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Determining the Facts

Reading 1: Sharecroppers and the Crops

From 1910 until 1945, Susan Ella and Ira Washington Ethridge lived in a “plantation plain” house in Jackson County, Georgia. Houses in the plantation plain style generally were two stories tall and one room deep, with a front porch and chimneys on each end. Joseph Shields had bought the land on which the house now sits in 1790. In 1810, he began growing cotton. Joseph’s grandson, Robert, inherited the family residence after the Civil War. The house he built in 1866 was constructed mostly with hand-hewn pine and square nails. In the late 1890s, Robert’s daughter, Susan Ella, and her husband Ira moved in to care for Robert; they acquired the house and 114 acres when Robert died in 1910. The name “Ethridge” now became part of the farm’s name.

The future of the Shields-Ethridge Farm still hinged on the cotton trade in the early 20th century, as it had in the 19th. The Civil War devastated the Southern economy. Sharecropping developed as an economic survival system across the South. Destitute farmers with no land worked for landowners who had no cash to pay wages. The system varied from place to place, but generally sharecroppers either worked for a portion of the crop or paid a portion of the crop to the owner.

Many former slaves voluntarily continued to work on the Shields farm as sharecroppers. Others returned after a brief time away. Many of their descendants later sharecropped on the farm. Other sharecroppers were “dirt farmers,” poor white men who had no land of their own. The tenants who worked the Shields farm lived in small houses scattered across the property, near the fields where they worked. Different parts of the farm were referred to by the names of sharecroppers, indicating that some sharecroppers worked on the Shields-Ethridge Farm for many years.1

On the Shields-Ethridge Farm, the owner provided each sharecropper with a house, cotton seed, fertilizer, a mule, and a plow. In return, the sharecropper and his family worked a portion of the farm, usually 10 to 15 acres, and paid the Ethridges one-half of the cotton crop.  Thirteen simple L-shaped houses sprang up around the 150 acres belonging to the Ethridge family. The arrangement of the sharecropper houses across the Shields-Ethridge farm reveals the shared culture of black and white sharecroppers. Although few of the houses remain, their original placement promoted sharing in work and play. Sharecroppers and their families lived by the cotton clock. Growing cotton ruled their lives.

The shrubby cotton plant required 200 frost-free days to grow, as well as 50 to 60 inches of rain.  Geographically, Georgia enjoyed the weather and fertile soil needed. These conditions produced a cash crop that supported both the Ethridges and the sharecroppers. Located in the “upland” region of Georgia between the coast and the mountains, Shields-Ethridge Farm scheduled the planting of cotton seed to begin in April. Mules dragged a special plow, usually a single-blade called a “bull tongue,” preparing the fields for planting.

As the plants grew, workers thinned and weeded them throughout the spring. In the early summer, when the plants were taller, the cotton needed “chopping,” which consisted of removing weeds from around the cotton stalk. “Mopping” the plants with a mixture of arsenic and molasses killed boll weevils. In the late summer, the stalks were heavy with cotton capsules called bolls, each filled with fluffy cotton fiber and sticky seeds. Weeding required great care to prevent damage to the stalk. By now the plants were waist high, and everyone waited for the bolls to ripen through the end of the summer and into early fall. Even in July, when croppers “laid their crop by” (waited for the plants to bloom) there was much work to do.

When the cotton bolls finally burst open, the fibers dried, making the cotton ready to harvest about four to five months after planting. Picking cotton in the fall was a sun-up to sun-down job, with every family member moving through a sea of cotton to pluck the bolls. Moving row by row, pickers bent to pluck the boll from the stalk. They dragged sacks of cotton bolls behind them, sacks that were seven feet long. Picking cotton required bending and pulling for long hours.  Babies went to the fields with their mothers, lying on the cotton sheets used to collect bolls. Lunch was often hoe cakes, corn meal flat bread baked before dawn in the sharecroppers’ wood stove. It was back-breaking and hand-scarring work, as the bolls were sharp and cut into even callused hands. At night the work continued, as children were told to remove enough seed from the cotton bolls to fill their shoes before being allowed to go to bed.

Unlike cotton grown in coastal areas, upland cotton had short fibers and many seeds. That made it more difficult to clean, or “gin.” Hand ginning took a very long time. One person could clean about one pound of cotton in a day by hand. By 1929 Ira Ethridge’s mechanical gin would turn out 40 bales of cotton, each weighing 500 pounds. Clean cotton, called “lint,” was ready to be marketed and spun. Sharecroppers looked forward to the day cotton went to the gin, when they could watch a year of work be weighed. Children of sharecroppers remember the privilege of going to the gin with their father. Wagons lined up with cotton to be ginned; afterwards those wagons, now loaded with cotton bales, headed to markets in Commerce, or Harmony Grove, or Winder.

Sometimes ginning would continue until January, when sharecroppers would “settle up” their account with Ira Ethridge, after the cotton had been sold. Each sharecropper received half of the money from the sale of his crop. From that amount, Ira Ethridge subtracted whatever the sharecropper had bought at the commissary during the year. These items would include fertilizer and insecticide. In good years, sharecroppers could set aside some money to buy their own land, but in bad years, they went deeper into debt.

