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
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
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
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