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 brother Bo returned home to our farm in March 1956, having finished his tour with the U.S. Army as a military policeman in Korea. I remember, as a first-grader, rushing from the school bus and leaping into his arms. He was still wearing his olive-green fatigues.

            Bo was 26, weighed about 160 pounds and stood 6 feet tall. Like my father, Bill Thomson, he had a fair complexion and handsome looks. The two men also shared an enthusiasm for trying new ventures on our cotton farm, which was a good thing, because we had imported 1,000 feeder lambs from New Mexico that winter to boost our income. After fattening the young sheep, we sold them in the spring to Armour and Co. and realized a nice profit. My father had a mind that we would raise many thousands more lambs the following fall.

            Bo came home expecting to be my father's junior partner on the farm. But their different temperaments set them apart. Bo liked mechanical things, and his preference for precision carried over to his personality. He wanted jobs done correctly and for rational reasons. His military service had exposed him to a different management style from the casual way my father ran the farm. However tiresome Army life might have been, Bo could count on other people carrying out their jobs according to clear rules.

            Not so when "Mr. Bill" was in charge. His way was paternalistic and personal. He didn't consult with anyone when he wanted to change things, save perhaps his banker, Mr. John A. Somerville, from whom he secured a large loan each year to make his cotton crop - the biggest in Pickens County. He had no formal system for keeping records, other than his canceled checks. Every Saturday afternoon, he dispensed pay and wisdom to his tractor drivers and other workers, often meeting with them under a shade tree behind the house. Other times, he entertained his friends around our dinner table. Most of them were cotton growers like him, drawn by his spirited conversation and his bourbon toddies in the late afternoons.

            I might add that my mother, Attie Thomson, understood both of her men and sometimes mediated differences between father and son. Dark-haired and still lovely at 48, she kept a stable, dignified home, counterbalancing my father's penchant for adventure and risk. Unlike him, she was deeply religious, calling on God and the Methodist Church to help raise her children and see us through difficult times on the farm. She did not interfere in the management, but her wise counsel and inner strength were assets as valuable as my father's creative mind and my brother's mechanical competency.

            With his fatigues and his photographs of Korea tucked away in a bottom drawer, Bo assumed the major duties of planting and harvesting the cotton crop in 1956. As the bolls ripened and burst open, he kept the cotton picker and other machinery running. He also supervised the field hands, usually 40 or more at a time. Some lived at Panola, a farming hamlet about 20 miles away. Bo would crank our big flatbed truck before dawn to fetch them and then head to our cotton fields.

            During the cotton-picking season, he would weigh their day's work in the late afternoon, using a scale that hung from a two-by-four nailed to a wagon. Bo would call out the amount to be credited to that particular picker's family, and one of our regular hands would record the numbers. Often one or two young African-American women in their late teens would keep an independent tally of weights. I don't know how much schooling they had, for their families depended upon them to work during the hoeing and picking seasons.

            After Bo returned to be, in effect, the farm's foreman, my father could relax a little more. We took a trip down to the beach, to Panama City, Fla., that summer; then in September, my brother, Tom, left to attend college at Auburn University, about 200 miles to the east, and my other brother, Matt, began his senior year in high school as captain of Aliceville's football team. Sometimes, my father would pick Matt up before practice ended so he could help with the chores. The late summer mellowed into a pleasant fall that brought success on the football field and the farm. Matt made the all-county team, and our farm turned a nice profit for 1956.

            It was about that time that my father resolved to parlay our cotton earnings into a bigger stake - one that might free us from borrowing and even allow us to quit renting land and start buying it. He negotiated with Armour and Co., agreeing to import 10,000 feeder lambs from New Mexico, half of which he would distribute to several subcontractors and half of which he would raise himself through the winter of 1956-57. Armour agreed to buy the lambs from us the following spring once they had nearly doubled their weight.

            The company had its eye on consumers in New York and other Eastern cities who relished fresh lamb. Southern producers such as my father were closer to those consumers than were the ranches out West and could presumably get their sheep there quicker, especially for the finicky kosher markets, which had strict rules about slaughtering livestock. Also, lambs could reach their prime quicker by grazing on Southern winter pastures - or at least that was the theory that Armour's agents promoted.

            The company invited my father to fly to Gallup, N.M., aboard commercial airliners and spend a week selecting his sheep from the huge flocks of Rambouillet lambs the Navajo Indians offered to sell. He sent us postcards of Indians, which showed them living in huts called hogans and tending their sheep. When he returned, he had on a new Stetson hat, and he wore a string tie with a figurine made by a Navajo craftsman. I remember how good and confident he looked that fall.

