Bailey Thomson
Professor

Journalism

University of Alabama
Box 870172
Tuscaloosa, Al 35487
Office: 205-348-8617
Fax: 205-348-2780
Email: bthomson@ alabamawriter.com
 
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            ALICEVILLE, Ala. - My father reached his apogee as a farmer one Indian summer day in 1956 when 10,000 sheep tumbled from the rail cars at the plain, wooden Frisco Depot in our west Alabama town of Aliceville. The young animals had traveled 1,400 miles by train, from the Navajo country of New Mexico.

            The October air reeked of warm lanolin - a sickly perfume - as my older brothers and the hired hands loaded the sheep into cotton wagons, the only available transport, and hauled them to our farm. The men worked until dark, while curious townspeople watched the stream of bleating captives go by.

            My family kept half of the shipment, and the remaining sheep went to other farms in the area. The plan was to fatten the animals over the winter, then ship them in the spring to the New York lamb market. My father knew from having fed 1,000 sheep the previous year that bad things could happen - wet weather, parasites, dogs. But at age 55, he was rolling the dice in hopes that a quick profit might win for him his independence from other people's money.

            Already, Bill Thomson was the biggest cotton grower in Pickens County, and usually the first to embrace innovation. Yet he wasn't satisfied. He was reminded of his dependent status each spring when he visited with the Aliceville bank's president, John A. Somerville, a dignified old gentleman whose family ranked among the local aristocracy. They would decide how much money my father needed for his crop, and Mr. John A. would advance that sum in $5,000 increments. It galled my father to gather his receipts from buying fertilizer or tractor parts and explain how he had spent the previous installment before he could draw another.

            Most people around town probably thought my father had his own money. Our family lived relatively well, and although we didn't own the land we farmed, we rented some of the county's most fertile acreage. Newspapers featured my father as a model farmer, one who knew how to diversify his crops and adopt the latest technology.

            In 1953, for example, a photograph in The Tuscaloosa News showed my father and me looking at some of the 200 pigs he was raising. Next to us was an Alabama Cooperative Extension agent named Allen Mathews. My father had 400 acres of cotton that year, 250 acres of corn, 225 acres of soybeans and 60 acres of grain sorghum. He told the reporter he believed in farming that reflected the latest scientific thinking - an attitude that surely pleased Mathews and his fellow Extension agents, who served as conduits between farmers and researchers at what is now Auburn University.

            Sometimes, an agent would interview my father during the farm show on the little local radio station - WRAG - in nearby Carrollton. At other times, my father would speak to local groups about agriculture or some political issue. "Mr. Bill," as people always called him, tended to be the center of any conversation he joined. His careful diction and clear voice suggested he had a college education, which he didn't, and his courtly manners, especially around women, lent an air of gentility. He had a Roman nose, like his South Carolina ancestors, and blue eyes. His fair complexion forced him to cover his balding head with a hat - a straw hat in the summer and wool in the winter. He looked distinguished when dressed in a dark suit, and he favored bow ties that he knotted himself. His typical attire, however, was khaki pants and an open-neck shirt.

            In 1954, my father bought a new Nash Rambler sedan in Columbus, Miss., about 30 miles west of Aliceville. It was white with a red top, and it had cold air blowing out of two funnels on the rear window ledge. Few people in Aliceville had seen an air-conditioned car and certainly not one with electric, push-button windows. With my mother, Attie, sitting beside him, we drove home and stopped at a little store to buy gas. An older man dressed in overalls and missing his front teeth came out to the pump, then called for his wife to come see. My father showed them how the windows worked and let the man sit at the wheel and feel the cool air blowing.

            "My, my. Now ain't that nice," the man said.

            "Now ain't it, though," his wife replied.

            My mother, who was 46, could barely conceal her mirth, and we often repeated that story around the dinner table. Although my father's impetuous ideas sometimes exasperated my mother, she enjoyed being with him, and he was proud of her. She retained a trim figure and pulled her long, black hair into a bun. She loved movies and books, and she could be as passionate about politics as my father. Often, she would laugh at something he said and exclaim, "Oh, Bill, quit telling that!"

            That year, in particular, they needed each other's support, because 1954 became a benchmark for hard times. Even today it haunts our family's collective memory.

