AN ORAL HISTORY of the JUDD HILL PLANTATION
Prepared by Sam Morgan for Arkansas State University and Mike Gibson, Trustee Judd Hill Foundation
The Judd Hill Plantation, in Poinsett County, Arkansas, has epitomized the evolution of agriculture in that state's portion of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain, commonly known as the Delta, during the twentieth century. After purchasing the land in the mid-1920s for its valuable timber, its owners soon drained and cleared the land in order also to use its rich soil to grow cotton and other row crops. Following other planters in the region, they first used the labor intensive system of sharecropping to produce most of the white fiber, and, by 1950, had grown rich. Between 1940 and 1970, however, much of the agricultural labor force in eastern Arkansas, primarily African Americans, left the area to take better-paying, less arduous industrial jobs elsewhere. As a result, agriculture on Judd Hill and around the Delta became the highly-mechanized, capital intensive enterprise it is today.
The Judd Hill Plantation received its name from its founder, Orange Judd Hill, a wealthy Kansas City, Missouri, banker and businessman. Hill's Trumann Cooperage Company bought the 5,800-acre tract south of Trumann in 1925, and, within a few years, he took outright title. The heavily-forested land offered a huge supply of wood for his larger cooperage operation in Springfield, Missouri. In addition to supervising the timber work in Poinsett County, the banker continued to spend much of his time in Missouri with his wife, the former Lina Eloise Grabill (known within the family as "Muddy"), and their adopted daughter, Esther Jane. Lina Hill died at Kansas City in 1932. Early on, O. J.'s brother, William Hill, was involved in the Trumann operation, but soon moved to California. Even today, former residents refer to the southern portion of the plantation as Billy Hill.
The Great Depression decimated O. J. Hill's finances, just as it did those of countless others. For instance, a 1931 document from the Judd Hill Collection at Arkansas State University shows that he owed almost $34,000 in delinquent drainage taxes.
Money problems, in fact, eventually led Hill to relinquish control of the plantation. Esther Hill had married Samuel Caryl Chapin, a civil engineer whom she met while both were studying at the University of Minnesota. In 1930, O. J. persuaded his son-in-law to leave his job with the city of Three Rivers, Illinois, and manage the farm and timber business at Trumann. S. C. Chapin soon put his engineering expertise to use in clearing and draining the land and putting it under cultivation. In doing so, Hill and Chapin joined thousands of other landowners during the early decades of the twentieth century in transforming wetland forest to cropland in order to exploit the rich soil of the Arkansas Delta. In June 1933, O. J. Hill transferred title to the property to Esther and S. C. Chapin jointly. Until his death at Trumann in 1946, the older man continued to divide his time between Arkansas, Missouri, and a summer house in Michigan.
By the time that the Judd Hill Plantation, as it continued to be known, became theirs, the Chapins had more than one-half of it planted in row crops. The South had long been the domain of King Cotton, but the goal of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Agriculture Department was to end the chronic overproduction of the fiber, which had driven the price as low as four cents per pound in certain areas of Arkansas and five cents nationwide. No doubt this was why an autographed document from the Hill papers, "Land to be Cultivated - 1934," listed 1,605 acres of corn and only 1,296 of cotton. Small plots of oats and other grains, as well as tenants' gardens, comprised the remainder of the 3,200 cultivated acres.
According to this document, the work force on Judd Hill land consisted of three groups: sharecroppers, renters, and day (i.e., wage) laborers. As in other parts of the Arkansas Delta, sharecroppers grew most of the cotton in exchange for a house and a share of the proceeds from their crop (see below). In 1934, sixty-eight families, all African Americans, tended plots of ground ranging from 5 to 40 acres. The government's campaign to reduce cotton stocks began in 1933 and depended on cash payments to landowners in exchange for their reducing the amount of land devoted to the crop. This system and the changes it produced resulted in many planters evicting croppers and replacing them with cheaper day labor.
S. C. Chapin, however, remained committed to the tenant system. Records show that he added eighteen new sharecropping families for the 1935 growing season.