January and February were months to repair equipment and ready the fields. The year began all over again, as farmers prepared the “bed” for cotton by pulling out old stalks before plowing the field. Then they plowed the earth and planted the seeds again.

The seasons ruled even the schooling of the children. In 1909 Jackson County built a new school just up the road from the Ethridge house, on property donated by Susan Ella Ethridge’s single brothers. Called the “Bachelors’ Academy,” the school served white children from grades one through seven, who walked from neighboring farms to attend the two room schoolhouse. Black children walked to a school farther away until 1938. That year, white students began traveling to a consolidated school in Jefferson and black children began attending Bachelors’ Academy. During cotton picking season, school days were shortened or cancelled, so that children could help harvest cotton.

Almost everything the sharecroppers ate, wore, or used during the year was home-made, except shoes. If the one pair of shoes each family bought at the beginning of the year wore out, that pair was wired together to last. The new pair of overalls and an orange that the Ethridges gave each sharecropper and his family members at Christmas was an exception to the self-sufficiency of sharecropping.

Sharecroppers grew crops of corn, wheat, and vegetables around their homes, and raised chickens and pigs. January was a time for killing hogs and preserving sausage and hams in a smokehouse. Cows provided milk and butter. Families drew water from a well and planted fruit trees and berry bushes around their houses. Spring yielded “polk salad,” made from the tender green leaves of this wild plant. Blackberries, strawberries, and plums were gathered and canned. Fall provided pecans and black walnuts. Sharecropping families took advantage of everything they could in the environment for sustenance. And everyone in the family worked hard to use their resources wisely.

Nature also supplied house-keeping materials. Digging “white mud,” clay called kaolin, from the nearby creek banks provided paint for the fireplace or to brighten the inside of houses during spring cleaning. Cut and dried berry bushes and sourwood trees made brooms, which were used each week to sweep the yard clean.

Every family member had chores. Some chopped wood and stacked it for the stove and fire place. Others cleaned and filled coal oil or kerosene lamps. Someone needed to wash clothes outdoors in a large pot over an open fire, and then lay or hang them to dry in the fresh air. Children rose at 4 A.M. to feed livestock and milk cows. They set tubs of water out in the sun, so that they could bathe in warm water when they returned from the fields. Even the youngest child used a sawed off hoe to chop cotton from plants needing weeding, or carried a “pick sack” made of a fertilizer bag to pluck bolls.

An Ethridge family member recalled: “People used what they had, they worked for a living, and they were proud of their work.” Former sharecroppers on the Shields-Ethridge Farm remember singing in the fields while harvesting cotton, of jumping aboard the wagon to tamp down the raw cotton, or of shucking corn on rainy days. Many who remembered their childhood in a sharecroppers’ family counted having work to do as a blessing.

Questions for Reading 1

1. What does the term “sharecropper” mean? What was the agreement between the landowners (Ira Washington and Susan Ella Ethridge) and the sharecroppers on the Shields-Ethridge farm?

2. How did a year on the “cotton clock” develop? Draw a timeline to show the steps necessary to grow and harvest cotton.

3. Why was upland cotton hard to clean? What specific term is used to describe cleaning cotton?

4. Sharecroppers had almost no cash. How did they get along without money?

5. What were some of the children’s responsibilities? Which chores do you think you would have preferred? Which would be your least favorite?

Reading 1 was compiled from Ian Firth, Landscape Master Plan of the Shields-Ethridge Heritage Farm (Athens GA: Robinson Fisher Associates, Inc., 1998); Frances Patricia Stalling, “Presenting Mr. Ira’s Masterpiece: Two Centuries of Agricultural Change at the shields-Ethridge Farm” (Masters Thesis, The University of Georgia); Rob Shapard, “Shields-Ethridge Farm: Preserving Our Past,” Athens Magazine, May-June, 1997; Oral Interviews with Rachel Watson, Sarah Bailey and Geneva Shields, Jefferson, Georgia, May 3, 2005; Oral interview with Susan Ethridge Chaisson, Jefferson, Georgia, April 12, 2005; G. C. Fite. Cotton Fields No More, 1865-1980 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1984); A. Burton, The Rise and Fall of King Cotton (London: Deutsch, 1985); Pete Daniel, Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures Since 1880 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985); Jerry Pytlak, “The Economics of Cotton Farming,” The New International 5, no. 4 (1939); Diane Messick, K. Joseph, Natalie Adams, Tilling the Earth: Georgia’s Historic Agricultural Heritage: A Context (Atlanta,  GA: Georgia Department of Natural Resources, 2001; That Sitton, ed., Harder than Hardscrabble: Oral Recollections of the Farming Life from the Edge of the Texas Hill Country (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004); Charles C. Bolton, Poor White of the Antebellum South: Tenants and Laborers in Central North Carolina and Northeast Mississippi (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994)

1 Ian Firth, Landscape Master , 15.

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