            By the time we bought the new Rambler, my father had planted all the cotton the federal government allowed him to grow under its price-support program. The plants grew waist high or better and were full of white blooms. There was little to do but wait and keep the boll weevils at bay. Every night after supper and a shot or two of whiskey, my father would stand on the front porch of our farmhouse and look across the fields, which began just beyond a white fence. Sometimes, the smell of fresh poison drifted across the green tops of the cotton, after a crop duster had flown over. My father would study the distant clouds for signs of moisture and measure each precious inch of rain that fell on our place. Upon arising before dawn, he would plug in the coffee pot my mother had prepared the night before and listen to WRAG for the weather report.

            Around late July 1954, when I was 5 years old, my father loaded my mother, my brother, Matt, my sister, Becky, and me into the Rambler and headed for Panama City, Fla., and the Gulf of Mexico. We rented a seaside cabin, where my mother cooked great feasts of flounder and shrimp. My father walked the beaches to take his mind off the farm. At night we went places, even to dances at the beach pavilion. Matt was 15 and Becky was 13, and it probably embarrassed them to see their father glide across the floor with a pretty girl from the crowd. My mother laughed to see him have a good time, and they often held hands.

            After about a week, my brother, Tom, who was 18 and had stayed behind, reported over the telephone that there had been no rain, and the cotton was beginning to wilt in the fierce heat. The drought had resumed. Soon, our Rambler was rolling back home. Any hope for a good crop that year had vanished like heat rays rising from a parched field.

            County farmers harvested less than 200 pounds of cotton to the acre, about half what they had expected for 1954. We kept the Nash Rambler, but my father must have come close to bankruptcy. He saved us with his ability to talk his way into another loan at the bank and more credit with the farm machinery dealers. Other big farmers were in a similar tight, but most of them owned their land and could use it as collateral. My father, by contrast, survived on his wits and his charm. He had to have money - other people's money - to make a living.

            I suppose we would have been finished on the farm had the drought continued through the following year. But the weather cycle changed in 1955. The rains stayed through the summer, and the fields proved to be unusually fertile because the previous, drought-ridden crop had not sucked up all the fertilizer my father had applied. The cotton grew tall and thick. Against this deep green, the blooms luxuriated, as if the plants were ornamentals. This time, the cotton's fruit ripened into snowy balls of white fiber that averaged a bale to the acre, about 500 pounds. On our richest fields, the yield was more than twice that average.

            This time, the enemy wasn't drought but surplus. Even with the federal government's attempts to restrict acreage, impersonal forces conspired to drive down prices, as production surged in Arizona and California, where irrigated fields free of boll weevils produced bigger yields. Further competition came from synthetic fibers such as rayon. While the government struggled to prop up prices, production costs rose, as farmers resorted to bigger machinery and costly chemicals. Still, my father and other farmers in our county persisted in believing they had only to find the right combination of crops and livestock to prosper.

            In fact, no other decade rivals the 1950s for the magnitude of change that swept Southern agriculture. In 1945, when one in four Alabamians depended upon farming for a livelihood, fewer than 7 percent of farms had tractors. But by 1960, tractors had become so common that the agricultural census no longer enumerated mules separately. Moreover, livestock production jumped after World War II. Researchers developed new protein-rich grasses and learned how to control pests, such as flesh-eating screwworms.

            Federal soil conservation programs encouraged the conversion of fields into pastures, and farmers used tractors and balers to turn hay into a profitable crop. A journalist traveling across the South in 1947 wrote that the greatest change he saw was the proliferation of beef and dairy cattle.

            My father occasionally bought and sold cattle, and he often raised fine hogs. But his heart belonged to the cotton culture, in which he had been born and reared. By 1955, he was renting 1,000 acres at Vienna, a deserted town on the Tombigbee River, in addition to 350 acres where we lived, called the Bailey Place. (The name of the latter referred to the owners.) Year-round, he hired about a half-dozen tractor drivers, and during the cotton season he depended upon several large families of laborers to hoe and pick the cotton. Technology, however, was replacing even these seasonal field workers, who were becoming scarce as migration from farm to city intensified. My father bought his first mechanical cotton picker in 1955 to help harvest his bumper crop. The Pickens County Herald featured him in a photograph standing on the machine next to his best tractor driver, a man named "Red" Drews. Another photograph shows my father and Mr. John A., our banker, in the midst of the chest-high plants.