During this period, there were also at least eight white families who, in total, rented about 400 acres (croppers tilled 1,600 acres) devoted mainly to cotton. Renters, unlike sharecroppers, provided most, or all, of their own equipment and supplies; in turn, they received a house and three-fourths of their crop's proceeds, with the landowner taking one-fourth. Day laborers worked 1,200 acres of Judd Hill ground, most of it corn.
The early thirties were difficult times for the Chapins. They frequently relied on loans from Esther's father to cover farm expenses. Even so, it was difficult to accumulate enough money to satisfy all their creditors. For example, a 1936 letter from the St. Francis Levee District noted that a check for delinquent taxes had been returned due to insufficient funds.
By the decade's end, however, the plantation was making a profit, enabling its owners to pay off the $96,000 mortgage within three years of receiving the notice above. The key to this turnaround was the penchant of both partners for hard work. When interviewed, former tenants uniformly mentioned Sam's dedication and his hands-on management style, which included touring the land on horseback or, later, by truck. Many residents also recalled that Esther worked diligently in the plantation's office and store.
Other factors, though, also entered into the Chapins' good fortune. The local drainage district and the larger St. Francis Levee District permitted them to pay their back taxes in installments. Even more important were the federal crop reduction payments (nearly $6,000 in 1934 alone) and higher cotton prices resulting from Roosevelt's Agricultural Adjustment Act and related measures. Documents and excroppers' recollections indicated that the Chapins, like almost all landlords, ignored government directives to share the cash reduction payments with their tenants, preferring instead to credit their accounts at the store.
It was appropriate that S. C. was a man of enormous energy, for the plantation was a large operation. In addition to crop sales and expenses, the 1934 ledger contained accounts for a store, gin (which still stands), sawmill, shingle mill, animal feed business, and a blacksmith shop, with the number of employees for each varying according to the season. By the early 1940s, he also maintained a thriving cattle herd. Not surprisingly, the farm did business with numerous local and out-of-town companies and with banks in Jonesboro, Trumann, and Marked Tree. Union Planters Bank in Memphis handled its largest financial transactions.
The Chapins prospered in the thriving economy of the Second World War era. In 1948, their net profit was almost $71,000, most of it earned by cattle income, and the total worth of the business approached $600,000. About this time, Sam sold the section of land east of U. S. Highway 63 (now Ark, 463), stating that increased traffic on the road made crossing it dangerous for men and mules. Even after the sale, however, the plantation consisted of 4,700 acres, with off-season timber cutting putting more ground under cultivation each year. Throughout the period, almost all the sharecroppers were black and almost all of the renters, a much smaller number, were white.
The growth in profits between 1935 and 1949 reflected the fact that, in addition to being a tireless worker, S. C. was a shrewd agribusinessman. Relations, tenants, and acquaintances alike commented on the serious manner with which he approached his duties, and, in a 1934 letter, O. J. Hill assured a lender that his son-in-law was "careful" with the farm's money. Many in the Trumann business community would have agreed with Hill's assessment. In the words of one former sharecropper: "Mr. Sam ... was cheap, but he was a good man." He recalled that Chapin once used a new tractor for two weeks "to try it out" before telling the dealer, who had driven out to finalize the sale, that he should "take it on; it ain't no good no how." Similarly, the planter's tardiness in paying his credit accounts was well known.
Still, Esther and Sam did take time to relax. Despite the plantation's precarious finances at the time, his personal account in the 1934 ledger included deductions for regular automobile trips to Memphis for shopping, the opera and theatre, and even the storage of Esther's furs. Travel to the Bluff City via the paved highways U. S. 63 and 61 was easy, and, after their finances improved, the couple kept an apartment in Memphis, where they were members of the Rivermont Club. They also frequently traveled abroad or to their vacation house in Michigan. In addition to these pursuits, the Chapins occasionally entertained at the large home they built at Judd Hill during the early thirties, where their visitors included Sen. J. William Fulbright and other prominent politicians, as well as the business and agricultural elite of Memphis and eastern Arkansas.
