Central Magazine, August 1931 & Madison
Journal December 22, 1933)
From Cecil Smith scrapbook scanned by Janet Byram Newsom and John Earl Martin
When Mound, La., shipped to market eleven carloads of No. 1 Irish potatoes in June this year, the incident no doubt appeared commonplace enough to the casual observer. To the informed, however, these potatoes were possessed of deep and romantic significance. They were freighted with human hopes, with difficulties overcome and with the evidence of a new order of things. They were the first visible fruit of a project that is attracting interesting attention not only throughout the lower Mississippi Valley but also in localities as far away as Michigan, Minnesota and the Dakotas. They were the first surplus products of the Mound colonization enterprise, which is fostered by George S. Yerger, land-owner in Madison Parish, Louisiana, with the co-operation of the Agricultural and Colonization Departments of the Illinois Central System. Those potatoes signified the success of crop diversification in a hitherto untried locality.
The potatoes that were shipped from Mound were raised on farms purchased from the Maxwell-Yerger estate within the last three years by colonists who migrated to Louisiana from the North, principally from Minnesota. They came at the solicitation of representatives of the Illinois Central System Colonization Department and the Yerger organization, in cooperation with F. E. Spring, of the Louisiana Delta Farms Company, Plymouth Building, Minneapolis, Minnesota. The transplanting of these farmers from the North to Madison Parish, Louisiana, is expected to hasten changes in agricultural practices that will make cotton an auxiliary to a widely diversified farm industry throughout the entire region, the climate and fertility of which make it a land of limitless possibilities.
Five Flags Waved Over Region
The productivity of the Mound region was appreciated by the aborigines long before the written history of this country began. The great mounds, from which the town takes its name, prove that the Indians dwelt there centuries before the coming of the white man. From the time that DeSoto, the Spanish explorer, first set eyes on the territory, five flags have flown in turn in the Delta-land breezes to prove its desirability — those of Spain, France, the United States, the Confederacy and again the United States.
More than a century ago, the amazing fertility of the land now comprised in the Maxwell-Yerger estate, at present about 24,000 acres, was famed throughout the South. It is situated in the alluvial deposits that lie across one of the great bends of the Mississippi River opposite Vicksburg, Miss. The tract demonstrates that the great river is not only the "Father of Waters" but is also the "Mother of Lands." For uncounted centuries the silt-laden overflows of the river built up this land until, with the recent construction of the United States Government's giant flood-control levee at the end of the estate, which closes it against the river perhaps forever, its life-impregnated soil had acquired an estimated average depth of 100 feet or more.
While a well was being dug on the estate not long ago, a cypress tree trunk in a good state of preservation was found at a depth of eighty feet. No one knows the thickness of the soil in which the old cypress imbedded its roots, but it indicates that the Delta's fertility goes far deeper than ever can be touched by plow or the probing roots of any living plant.
$100 An Acre 75 Years Ago
Madison Parish records show that practically the same 24,000 acres now in the Maxwell-Yerger estates comprised the property of the John Hoggatt family before the Civil War. With the death of John Hoggatt, the estate was divided among the heirs and from then on it dissolved into a large number of small holdings. The old records show that in 1856, when it was the Hoggatt estate, the land sold for $100 gold per acre, a tremendously high price for that day in the South. In pre-war days the entire estate was devoted to the culture of cotton with slave labor, and cotton continued practically the sole product of the land after the dismemberment of the estate.
The story of how the broken-up estate was reassembled begins with the siege of Vicksburg in the Civil War. One of the soldiers in General Sherman's and later General Grant's forces during the Vicksburg campaign was Friend L. Maxwell of Sullivan, Ind. After his return to civil life at the close of the war Mr. Maxwell went to Louisiana to cast his lot with the life of the community. He undertook a general mercantile business at Mound. Two times he "went broke," but he began again and finally achieved success. With the profits of his business he invested in land until he had accumulated about 12,000 acres.
Another Returns From the War
Again war was the forerunner of an event of importance to the estate when Captain George S. Yerger, returning from the army service in the Spanish-American conflict to his home in Jackson, Miss., decided to seek his fortune at Mound. There his acquaintance with Colonel Maxwell eventually ripened into a business partnership. With his profits, Mr. Yerger also accumulated land until at the time of Colonel Maxwell's death in 1914 the two men's holdings were about equal, 12,000 acres each.
Shortly after Captain Yerger's arrival at Mound, Edna Maxwell, the colonel's only daughter, who had been away to college, returned home. Immediately the young Spanish War veteran found favor in her eyes. The romance culminated in their marriage in 1901, so that when Colonel Maxwell died in 1914 the old estate found itself automatically reassembled under a single management.
Shortly after Captain Yerger's arrival
at Mound, Edna Maxwell, the Colonel's only daughter, who had been away to
college, returned home. Immediately the young Spanish War veteran found favor
in her eyes. The romance culminated in their marriage in 1901, so that when
Colonel Maxwell died in 1914 the old estate found itself automatically
reassembled under a single management.