            The picker was not as meticulous, however, as human hands. Its spindles gathered husks and other trash, which it dumped into a waiting wagon along with the cotton. The result gummed up the local gins in Aliceville, forcing my father to send his cotton about 40 miles away to a farming village named Boligee, where a gin had newer equipment that could separate fiber from trash.

            The burden of this responsibility harmed my father's health, I believe. By 1955, he had suffered his first heart attack, from which he never fully recovered. He had to depend even more upon his sons to help manage the farm and perform some of the skilled labor. One of my older brothers, Bo, was serving with the U.S. Army in Korea, and the next brother, Tom, had enrolled at Auburn University. Their absence left just Matthew, Becky and me at home. Both Matt and Becky were leaders in 4-H work, and Matt was the county's top young farmer in the club's competitions. After he netted $176 an acre from his demonstration plot, The Tuscaloosa News declared, "Matthew has proven once again that cotton still has a place in Alabama."

            My father also could count upon the local Extension agents, who frequently visited our farm and advised him how to improve his production. It was during such a conversation that he learned about feeder lambs.

            In 1955, Cecil Davis, who had just come to Pickens County to be the new head agent, and his assistant, Robert Thornton, attended a seminar at the livestock experimental station at Marion Junction, a nearby crossroads. They heard a specialist named W.H. "Mutt" Gregory explain why Alabama was ideal for producing lambs for markets in the eastern United States. Gregory proposed that local farmers import thousands of the young animals in the fall, let them graze on their pastures, and then sell them in the spring, by which time the sheep would have doubled in weight. Thus Alabama would have another livestock industry, and farmers could earn cash over the otherwise idle winter months. Another incentive was that farmers could feed the corn they grew to their sheep. In 1955, corn was averaging just $1.14 per bushel, down from $1.45 the previous year. Such low grain prices were favorable for converting the corn into succulent lamb.

            There were only about 12,000 sheep in the whole state, although at the turn of the century Alabama farmers reported raising more than 300,000 head. In fact, production for the United States had fallen from 51 million head in 1884 to just 26 million. Some said the military cooks' clumsy attempts to serve mutton during World War II turned GIs' stomachs. More certain were the ravages from internal parasites that infested Southern flocks.

            But if Alabamians shunned the meat, many big-city neighborhoods, especially along the East Coast, retained their taste for lamb. Auburn's Gregory assured Extension agents that sheep were the most profitable livestock, and that science could control the pests. Indeed, sheep were the only animals that could fatten out to market weight - at least, theoretically - on grass alone.

            Gregory worked with a buying agent for Armour and Co. named E.H. Mattingly of St. Louis. Armour was eager to develop a lamb supply east of the Mississippi River, and especially one that could compete with areas such as Virginia that traditionally produced eastern spring lamb. The plan for 1955 called for Alabama farmers to import about 50,000 feeder lambs from Arizona and New Mexico, where the Navajo and Hopi Indians raised huge flocks. Armour offered to lend growers money to pay for the stock at 4 percent interest. The company guaranteed it would buy the lambs back in the spring and pay the farmers for the weight that the animals gained.

            The idea attracted farmers in 49 of Alabama's 67 counties. In Pickens County, Davis promoted the idea over his weekly radio show. Ten farmers responded and put down $100 each toward the first shipment in October. They also agreed to pay for vaccinations. My father signed up for 1,000 head. Under the agreement, the farmers could keep up to half of the females - the ewes - to build a permanent flock. In announcing the new program, the Cooperative Extension Service declared, "This potential with sheep for the years ahead looks like one of the safest and best on many farms in Alabama."

            The sheep bound for Pickens arrived one crisp football afternoon in October at the Frisco Depot in Aliceville. Davis and Thornton were there to help unload the animals, but there was trouble. The lambs arrived about three weeks later than expected, and many had lost weight. Farmers looked through the slats of the livestock cars, shook their heads and even cursed the venture. They had been charged for 50-pound lambs, but many of the animals weighed only half that. My father, however, didn't pay much attention to such discouraging details. He was ready to get on with raising sheep. His helpers hauled the sheep back to the Bailey Place, where we had a large livestock barn and good pastures.