Civic affairs also occupied part of the couple's time. Esther, whom friends remember as more outgoing than her husband, was a mainstay of Trumann's Twentieth Century Club, which sponsored several charities, while Sam helped organize the Craighead Electric Cooperative. By 1949, the cooperative was supplying electricity, for the first time, to 15,000 households in the northern Delta. An extremely intelligent man, Sam also served as an officer in several cotton producers' organizations.
The plantation community of Judd Hill, of course, also included tenants, primarily sharecroppers. Ernestine Chapin, widow of Sam and Esthers' only child, Judd Valmore, remembered that when she came to the farm in 1947, approximately one-hundred black families were working under this arrangement. The range in size of each place (the standard term) was similar to that in 1934, usually varying according to the number of adults and older children in each family. For example, Buddy Anthony, who lived on Judd Hill from 1935 to 1960, recalled that, when he was a teenager during the early 1940s, his family tended only fifteen acres because he and his mother were the only ones working most of the time.
For croppers, life revolved around each year's cotton crop. In early spring, mule-drawn plows broke the ground for planting, then followed repeated weeding with hoes (known as chopping cotton). Usually, by late September, the first bolls were ready to be picked by hand. To supplement their income, after the harvest ended around December 1, many tenants cut wood to sell to the plantation.
Each family set its own routine on Judd Hill. Most began work by 7 A.M., took a break lasting one or two hours in the middle of the day, and then worked until sundown. Children as young as three years of age worked alongside their parents, who toiled Monday through Saturday morning. Chapin and one or two supervisors, or "riding bosses," traveled around the area checking on each cropper's progress, but generally allowed each tenant to tend the crop as he or she saw fit. Soon after harvest and ginning ended, tenants met individually with Chapin to settle accounts. Sharecroppers received a one-third share and the planter took two-thirds. From the former's share, charges at the plantation store during the year, known as furnish, were subtracted. To administer this system of credit, Judd Hill, and many other plantations, issued coupon, or "doodlum," books representing five or ten dollars total. Any cash advances made during the year were also tallied. The tenant then received, in cash, the amount left after these "deducts," leaving those who finished the year with little or no money to make the pun that "the ducks got it all."
Delta landlords, who kept the books, frequently abused the furnish system by using fraudulent charges to keep black laborers in peonage. Still, most, though not all, of the former sharecroppers interviewed for this project believed that the Chapins dealt honestly with their tenants, although prices at the store were much higher than at shops in Trumann or Marked Tree. Buddy Anthony recalled that, on average, Judd Hill croppers ended good crop years with about $200 in cash. Other residents disputed this contention, claiming that in most years "very, very few" had more than a few dollars after settlement.
Tenants also worked for wages. When a family working on shares had its crop under control, adults and older siblings often worked for Chapin on the ground he reserved for himself or on the places of other croppers - these were the "day laborers" mentioned in the 1934 document cited above. During the 30s, this type of work earned 35 cents per day, rising to one dollar by the late 40s. Over the next decade, however, wages skyrocketed. Magnolia Mitchell stated that she earned the incredible sum of three dollars per day chopping cotton about 1960. Unlike the other stages of tending the crop, cotton picking worked on a piece rate: seventy-five cents per hundred pounds during the 30s; three dollars per hundred by the 50s.
Residents with special skills received a bit more than day laborers. Elbert Mitchell drove a Judd Hill tractor for $2.50 per hour during the early 60s, and workers at the gin or one of the other ancillary operations received about the same. Chapin paid his managers even higher wages. Loyel Johnson, whose father was a farm supervisor for many years, reported that the compensation included salary, a bonus based on production, a house (with running water), and, in the later years, a truck. In speaking of his parents, Johnson could not recall dollar amounts, but noted: "Now if you're asking if they had or made a lot of money while they were there: no, but I'm going to say they had a decent living." Judging from the responses of Helen Webb and Billy Baker about their families, renters with small acreages made enough money to get by, but in Webb's words, "we weren't poor; we were P-O-R-E."