As in the days before the Civil War, cotton furnished the principal theme of the estate's existence. Little attempt was made to cultivate other crops. For weal or woe, the land and its people abided with cotton. Cotton was the extent and limit of their existence. If cotton prices were high, as on rare occasions they were, notably during the World War (WW1), owners, tenants, employees and dependents prospered. If prices were low, as they were generally and especially after the close of the World War, the community suffered. The boll weevil, which came as an intermittent plague, was but one of the many evils that grew up during King Cotton's terms of misrule.
These evils at length reached a point where Mr. Yerger decided that the time was ripe for a change. For years he had been observing the success of the development work of the Illinois Central System's Agricultural Department in other parts of the lower Mississippi Valley, and he conceived the idea that equally good or even superior results could be obtained on the Louisiana side. He believed that, entirely aside from the merits of long-staple cotton as an agricultural product, other things could be raised on his land with greater and more certain profit.
Time Ripe for a Change
In the generation of his plan, many conferences took place on broad veranda of the Yerger mansion at Mound. Those who conferred with Mr. Yerger at first were his six stalwart sons, grown to manhood and sharing in the management of the estate and many Yerger enterprises, and calm-eyed, prudent and courageous Mrs. Yerger, who knew the business and prospects of the Maxwell-Yerger organization as well as any of her own men folks. Then the development men of the Illinois Central System were invited to participate. H. J. Swietert, general agricultural agent, B. T. Abbott, agricultural agent at Memphis, took part in the veranda conferences.
It was apparent at once that the effort to escape from cotton was not to be without its difficulties. It was the one crop that could be handled by the central management of a great estate without explanation and instruction on infinite details to the tenants and employees. It had been the sole care of these people and their forefathers for so long that its production was almost automatic. Many of the tenants knew nothing of other crops, and they looked with apprehension upon any proposed change.
It was agreed at the veranda conferences that despite the difficulties a change had to be made. The alternative was bankruptcy or worse. It was proposed that an effort be made to bring in farmers from the North who were familiar with the cultivation of other products, with the handling of the necessary machinery and with methods in dairying, poultry raising and other diversified activities developed in Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota and other states of the upper valley.
In view of experience at other places, it was concluded that in order to interest these farmers it would be necessary to sell them the land. Through a co-operative association of these farmers, it was argued, the former unified management of the estate could be retained in large part without loss of the advantages of concerted action dependent upon centralized authority. Through co-operative association the farmers could agree to plant potatoes or vegetables or other products at the times and in the quantities that would make possible shipment in carload lots and justify the government inspection and standardization, thus guarantying top prices.
An Experimental Farm
After long and careful consideration of these ideas, it was decided to put the plan into execution. Two or three false starts were made, with resulting disappointments and trouble, but in 1928 the organization of the Delta Farms Company was perfected, and the colonists began to arrive and establish themselves on the land. The Agricultural Departments of the Illinois Central System planted about two acres in experimental crops at Mound, the center of the new operations; a "museum" of the products of the region was opened in the general store. Practical demonstrations of the quickest-yielding and most profitable crops were made for the benefit of the incoming farmers.
This year the experimental farm (which Colonization Agent B. T. Abbott explains to the new colonist; not only keeps one year ahead of them in the planning of new crops but also tries various ways of planting and cultivating each crop in order to determine the best method) had two varieties of lespedeza, two varieties of peanuts, garbanzo (chick peas), upland rice, grohoma, popcorn, ten varieties of soy beans and ten varieties of peas, corn, clovers and potatoes. Several crops a year on the same acreage being the rule in the Mound region because of the brevity of the winter (which is no winter at all in the opinion of the colonists from Minnesota), the experimental farm also works out the best rotation of crops and the most appropriate time of the year for their production.
One Hundred Families Located
Last year (1930) thirty colonist families located on farms sold out of the Yerger estate. This year the number increased to 100, and it was expected that before the close of the year all of the land available in the Yerger holdings would have acquired new owners, it being Mr. Yerger's plan to retain 4,500 acres of the original estate in the Yerger family's possession.
These colonists are experienced farmers with some financial resources. Some had bought equities in land in Minnesota and other northern states and then through deflation in land values found their equities practically wiped out. Others are farmers who saw a chance to make more money in Louisiana. Still others had been renters in the North. All were ready for the change.
One of the first acts of the colonists, under the suggestion and guidance of Mr. Yerger and the Illinois Central Agricultural Department, was the organization of the Mound Community Club, of which every man, woman and child of the newcomers is an active member. Meetings are held once a month, rain or shine, whether it be planting time or harvest time, and up to now no member has ever missed a meeting except because of illness. The serious business of the club is disposed of at the meetings first. This usually includes talks on farm topics, exchange of experiences and plans for community activities, such as the planting of some special crop for a definite purpose. This crop is decided upon as a result of observations on the experimental farm and in view of market opportunities. With this business out of the way, the social part of the program begins. The women lay out the refreshments. Then there is dancing to music furnished by local talent, cards, other games and just visiting.
