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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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