Even more onerous was the situation of sharecroppers, none of whom needed to worry about storing furs away from the oppressive heat and humidity of Arkansas summers. Most of their houses were built in the shotgun shack style, with three or four rooms in a row, and invariably were in poor repair. Several of these tenants told of being able to look through the gaps in the bare wood walls to see who was approaching the house, while others spoke of spaces between the floor plants wide enough to watch their chickens huddle under the wood stove in winter. In addition, during the early years of the plantation, it was common for two families to share a house. Even in the 1950s, these houses rarely had finished interior walls or plumbing unless the tenants made the improvements themselves. Katie Hollimon, for instance, had lived in her home for years when, about 1949, a son installed her first bathroom.
Primitive housing and sewage disposal on Judd Hill and throughout the Mississippi River Delta was probably a factor in croppers' mortality rates greatly exceeding modern levels, with flood-related diseases being especially prevalent. Nearly every African American interviewed had lost children, siblings, or a spouse to illness while living there. Tenants did have access to doctors, although several expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of care they provided. When a renter or cropper saw a physician in his office, he or she presented a voucher obtained from S. C. or Esther. With a house call, the doctor billed the owner. In either instance, the Chapins entered the expense on the tenant's account.
Such a hardscrabble existence often meant that croppers' children were working rather than attending school. There was a two-room school for blacks near the Judd Hill store where two Negro teachers, paid by the county and (according to one source) by the Chapins, provided lessons in grades 1-8; in fact, a few former students remembered a "Professor Laird" who taught there many years. Most African Americans who reached adolescence there before 1950, however, rarely attended classes because they were needed in the fields.
A short school year also limited the education received by those few fortunate enough to go full time. The schedule, arranged around the cotton growth cycle, called for instruction only during winter and mid-summer, four or five months per year at most. Even during these periods, many families needed their children to pull cotton remnants off stalks after harvest ended or weed the crop during the summer. In contrast, most renters' sons and daughters completed the entire, albeit abbreviated, school term in grades 1-12 at the all-white McCormick schools a few miles away.
Food was one positive aspect of life. Each household raised a garden containing a variety of vegetables, which were canned for later use. Cows, chickens, and pigs provided milk, eggs, and meat, and were fed from the small stand of corn near each house.
Another ameliorating influence was religion. The school building was also the meeting house of the Rising Sun Baptist Church, to which most of the black residents belonged. Others attended the African Methodist Episcopal church on the adjacent Tulot Plantation of banker/planter J. A. Cash, or other churches in the area. Sunday services not only provided religious instruction, but were a necessary recreational outlet. After the morning sermon, members ate a potluck dinner, then spent the rest of the day conversing, worshipping, and playing ball. In fact, the Judd Hill baseball team was part of an informal league fielded from farms in the region. The time spent together at church, therefore, played an integral role in shaping the deep sense of community mentioned by former laborers there.
Sharecropping and renting families alike frequently went into Trumann or Marked Tree on Saturday afternoons, usually more for recreation than for shopping, since cash was in short supply. Before the Second World War, groups would usually ride to town in wagons, but later automobiles became more common. Friends and relatives would then walk the packed downtown streets while window shopping and discussing the week's events.
Simple diversions and hard work involving everyone formed strong families according to interviewees, who unanimously agreed that parents and children were closer than is commonly the case today. Judd Hill residents also said that both they and their parents enforced a stricter code of behavior by their children, often with a belt. Most households were patriarchal, with husbands having the final word on important matters.