Club Is a "Life-Saver"
The community club, as was foreseen in the veranda conferences, proved a life-saver for the colonists. It not only enabled them to work out their associated farm activities but it eased man, woman and child over the first period of home-sickness which it was human nature to feel as the result of having left old homes for new.
Vernon Tyler, formerly of Cannon Falls, Minn., is president of the club. He brought one of the best herds of dairy cattle ever raised in Minnesota with him to Louisiana, and he found opportunity waiting him in the form of a profitable business in which he furnishes milk and other dairy products to the citizens of Tallulah, a hustling city not far from the Mound development.
Otto Hanson, also from Cannon Falls, is vice-president of the Mound club. He and his brother-in-law, Albert Peterson, and their families are farming with Minnesota methods in a land of fertility and benignity of climate that surpasses anything they had ever imagined. The two families live together in a house that they have just built, and they will have a house for each family before the end of another year if their affairs continue on the present profitable basis.
Mrs. J. C. Johnson is secretary and treasurer of the Mound club. She and her husband are also from Minnesota, and they have the kind of place and are living the kind of life that they used to dream about without ever really believing it would come true.
A Story of Human Interest
K. E. Byson, formerly of St. Cloud, Minn., and one of the most active members of the club, declares that one of the fondest ambitions is to "write a book about" the Mound colonization. He said he would describe the human interest features of the colony; how the first year with its hopes and doubts changed into certainty of experience in the second year; how northern-bred farmers had to make adjustment to new environment; how success finally came out of an admission of past errors, observation of the progress of others and taking full advantage of the land's amazing opportunities.
Another of the colonists, who looks upon life with a quizzical philosophy, voiced some of his impressions of his new surroundings and his southern neighbors as follows:
"Our southern friends say that
they want to get away from cotton. But I don't know. It seems as if cotton is
in their blood. Cotton is one thing they feel sure about. The cotton planter is not the only one who feels that way.
The merchant, the banker, everyone feels that way.
There is a banker not far from here, for example, who is strong for crop diversification. He advocates diversification at the Rotary Club meetings and everywhere. Not long ago, however, one of the colonists ran short of cash and, knowing the banker's attitude, went to him for a loan. The banker greeted him cordially, and the farmer revealed his mission. The banker then asked the farmer how many acres he had planted.
Theory and Practice
"The farmer replied, `Twenty acres in corn, ten acres in soy beans, two acres in potatoes,” and then stopped because of the disappointed expression on the banker's face. The banker said, "that is very interesting, but when I asked you how many acres you had planted I meant how many acres of cotton.' "
J. J. Goar, formerly employed in a factory in Minneapolis but experienced in farm work in his youth, feels definitely established on the road to prosperity in his second year at Mound. He shook his head at the mention of cotton, but, pointing a bronzed hand at a nearby field of potatoes, he quoted the famous line, "Thar's gold in them thar hills."
A. S. Aronson, formerly of Minneapolis, typified the attitude of the newcomers toward cotton when he said “It may be all right for those who understand it, although I notice that they do considerable complaining, but as far as I am concerned I prefer the crops to which I am accustomed. My experience has taught me how to raise grain and vegetables and livestock, and there never was a better place on this earth to do these things than right here. This colony is going to make money, and plenty of it, but I doubt that much of it will come from cotton."
Development Attracts Attention
The colonization effort of the Yerger organization is being closely watched by the other large land owners in the vicinity, and for that reason the Illinois Central Agricultural Department believes that the Mound colony has an especially profitable opportunity in the new crops that are being introduced and cultivated by the colonists. Agricultural Department officers' look forward to the day when Mound seeds will be prized throughout the entire lower Mississippi Valley.
The potatoes marketed by the colonists this year netted them as high as $70 an acre, and plans discussed in the community club indicate that next year's potato acreage will be several times as large as this year's. Mr. Yerger predicted that next year's shipment of potatoes will probably run between 100 and 200 cars, with other crops also reaching carload shipment proportions.
The colonists are astonished at many possibilities of the neighborhood. The oldest commercial paper shell pecan grove in the country borders on their property. Pecan trees grow wild in the surrounding forests. Small-fruits grow in a manner never known in the North. The orchards are loaded with peaches, pears, persimmons, grapes, apples and figs. They plant and harvest their household vegetable gardens several times a year. The calendar has changed its meaning. The old familiar months seem to have moved. They plant cultivate and harvest at times that recall nothing in their experience But they soon grow to like it.
Colonists Soon Feel at Home
The northerners are eager to establish their own farm practices in the region. They smile with contentment at the sound of the purring tractor pulling their plows and cultivators. The hum of the threshing machine, pouring forth the familiar grain, is music in their ears. In the evening, when the day's work is done, the colonist watches the Louisiana moon climb out of the tree-fringe of the bayou. He hears the soft lowing of his dairy herd, and there creeps over him a feeling of content and well-being, a feeling that he is at home.