A crop-duster applying pesticide to cotton, late 1930s
America's love affair with the airplane began in the 1920s. But barnstorming was not the only application of the new "winged gospel." The airplane had a substantial influence on agribusiness, making chemical applications cheap, effective, and far quicker than in the past. Lee Wilson & Company was using this technique in the 1930s. Airborne application of chemicals became common in the Arkansas Delta in the 1950s and 1960s and remains so to this day.
Waiting to dump cotton.
Every farm worker knows this routine all too well--waiting in line at the gin transcends labor, becoming a social occasion of men and boys trading stories. During the early years, the company did not rent land to share-croppers. Instead, the land was divided into 600-acre shares, about the maximum any one person could farm. Each of these large units had a farm manager, a house for the manager and his family, and numerous cabins for the African-Americans who worked the land. Most blacks were employed as day laborers, men and women who chopped and picked cotton, men who drove the mules.
A tractor applies chemicals to beds of freshly planted cotton
Down to 1925, the company planted only three crops. Half the plantation was given over to cotton, the other half was split evenly between alfalfa and corn. While cotton was their cash crop, alfalfa and corn were their fuel. Though they made great strides toward mechanization, most of the land was tilled with animal power and human sweat. Lee Wilson & Company added wheat to their mix in the early 1930s. As part of their continued efforts toward diversification, they constructed a flour mill as well. But the mill was later abandoned when it proved unprofitable.
Cotton being dumped by mechanical pickers
The mechanization of agriculture in the first half of the twentieth century changed forever the demographics of rural America. Once this labor had been done by tenants, pulling thirty-pound sacks behind them in the field, as they ripped cotton from its bolls, often cutting their hands on its sharp edges. Mechanized agriculture changed all that. While making production more efficient, it eliminated the need for a large force of farm workers in the South. One of the most unfortunate results of mechanization was the rapid decline in the number of farmers and growth in the size of farms, as overproduction forced the formation of ever larger landholdings to make farming profitable. Yet the changes were slow. At Lee Wilson & Company much of the harvesting was done by hand until the 1960s.
A new kind of farm worker
The use of tractors changed far more than the way crops were produced. Before machines plowed the land, farming was a social experience, a life of men and women talking and telling stories as they worked in the fields. Laughter and song was replaced by the drone of the engine and the isolation of the mechanical process. No longer a worker of the field, the farmer sits above the land watching with strange fascination the transformation of the soil.
The Rowena Lee waits to be loaded
Could this be 1850 or 1930? One of the unchanging elements of Delta life
was the mighty Mississippi River. The river
was the source of the life-giving soil from which Delta cotton
grew. It also provided cheap and easy transportation for those who
sent cotton south to Memphis or New Orleans. But with its treasures
came equal dangers. Floods destroyed both life and property. Dealing
with the whims of the "Deep Black" was a problem each Delta citizen faced
beofre the leveee system was complete.
Cotton trailers being weighed in, two at a time, at the Keiser gin. Each wagon holds roughly two bales of seed cotton. Throughout the history of Lee Wilson & Company, cotton production has formed the cornerstone of their agri-business empire.
Trailers at the wait
Here cotton waits to be ginned. These sheds at the Keiser gin were built to hold thirty bales of cotton. When this picture was taken, the sheds were insufficient to shelter all those wagons waiting to be processed.
The compress process
Once picked, cotton must be ginned and compressed before shipping. Here a worker loads a five-hundred-pound compressed bale.
A dinky stacks bales of finished cotton in the compress storage warehouse.
The Arkansas Compress and Storage Company
Once compressed, cotton had to be stored until it was shipped for sale, from a few days to a few months, depending on prices and weather.
The Lee Wilson & Company Gin at Marie, Arkansas
Due to the extent of operations in southern Mississippi County, the company maintained decentralized operations until well after the Second World War. As in the era past with sawmills and lumber yards, the company ginned cotton at several strategic locations.
The company's gin at Victoria, Arkansas
Here a "pick-up baler" works to bale alfalfa straw. In 1940, Lee Wilson & Company owned twenty-five of these "pulled balers." These fields produced forty thousand tons of alfalfa annually.
A Harvest of oats
Both balers and harvesters were pulled behind tractors. Here a Massey-Harris tractor pulls a harvester through a field of oats.
Harvesting oats, 1930
The rear view of a multi-purpose harvester, cutting its way through a field of oats. Modern harvesters are self-propelled machines. Even though these machines look slow, they were a great improvement over earlier mechanical reapers.
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