            As the 10,000 sheep arrived at Aliceville's Frisco Depot that October day in 1956, I suspect, a lot of people admired my father's ambition, even as others expressed skepticism about all the wagons full of woollies passing through town. Some folks compared this exotic event to the arrival of German prisoners of war in 1943, after the Army built a camp just outside of town. The POWs, who were captured from Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps, had disembarked at that same depot and marched to barracks ringed by barbed wire.

            Aliceville had enjoyed a boom from the Army's payroll for camp workers and guards. The town also benefited from the American soldiers who returned home after the war and became leaders and boosters. They were more ambitious for Aliceville than their parents had been. These young men joined the Chamber of Commerce and the local civic clubs and liked to say Aliceville was the "Biggest Little Town in West Alabama." In 1953, when Aliceville had about 3,500 people, the city council installed parking meters and the Post Office began home mail delivery. Three years later, Aliceville persuaded a company called F.C. Huyck and Sons of New York to build a plant for making industrial felts. The town already had a cotton mill, founded in 1928, which had 10,000 spindles and a village where many of its workers lived.

            My father's adventuresome style complemented the town's rising confidence. He belonged to a new era of farming that bore only a superficial resemblance to the old plantations. By now, most of the poor sharecroppers had disappeared from Southern agriculture, and commercial farmers like my father combined heavy capital investment with scientific methods to produce larger crops. They depended largely upon machines such as big tractors and cotton pickers. They were also quicker to diversify production than their predecessors had been.

            While my father enjoyed surprising the townspeople with his second shipment of young sheep, my brother Bo's perspective was quite different. The responsibility for tending the 5,000 fell upon him.

            No sooner had Bo and the hands settled the sheep into their new home, at our farm known as the Bailey Place, than rains began. Over the next months, the feedlot and pastures turned into deep mud from thousands of churning hooves.

            Bo had to send part of the flock to our other place, a farm at Vienna, a ghost town about five miles away. He allowed some of the sheep to forage over harvested cornfields - any place that could provide room and fodder. Fog often followed the rains, throwing a damp shroud over the sheep as Bo arrived each morning to tend them. The Tombigbee River bounded the place, and its waters rose over some of the pastures. To escape the flood, one bunch of sheep crawled out on a fallen tree, like birds on a telephone wire. The next morning, they forlornly greeted Bo and Robert Thornton, the assistant county agent.

            That fall, Bo met an attractive young woman named Nancy Herron, who came from Mississippi to teach commercial classes at the high school. They began courting, but Bo's farm work often interfered with romance. He usually didn't get home until after dark, and then he couldn't seem to scrape all the manure from his boots. Sometimes, it was too late to attend the picture show; so the young couple just rode down to Vienna for Bo to check on the sheep one more time - at least that was his excuse to be alone with Nancy.

            As pasture grass disappeared, my father decided to feed the sheep corn we had grown that year. The animals, however, were finicky eaters and often regurgitated the grain unless Bo had it ground into meal. Mud from all the rain prevented him from hauling the feed into the pastures. Instead, he and his helpers had to carry the feed sacks by hand from the road to the troughs, wading through the muck as they went. To improve the grazing, they planted winter grass. One January day, it was so cold that Matt developed an earache while putting out soda to stimulate the grass' growth. His ailment turned into Bell's palsy, leaving one side of his face paralyzed. He suffered from the affliction for two months, and some of his high school annual pictures reveal his distorted face.

            The sheep began coming down with various ailments themselves, including pneumonia and stomach worms. They probably had these parasites when they arrived from New Mexico. The worms would proliferate by laying eggs, which the sheep would excrete with its feces. The worms would hatch and crawl on the grass, and another sheep would eat them, passing on the infection. In Navajo country, the worms often died in the dry land, so they weren't such a problem there. My brothers took to dosing the animals, poking metal tubes down their throats or using glass bottles with long necks to inject the medicine.

            Bo built a fenced runway that allowed him to separate the sick sheep from the others, but he couldn't stop the dying. Carcasses lay on the ground every new morning.

            The final blow that winter arrived with the bone-chilling howl of a dog.

            The Navajos had learned their herding from the early Spanish settlers, who introduced sheep into the Southwest. A sheep-raising culture developed along both sides of what is now the U.S.-Mexican border, and it encouraged a semi-nomadic life, as shepherds moved their flocks back and forth with the seasons. Sheep bred for this kind of existence were tough survivors, but only within their native environment. They never faced wet winters. Nor were they accustomed to living in more settled areas, where neighbors' dogs formed into vicious packs.

            Pastures at Vienna, with its 1,000 acres, were isolated and surrounded by woods. Many families who worked on the farms still lived near the old river settlement, and virtually all of them kept dogs for hunting. Most were skinny, cowering animals that seemed harmless. But gathered in packs, they turned into marauding killers, emerging from the woods to run the sheep until the poor creatures expired from fear and exhaustion.

            Once the dogs had tasted blood, there would be no respite.

