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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: The Shrinking Village

With things going so well in 1929, what happened to the sharecroppers’ village in the next decade? Why was the life of this industrial and agricultural complex so short?

The story from here on is complex. Market forces beyond “Mr. Ira’s” control would soon affect every small cotton farmer in the South. Profit from cotton production depended on two factors: supply and demand. Supply was affected by how much cotton could be planted, harvested, and ginned. Demand depended upon competition from other countries, requirements of cotton mills, and availability of other fibers (such as synthetics). There was some irony in how the equation worked. Increased efficiency in ginning soon caused the cotton supply to exceed demand.  Innovation in productive techniques increased output as the purchasing power of wage earners fell during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Cotton prices fell from 18 to 6 cents a pound in October 1929. By 1936 the US produced only 37% of the world’s cotton, half the market it dominated in earlier years.

During the worst economic slump in U.S. history, one in four men was unemployed throughout the country. At the Shields-Ethridge Farm, however, twenty-five sharecroppers worked throughout the Great Depression. Each sharecropper worked less than 10 acres each, but managed to feed his family.

A cash-poor country became more desperate. The 1932 Agricultural Adjustment Act restricted the supply of cotton to raise prices. The federal government paid farmers not to plant cotton. As a result, the price of cotton went up to 15 cents a pound in 1936. However, the reduced acreage through the Agricultural Adjustment Act also decreased the need for labor. Fewer sharecroppers worked reduced cotton acres.

In addition, increased mechanization further reduced the demand for human and animal labor. The rapid changes in farming labeled this period “the agricultural revolution.” Tractors were replacing mules, as they could work five times the acreage a mule could plow. The Rust cotton picker, invented in 1936, decreased the need for human cotton pickers by 75%.

Synthetic alternatives to cotton also began to command more and more of the fabric market. The Great Depression produced consumers who wanted clothes to last. In 1940 a much tougher nylon was first produced, following research by the DuPont Company. Rayon, a fiber made from wood pulp, also was a popular synthetic by the 1940s. The sale of natural fibers declined dramatically with the advent of nylon, rayon, and other synthetic fibers developed soon after.

Sharecroppers had developed a wide range of skills to contribute to the agricultural/business complex at the Shields-Ethridge Farm. Now they faced hard choices. Some stayed, expanding the work they did for pay from blacksmithing to auto repair. Sharecroppers who knew when to use fertilizer and when to apply insecticide, as well as  which seed was the best to plant had little work in these low cotton demand days. Some sharecroppers joined a great migration from farm to city in search of a more dependable source of income and better pay.

Slowly, a way of life ground to a halt. “Mr. Ira” died in 1945. By 1950 the commissary closed; the gin shut its doors in 1964. The Shields-Ethridge Farm no longer grew cotton after 1969. Today most days at the Shields-Ethridge Heritage Farm are quiet.  Ira Washington Ethridge’s grand daughter and her family live in the homestead. The buildings, equipment, and records remain in place. The story they have to tell has only been partially revealed. Many questions remain for the records kept by “Mr. Ira.” Still, a subtle picture is emerging, in which the sharecropper village appears to have fostered a shared culture during an agricultural revolution in the United States.

An active and communal life has returned to the farm. A foundation started in 1994 is assisting in restoring buildings that had been vacant for 50 years. Volunteers and preservation professionals are creating a museum. The farm’s 60 or more buildings, located on 143 acres of the Heritage Foundation property, make up this museum. The Bachelors’ Academy is no longer home to buzzards, or the teacher’s house for squirrels. On select days, visiting children sit at old desks within the schoolhouse, race down the field toward the commissary and the blacksmith shop, draw water from a well at the teacher’s house, watch mules plough the field, and help plant cotton seed.

.Questions for Reading 3

1. How did the Agricultural Adjustment Act benefit “Mr. Ira” and the sharecroppers? In what way did the act contribute to the problems?

2. What factors affected the supply of cotton and the demand for cotton between 1910 and 1940? Why is this period called an “agricultural revolution?”

3. Do you think it is important to preserve a farm like this? Why or why not?

Reading 3 was compiled from Frances Patricia Stalling, Presenting Mr. Ira’s Masterpiece: Two Centuries of Agricultural Change at the Shields-Ethridge Farm (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia, 2002); Jack Kirby, Rural Worlds Lost: the American South 1920-1960, (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: The Louisiana State University, 1987); Louis Massari, “New Deal in Georgia,” The New Georgia Encyclopedia, (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 2004); Samuel Taylor, “Depression and the War, “ Our Georgia History, http://ourgeorgiahistory.com; S. Konter, C. East,. (Eds.) Vanishing Georgia, (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1994); Denise Messick, J.W. Joseph, Natalie Adams, “Tilling the Earth” (Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Historic Preservation Division, Atlanta, Georgia, 2001); Gilbert Fite, Cotton Fields No More: Southern Agriculture, 1865-1980 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1983); Pete Daniel, Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures since 1880 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985);I. W. Duggan and Paul Chapman, ’Round the World with Cotton (Washington: United States Department of Agriculture, United States Government Printing Office, 1941).

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