To a large degree, however, family life revolved around a wife and mother. During a routine day, a married woman would rise around daylight, if not earlier, prepare breakfast, then walk to the fields with her spouse and children. Offspring too young to work were left with an older daughter or carried along by the woman as she performed her tasks (since houses were spaced well apart, communal babysitting was impractical). Late in the morning, the woman returned home to cook the midday meal, and afterward, washed the dishes in a No. 3 tub. When she had completed an afternoon in the cotton fields, there was another meal to fix and more dishes to clean. In what would have been her spare time, a wife sewed, mended, and washed clothes, kept house, and tended the garden. Sharecropper Georgia Mitchell recalled: "I'll tell you how I done that. I would go out and work the hours I was supposed to work, and that was like ten hours a day. I would come home at noontime. I would leave my kids, very small, at home 'cause we were farming around our house; the fields weren't far, and I would come backwards and forwards to the house seeing about them. I never did have a babysitter until Georgia got big enough to take care of the other kids. And washing, I would wash at night, rubboard, 'cause I didn't have a washing machine at the time. And I would wash, I don't care, it was twelve o'clock at night sometimes before I got to go to bed. But I would get up early in the morning; if [dawn] was six o'clock, that was the time we would be in the fields. It was hard, it sure was."
As toilsome as it was, the situation of Chapin tenants like the Mitchell's was actually better than on many other Delta plantations, although that was more an indication of African Americans' low place in society than of "Mr. Sam's" sentimentality - he was, after all, the man who, when a family asked him to provide dress clothes for their dead child to be buried in, gave them new overalls instead. Numerous landlords did not even allow gardens (forcing the purchase of food at their store), and required work seven days per week during busy periods. Buddy Anthony recounted an incident in which, one Sunday in 1947, he and the rest of the Judd Hill baseball team arrived for a scheduled game on a farm near Twist. When they inquired about the other team, a foreman there replied that the "boys" were baling hay and "that's where you niggers are gonna play ball at, if you don't get the hell away from here."
Overt racism like that above was less of a problem under Chapin. Former sharecroppers recalled that no physical or verbal abuse, including use of the word "nigger," was tolerated, and uniformly stated that their dealings with the owners and other whites on the farm were cordial. In speaking of black/white relations, Helen Webb, a renter, said that when her husband died, "those black people made up money and brought it and give it to me." Another indication of the comparatively good racial climate there was the fact that a large number of the croppers who moved to the plantation during the 30s and 40s remained there for many years, several into the 1980s.
In eastern Arkansas today, anyone noticing automobiles parked for the funeral of an ex-sharecropper will see a variety of out-of-state license plates. The reason for this phenomenon is that World War II changed the face of southern agriculture and society. By the time the Japanese attacked the U. S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, a military buildup was already in progress, and a migration of millions of black and white farm workers from the South to northern and western states for higher wage factory jobs underway. Frequently, when one member of a family, usually an older son, secured employment, other sons and daughters would follow. After the war ended in 1945, the expansion in consumer goods manufacturing allowed the migration to continue. The black families interviewed for this work have seen most of the children born since the war leave the area, with Omaha, Nebraska, probably being the most common single destination. The nearby cities of Memphis and Little Rock also drew several men and women who spent their childhood on Judd Hill.
This increase in job opportunities coincided with reforms in the education system which allowed Delta blacks to compete in the growing urban labor markets. By the early 1960s, the state of Arkansas had established new rules governing school attendance, which forced croppers' children out of the fields and into classrooms. Consolidation of many small schools and compulsory desegregation improved the education of African Americans to an even greater degree. In 1965, the school at Judd Hill closed, and the students were taken daily by van to an all-black institution at Marked Tree. Later in the decade, the Trumann district desegregated and merged with the McCormick school, which closed; afterward, Judd Hill children of both races began attending the Trumann system.
Judd Hill parents became avid supporters of education and hard work as gateways to better lives, as Magnolia Mitchell testified: "They didn't want their kids to stay there and go through the things we went through. We wanted better for the kids. We made 'em work while they were there and let 'em know what it was all about. When they were old enough we would set 'em down and let 'em know what was going on: stay in school and do better and not have to go through this."
Helen Webb agreed: "Nobody wanted their kids to work as hard as they'd had to work."
