oral-autobiography of musician Mance Lipscomb, Glen lived in a teepee among rural black people until they finally got over their disgust at having a white "hippie" in their midst, became his friends, and told him what they really thought. Beginning around 1990, the Baylor University Institute for Oral History conducted a series of interviews with retired farmers living in the Burton area, and the Baylor interviews, as all the rest, became grist for our mill. Finally, forty-one additional individuals were interviewed during the research period of 1994-1995.


The voices of oral history give a different account of the small farmer's world from that given by the economic historians. "The hopelessness that permeated farm life" is little represented here. Instead, farmers tell a different story, and one followed—with qualifications—in this social history of the farming life in Fayette and Washington counties and surrounding area. As the oral histories and personal memoirs do, this book emphasizes farmers' pride of craft, their intricate farming skills, the importance of the subsistence side of farming, and farm families' humor and stoicism in enduring the vagaries of season and economics. We try to explain what Mr. and Mrs. Otto Fuchs meant when they proudly told that they "paid off their farm with five-cent cotton,' the sentiments behind the Henninger parade, and why some area farm families are still on the land. "Dirt farmers," some might still call themselves, implying by that pride of craft, pride of knowledge about their personal pieces of ground. Even the structure of this book is grounded in the farmers' world. No pattern was so important to that world as the yearly agricultural cycle, the timeless drama of season from breaking the land to planting to cultivating to gathering to breaking the land once again. So is this book arranged.



“This is an important contribution to the study of rural Texas on the eve of the Great Depression and represents, as far as I know, the only study of its kind that weaves together memoirs and oral interviews...into a richly textured tapestry of cotton culture in south central Texas.”
Neil Foley, Associate Professor of History, University of Texas at Austin


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