            Until that fall of 1955, my father's only association with sheep came from Bible stories he had learned as a child. Still, he probably figured that sheep acted pretty much as cows and hogs did. Therefore, if one simply went behind the animals, whooping and waving one's arms, they would move in unison toward the desired destination.

            Actually, herding sheep is like pushing Jell-O. You can get some of them going on one end of the flock, but cooperation sags at the other end.

            One afternoon, as the sheep milled around on our place, my father decided to herd them to the barn lot, where we fed them grain at night and protected them from predators. He began waving his arms and hollering. The sheep looked at him with their unknowing eyes and marched around in circles. My father resorted to more exaggerated motions and yelling, while beginning to run behind the frightened creatures. He even tried baaing like a sheep. Suddenly, his feet went out from under him and he landed on his back. His unrepentant flock stared dumbly at his predicament.

            Such frustration persuaded my father that the farm needed a herding dog. Two dogs, in fact. He found them by word of mouth, I suppose, and we picked them up at the owner's country store. They were rough collies, along the Lassie model, and their beautiful looks suggested that they were supposed to herd something. My father introduced them to their new charges, and the dogs looked back at him with uncertainty. We might just as well have taken our bird dogs to the pasture, for all the good Lassie's look-alikes did. Within a few weeks, my father hauled the dogs back. A year would pass before we realized that the proper herding dog for sheep was not the beautiful rough collie but rather its lean, working-class cousin, the border collie.

            Gradually, we learned more about our flock and how to care for it. Every morning, the sheep would walk out through a fenced passage to the big grazing area about a quarter of a mile from the barn. One of the hands would check on them during the day, and in the evening several of us would bring them back. Walking behind the animals with my brothers and the hands, I learned how to get a few of the sheep started in the right direction and then encourage the rest to follow. There were no days off from this routine, unlike cultivating cotton, which allowed the crew to knock off at dinnertime on Saturday.

            One reward for this hard work, however, occurred after about half a dozen of the lambs fattened too early for the market. My father had them slaughtered, and my mother learned to cook leg of lamb and extra-thick chops. As my father's partner, she did not busy herself with many details of the farm. She preferred to run our large household, cooking fresh vegetables, meats and cornbread for the noon-day meal that she served seven days a week to her family and to any farm hands lucky enough to be around. Her life outside the home centered on the church - singing in the choir, teaching Sunday school and attending circle meetings.

            In early March, Armour arranged for a crew to shear our sheep. They worked in the barn with their electric shears, while my brother Matt and other hands chased down sheep for them. These shearers, who had a strange accent that probably was Australian, could yank an animal up like a small child and have its fleece off in a minute or less. Our hired hands swept the wool into piles, then threw it into sacks 6 or 8 feet long hanging from scaffolds. A worker named Tyler, who seemed enormous to me, yet gentle and meek, climbed into the sacks and trampled the wool into a compact mass.

            Despite our inexperience, the sheep experiment went remarkably well, at least for our farm. One reason was that my father followed the county agents' instructions. To control the parasites, the main one being a stomach worm, we treated the lambs with a dose of nicotine and copper sulfate, which was a common remedy in the 1950s. There was enough grass to fatten them, with a supplement of some ground corn, and the lambs reached 80 pounds or more by springtime.

            According to the Pickens County Herald, my father was the first to ship a rail car load of feeder lambs from Alabama. That was in March 1956. A few weeks later, eight more carloads left the county, accompanied by two from Tuscaloosa. Under the agreement with Armour, farmers received the same price for their lambs that the St. Louis markets offered on that particular marketing day, which came to about 19 cents a pound.

            The Herald quoted Agent Thornton as the lambs were being loaded: "A new day may be dawning for the raising and feeding of sheep in this county." Our father certainly thought so. Our farm made enough money on the first sheep to suggest that he had found a queen for King Cotton - a fat feeder lamb. Next time, he would cut his own deal with Armour and raise the stakes fivefold.

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Part II : Winter of Rains and Ruins

A Queen for King Cotton

Originally published in the Mobile Register, Dec. 19, 1999

The author at age eight with the family's sheepdog "Lady"
By Bailey Thomson