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Wednesday, February 25, 2009 • Posted February 25, 2009

Days of the Sharecropper

One morning at coffee, Ole Whatshisname asked me why I didn’t write something about the days of the sharecropper. “The primary reason I suppose would be that I don’t know enough about that subject to write an intelligent article” I replied.

“You do know what a sharecropper is don’t you?” he asked.

“Oh sure” I said, “I am familiar with the concept because in the 1920’s and 30’s I had relatives who were sharecroppers. I remember that my mother had a cousin whose husband followed that seemingly traditional sharecropper practice of moving his family to a new farm about every other year . I never knew whether his moves were of his choice or that of the land owner, all that I remember is that he moved quite often.”

In those days I knew that there was some kind of a sharing deal between the landowner and the sharecropper but I never knew exactly what it was until Ole Whatshisname explained it to me. He said that there were two kinds of sharecropping deals.

First there was the third and fourth deal — that was when the sharecropper furnished all of the equipment, the animals and the labor. Then, after the crops were laid by the landowner, got one third of all of the crops except cotton, and on cotton he got every fourth bale. Next was the fifty-fifty deal where the landowner furnished the equipment and the animals and the sharecropper furnished only the labor. On each deal however the landowner furnished the housing for the sharecropper.

My informant on these farming deals told me that the sharecroppers who got the best farms were usually those with large families which is perhaps the reason why my Uncle Tom, who was old and had no family, always seemed to be on the move from one farm to another every year.

However, another reason for those frequent moves could be as Will Rogers once said “There are an awful lot of people farming, but you got to do more than just live in the country to be a farmer.”

When I think back to those visits out in the country with our sharecropping kinfolk, several things stand out in my memory. First is my snuff dipping kinfolk kissing Aunt Mary, second is the water bucket with the drinking dipper that always hung from a rafter on the front porch, third was the grasshoppers and fourth was those flies.

‘ I remember the visits we made in the years when hordes of grasshoppers invaded the fields and tried to eat the sharecropper out of house and home as well as his crops, and they had poison everywhere.

But it was those damnable flies that nearly drove me crazy.

While we of course had flies around our home here in town because of our cow lot and hog pen, at least we had screens on all of the doors and windows of our house which kept most of them outside. For those that made it inside the house we had scads of fly swatters plus that sticky paper that proved to be a killing field for those pesky devils.

However out in the country the tenant housing provided by the landowner was not always so adequately screened and thus it was that one was always kept busy swatting flies throughout the house and at mealtime spent about as much time shooing flies off his food as was spent eating.

For those unfamiliar with sharecropping, the Encyclopedia says that it is “a farm tenancy system once common in parts of the U.S. that arose from the cotton plantation system after the civil war. Landlords provided land, seed, and credit; croppers — initially former slaves — contributed labor and received a share of the crop’s value, minus their debt to the landlord. The system’s abuses included emphasis on single cash crops, high interest charges, and cropper irresponsibility..”

Back during the 20’s and 30’s sharecropping was the backbone of the local economy and provided the life support for possibly one third of the population of McCulloch County. I recall reading that in those early days the population of this county was approximately 18,000 and that there were as many as 33 or more schools scattered throughout the county to educate the children of both the land owner and the sharecropper. (One of these was the Bodenhamer school which was located between Brady and Melvin, and, I read somewhere that nine of these were one room, one teacher school houses.)

However, in the intervening years farm mechanization and reduced cotton acreage virtually ended this type of farming and this in turn forced the departure of the sharecropper from the farm and into other trades. This alone leaves little doubt that the migration of yesteryear’s tenant farmer was a major factor in the decline of the county’s population from 18,000 to somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000.

I will now leave what I know and have learned about Ole Whatshisname’s sharecropper days with the following observation:

The only present day sharecropping that I know of has been during pecan season when some home owners let people pick up their pecans on the share basis (usually 50/50). However, this year, with the price of pecans at 25 cents per pound I suspect the tree owners will find that the pecan sharecroppers have once again migrated to other fields.


Footnote: (from the Internet)

Many Confederate soldiers returned from the war penniless and without a useful farm. They no longer had any slave labor, so now they would have to work themselves. One way to do this was “sharecropping”. By 1865, the South had not had a cotton crop in five years , and the money cotton brought in would be essential to the re-growth of the South’s industry and economy. Poor southerners would approach landowners and ask to help plant their crop.

Landowners would have no money either, but they could use the credit that they had to get necessary farm materials. When harvest came in October, the labor and the landowner would “share the crop”, hence the name.

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