            As the losses climbed into the hundreds, Bo went around and asked the families to pen their dogs. But confinement was unknown in those days. Bo's frustration boiled over. He took to carrying a 12-gauge shotgun, and he and Matt and sometimes our brother Tom, when he was home from Auburn, took turns guarding the sheep after dark. I spent several nights with them, curled up in a blanket inside our Nash Rambler automobile.

            One morning, Bo stopped to talk to some neighbors who were walking by one of our pastures. A dog appeared under the barbed-wire fence and began to stalk some of the sheep. Bo retrieved his gun from the pickup and dropped to one knee with military precision. He killed the dog with a single shot. Word quickly spread through the community after the episode that Bo meant what he said about keeping dogs away from our sheep. Gradually, the threat subsided.

            Even as he felt cursed by these local killers, Bo discovered that a border collie could be the herdsman's right arm. A man in town had such a collie, but she wouldn't mind him. He offered her to Bo, and almost immediately a partnership formed between man and dog.

            Lady, as we named her, was used to herding cattle, but she adapted quickly to the sheep. To retrieve a flock from a pasture, Bo would send her in a broad semi-circle, and she would work her way back with the sheep in front of her. The dog's ability astonished us. A border collie has an innate desire to chase down prey. Sheep, being descendants of hunted animals, understand the dog's intentions and try to stay out of its way. The result is a controlled panic, with the dog mesmerizing the sheep with its eyes while curbing its instinct to kill. A single herder and a trained border collie can handle a pasture full of animals, bringing them to the barn, cutting out individuals that need attention and pushing the whole bunch into holding pens or onto trucks.

            We always spoke of Lady as the smartest dog we had ever seen. She rode everywhere in the truck with Bo, and sometimes he stopped to let her herd chickens or cows for the fun of it. Afterward, she loved to cool off in a puddle of water or a drinking trough, forcing Bo to put her in the back of the truck for the rest of the ride. When her day was done, Lady stayed in the yard, sleeping under the porch, never mixing with our hunting dogs. She would tolerate no roughhousing from me, and once she ran off when I decided, impetuously, that she needed a bath. Lady lived to work, and she had plenty of opportunities as the No. 1 hand around the sheep. After her arrival, we had no more problems making the animals go where we wished.

            I became a proficient herder myself, although I was only 8. My father would send me into the pasture, and I would return with the flock, as Lady made her worried rounds from one side to the other. Other times, I went with my brothers to feed the sheep or to watch them dose the animals with medicine. Pictures that Bo took with his 35 mm camera show me in the pastures or posing behind the border collie, with sheep in the background. Work was play for me. When some small job came my way, I took pleasure from pretending it was serious, much as I played out endless B-grade movies in my head about cowboys or Civil War soldiers.

            As the rains finally diminished and jonquils began pushing up to the warming sun, my father grew anxious to get his sheep to market - that is, those that had survived that terrible winter. To qualify as prime or choice grades in the lamb markets, the ideal carcass in those days required about two- to three-tenths of an inch of fat around it. Graders would run their hands along the animals' backs to feel the fat along the ribs.

            To my father's great disappointment, less than 5 percent of our sheep had put on enough fat that winter to earn the highest prices. He couldn't understand this poor performance, and Armour's agents seemed equally puzzled. We had fed the sheep all the corn we had grown in 1956, although they were supposed to have fattened on pastures alone. We even imported grain from the Midwest, once ours ran out.

            Along with the corn vanished any hopes for a profit. I don't know if anyone, besides my mother and our banker, ever heard my father say how much money he lost. He wasn't one to dwell on failure. But clearly the biggest deficit from our venture was the hundreds of man-hours that my brothers Bo and Matt invested during that terrible winter - even on Sundays - out in the cold, wet fields, only to realize no reward for the family that spring. It added up to rotten economics, a condition farmers have endured for ages.

            Many years later, I learned from a specialist at Mississippi State University that the Navajo Rambouillet sheep were notoriously slow to gain weight. Farmers in Mississippi who also were experimenting with lambs during the 1950s had better luck with animals imported from Texas.

            We did have one nice surprise after the shearing men showed up at our farm to strip the thick fleeces from the lambs. We received a fat federal subsidy for the wool. It was a typical gesture from the '50s: a federal check to keep farmers just ahead of disaster.

            By this time, my father's enthusiasm and Bo's energy were exhausted. They sent the sheep away in the same fashion as the animals had arrived at our farm, in cotton wagons with high rails and on the back of our big flatbed truck.

            When the last of the lambs were shipped north and my father was back to planting cotton, which he knew best, someone in town asked him what he thought about his adventure, now that it was over. "I just wish all those damned sheep had died with Moses," he replied. "We would have been a lot better off."

