Cotton was king in farming
Cotton was king in farming
By Larry Dale
Daily Courier Staff Writer
Part 1 – July 7, 2009
FOREST CITY – Rutherford County was built on agriculture. In that regard, it was virtually identical to frontier settlements everywhere.
Farming was the mainstay for families spread thinly through the county in the late 1700s.
Native American nations provided the first human opposition to white settlement of what would later become Rutherford County.
Forts in the county testified to the danger of Indian attack.
“The county was born in the late 1700s (April 14,1779),” said Wilbur Burgin, a retired Navy captain who is director of the Rutherford County Farm Museum, on Depot Street in Forest City. “And this was really the frontier at that time. The Indians were the opposition. To the west the Cherokees and to the east we still have the Catawba.
“Rutherford County and this area in between never really had permanent Indian villages. Most tribes used it for hunting, fighting and fishing. But there are an awful lot of Indian arrowheads in this area.”
The frontiersmen also faced opposition from the British crown, which thought that the colonists were becoming too demanding.
The men who defeated the British at nearby Kings Mountain during the Revolutionary War were farmers.
Rutherford County men helped fill the ranks of the quickly assembled Patriot force. These men returned to their farms and families and helped launch a new nation in one of the riskiest endeavors of all – farming. For most of them, agriculture meant farming just to produce enough to provide for their family’s needs.
Bill Sharpe, writing about Rutherford County in the Aug. 31, 1963, issue of “The State” magazine, wrote, “County Historian Clarence Griffin says that after the war Rutherford had poor markets, bad highways, few schools, depreciated currency — they had naught but freedom and farm products, manhood and energy.”
From the earliest settlement, subsistence farming was practiced, said Chivous Bradley, a longtime agriculture teacher at Chase High School. “Just about everybody was farming, mostly small farmsteads. The early settlers used some of the old Indian fields, and they did a lot of clearing of their own.”
And an account from early in the 19th century is a reminder that the same drought conditions that plagued cattle producers, particularly, in Rutherford County in 2008 also hurt farmers then.
County historian Nancy Ellen Ferguson, writing in “Rutherford County 1978: A People’s Bicentennial History,” says that Gen. John Carson, a resident of Cane Creek Valley, wrote in 1816 to his brother in Indiana about farming conditions in Rutherford County.
He said that cattle were bringing $43 per head and cotton $25 to $35 a bale, which caused farmers to clear more land for planting. He adds, however, that from July 10 until autumn there was not enough rainfall to lay the dust.
The Centennial community, in Cane Creek Valley, was known for farming and sawmilling before the textile industry came along, the book notes.
Many areas of the county provided good farmland. The “Bicentennial History” says, for example, that the soil around the crossroads of Forest City (once known as Burnt Chimney) was rich and fertile, with few steep hills, so it was considered good farming land.
Even those people who didn’t farm were directly dependent on farming. Gristmills depended on grain from the farms, and blacksmiths depended on tending to farm animals. The few stores often took produce in exchange for needed goods, a practice that continued well into the 20th century.
A small booklet called “1884: Looking Back 86 Years At Rutherford County” reports these people doing blacksmithing and wheelwrighting: B.W. Baber, J.M. Calton and J.K. Harrison in Sunshine; Anderson Bishop, George Payne, Samuel Payne and Henry White in Green Hill; L.L. Blankenship, James Camp and John Camp in Cuba (now the Gilkey area); J.H. Goforth and S.D. Green in Oak Spring; J.R. Harrison, Daniel Milton and Benjamin Price in First Broad; and I. Randal in Butler.
“Another thing that they had back then, communitywide, were water wheels, water mills,” Burgin said. “Water out of a sluice would go to a waterwheel and that was power, then, for his mill. And he would run quite a few things off of it, with belts and pulleys. You might have a corn grinder or a gristmill, as they called it.
“Each community needed their gristmill. I can remember when I was a boy putting sacks of corn on the back of a mule and going about half a mile to Mr. Brackett’s. He would take that corn and shell it and-then run it through the gristmill and mom would give me a white sack, and he would put the meal in that sack and he would take out scoops for his pay. That’s the way he got paid for it. So that was another community function we had, in the late 1800s, early 1900s, probably through World War II.”
The influx of settlers into the county in the 1800s led to a significant social change.
“In the 1800s it (the county) developed; more people came in,” said Burgin. “They started living by communities. Up until the community they were just existing, trading with their neighbors. They had no cash crop to speak of. It was too far to haul anything to market. No good roads. And of course it would have been horses and wagons.”
The “Looking Back” booklet reports this breakdown of livestock in the county in 1884: 1,337 horses, 1,467 mules, 115 goats, 6,700 cattle, 10,563 hogs and 7,096 sheep, spread over 66,698 acres of improved land and 205,612 acres of unimproved land. The county’s population was 15,198.
The need for a cash crop, what Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines as “a readily salable crop produced or gathered primarily for market,” led wide swaths of the American South, including Rutherford County, to raise cotton.
From the 1800s and on into the mid-20th century, cotton was an important cash crop for many families in the county.
The mule was the first “tractor” for the production of cotton, and the bolls were picked by hand, so early cotton farming was labor intensive. But there was plenty of labor around, both slave and free, so that was seldom an issue.
Even today, many people in the county can recall working in the Rutherford cotton fields. One remembered the painful sting of the saddleback caterpillar when picking cotton and the use of snuff to ease the pain. The caterpillar is called a saddleback because it appears to have a blanket and saddle on its back. Others recall with pride how much cotton they or their parents could pick in a day’s time. And Ed McDaniel of the Colfax gin in Ellenboro, when asked if it was hard to work with a mule said no, but “it’s all that walking.”
Sharpe, in the 1963 State magazine article, noted, “Farmers then with large families – or tenants with large, families – were at an avantage, for the crop required much labor. An old saying was ‘never plant more cotton than your wife can cultivate.'”
If you grow cotton, you have to have a cotton gin to separate the seeds and hulls from the cotton so it is usable. Rutherford County had many cotton gins. It was essential that each area of the county have at least one gin because transporting the cotton long distances was impractical by wagon.
“Each community also had its own cotton gin,” Burgin, of the farm museum, said. “Maybe even had two or three. In Forest City there were three around the area. Kids ask; ‘Why so many?’ And I say, `Well, how did they haul it to the gin?’ You didn’t want to haul it 20 miles and when you get there maybe be a big, long line. So there was a demand for it.”
Bradley, too, remembers a time when the county had quite a few cotton gins.
“When I was a youngster there was a cotton gin at Shiloh,” he said. “Big cotton gin there. Right over here behind Jim Cole’s store there was the Grose cotton gin. In Harris, Edgar Rollins had the cotton gin.
“So within five miles of here there were three cotton gins. And that’s just how much cotton was being produced in the 1950s. Grose gin, I think, went out in the early 1950s. Harris was one of the last ones to go out.”
(In Part 2: With Rutherford County now having a cash crop in cotton, it was inevitable that someone would step up and profit from that crop through manufacturing. Textile mills made their first appearance in the late 1800s, and the county was about to undergo some major changes.)
Reprinted with permission from The Daily Courier. Copyright owned by The Daily Courier.