            The failure of the sheep venture did not mean that my father quit trying new things. Soon, he and other farmers in the county were producing cucumbers as a side crop to sell to a Montgomery pickle outfit. The scale was nothing like that of the sheep project, but the experiment attracted attention. The Pickens County Herald again featured my father as a smart farmer who knew how to diversify his crops.

            Bo left the farmers' ranks soon after the sheep venture ended. He married Nancy in the summer of 1957, and they lived at the Bailey Place after my parents had moved the rest of us back to a house we owned in town. We had a large cotton crop that fall, but the next spring my father lost half of his allotment when the government again reduced acreage, hoping to curb production and boost prices. Two families couldn't live on just 200 acres of cotton, so Bo got a job at the new Huyck plant seven miles south of Aliceville.

            Ironically, the plant, which had headquarters in Renssalaer, N.Y., was one of the nation's largest consumers of wool, which it used in making its industrial felts. In September 1956, a representative of Huyck had urged local farmers like my father to produce wool for the plant, but he warned: "There are hazards to sheep-raising. Farmers need to know this." Two years later, the plant had in my brother Bo an employee who could offer personal testimony.

            Factory work wasn't something that suited Bo, who as my father's foreman had run a large farm and supervised dozens of workers. He surprised everyone, except Nancy, when he enrolled at Mississippi State over at Starkville, about 50 miles away. He completed the engineering program on the GI Bill, taking no summers off. He often studied so hard he developed migraine-like headaches that spread into his shoulders. But no challenge at Mississippi State came close to what he endured during that awful winter of the sheep.

            My father continued to farm for a few more years. My brother Matt, who by this time was studying business at the University of Alabama, an hour away in Tuscaloosa, worked with him on weekends and during the summers. My sister, Becky, departed for Mississippi State College for Women in nearby Columbus in 1959, leaving me at home as the last child. By this time, I had moved up to driving a small tractor that we used for odd jobs, such as pulling a wagon loaded with fertilizer and seed during planting season. I also stood on a wooden plank behind the hoppers of the four-row planter to make sure seed and fertilizer fell into the ground properly.

            One afternoon in April 1961 my father suffered a stroke while he was out in the fields. Several of the hired hands gathered him into the big truck and sped to our house in town. I was at home, working in the garden, which I cultivated as a 4-H project. A friend was helping me, and we watched the truck pull into the gravel driveway. One of the hands ran to summon my mother. She had the men transfer my stricken father to our car and then drove him to the hospital there in Aliceville.

            Matt came home from the university to run the farm until we harvested the cotton that fall. My father got better, but he never regained his health sufficiently to grow cotton again. We had made our last crop. My father subleased his fields and sold his equipment, although we did raise several hundred hogs at the Bailey Place for a year or so after that. And my brothers and I continued to hunt over the land, enjoying one of the few privileges of the farming class. One day in the woods we came across the bones of a ram that had somehow escaped from the pasture and taken a few ewes with him during the sheep-raising days.

            My father died of cancer in August 1963, when I was 14. The Methodist church was full of mourners. At the cemetery, I noticed a small knot of men standing off to one side. They were his former tractor hands, come to pay their respects.

            Loblolly pine trees now cover the old cotton fields around Aliceville. Only about three cotton farmers remain in all of Pickens County, compared with the 1,800 who reported growing cotton in 1954. At that time, 11 gins hummed with business in the county. None of them survives, nor does the Huyck plant, which closed a few years ago after a corporate shakeup.

            One of the last cotton farmers is Hugh Summerville. He is president of Cotton Inc., a national group that collects dues from farmers to promote the fiber. But Summerville and his colleagues have not resolved the problem that haunted my father's generation: cheaper prices from global competition.

            A local man, Everett Owens, cultivates part of the old Vienna place where we once grew cotton and grazed our sheep along the banks of the Tombigbee. Owens produces sod for suburban lawns. I wonder what my father would think if he could see his fields covered with sod, after he had spent so much money and energy trying to keep Johnson grass and nut grass from his cotton.

            I moved close to my old home in 1996 to teach journalism at the University of Alabama, after spending 25 years in newspapering. That was the last year of my mother's life. I often asked her about our farming days and my father's willingness to take a risk. She still spoke of him with an abiding love, but once she said, with a bit of frustration, "Your father would never stay with anything long enough." But I don't think she had sheep in mind when she said that.

            Farming was what my father knew and what he loved. He hoped each year that his fortunes would improve, and he looked for new ways to make that happen. Our sheep venture was simply one more thing to try, and when that didn't work he went on to the next. Until the end, he remained defiant of debt, bad weather and even poor health.

            He left us with a good name, which the Bible says is preferable to great riches.

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Winter of Rains and Ruins

Part II of "Southern Lamb." Originally published in the Mobile Register, Dec. 20, 1999


Bill Thomson atop a new cotton picker, fall 1955. The driver is "Red" Drews.


By Bailey Thomson