By nearly any standard, the former renters and sharecroppers succeeded in their efforts at building productive citizens. Among the children of this group are numerous college graduates, an attorney, a college professor, professional athletes, and business executives. More importantly, there are scores of factory workers, administrative assistants, school teachers, and others leading useful lives as parents and active members of their communities. Inquiries revealed that most children, even those living in distant states, maintain close contact with their parents, most of whom continue to live around Trumann and Marked Tree.
The huge migration of rural workers during and after the war resulted in a dramatic shift in the Delta from an overabundance of labor to a shortage. As a result, landowners increasingly relied on wage hands, many of them former tenants who no longer had children available to help them work on shares. Planters also recruited cotton pickers from Mississippi and Mexico at harvest time. The ultimate solution to the dwindling number of sharecroppers, however, was mechanization, and by the mid-1960s, tractors and other agricultural machinery were an ubiquitous sight on area farms.
On the new, capital intensive, agribusiness plantations which evolved during the 60, there frequently was no longer a place for women to work. Most of the African American women whose husbands became wage hands for "Mr. Sam" took jobs as domestic servants in the homes of wealthy Trumann families, including the Chapins.
By this time, only a few sharecroppers remained on Judd Hill. They and their colleagues, however, had helped make the Chapins rich. For example, the December 31, 1964, balance sheet listed that year's net profit at $60,000 on assets worth about $1.2 million; their stock portfolio alone totaled $239,000.
The plantation continued to prosper after the last croppers retired in the early 1970s (several stayed in their homes for years afterward, rent free). Cotton was still the primary money crop, as evidenced by the Chapins' 1979 "day crop" of 533 bales produced on only 470 acres. In addition, the eight families renting a total of 1,000 acres grew cotton. By this time, the farm's output had outgrown its own ginning capacity, and most of the fiber was taken to the nearby Taylor and Stuckey gin after being picked by machines belonging to George Taylor. Sam had also diversified his operation. Besides cotton, he planted wheat, milo, corn, and soybeans and owned one of the best beef cattle herds in the region.
S. C. Chapin died from heart disease in 1976 at the age of seventy-four. Although his and Esther's only child, Judd, had passed away ten years before, Sam had been grooming the oldest of their three grandchildren, also named Judd, to manage the plantation along with Mrs. Chapin, who had continued to work in the office and store. Esther and Judd operated the plantation cooperatively until 1983, when management disputes led him to move to St. Petersburg, Florida.
During the mid-1980s, Esther's declining health resulted in disruptions in the farm's operation and in a series of court-appointed receivers making most of the production decisions. After her death in 1991, at the age of 91, Judd Hill became a nonprofit foundation with Osceola attorney Mike Gibson as trustee. Today, three renters – Gary Beard, James Love, Jr., and Billy Baker - farm the approximately 4,000 acres, all of which is planted in cotton. Most of the proceeds from the foundation's one-quarter share of each year's crop benefit Arkansas State University at Jonesboro.
A NOTE ON SOURCES
The central emphasis of this work has been, of course, on the interviews with former tenants and others who have knowledge about the Judd Hill Plantation. A list of these subjects follows this essay, and the audio tapes of the interviews will be deposited in the Delta Studies Center of the Dean B. Ellis Library, Arkansas State University. Although a comprehensive study of the unsorted plantation papers, also at the Center, was beyond the scope of this project, the author did review thousands of the most promising documents.
Also of great value was the New Rising Sun Missionary Baptist Church program Empowering Our Youth, which accompanied their African American Heritage Recognition Night, February 18, 1995. Sources from the Trumann Library and Museum included: A Glance at Trumann, Arkansas — 40 Years Ago (Bank of Trumann, 1968); Scrapbook of the Trumann Poinsettia Club; and the Judd Hill items on exhibition there. The obituary of S. C. Chapin appeared in the Modern News (Harrisburg), November 25, 1976, and that of Esther Chapin, November 28, 1991. The author also reviewed relevant deed records at the Poinsett County Clerk's office and Census records.
The background information for this work came from the research done for the writer's Ph.D. dissertation, "Dear Took: Congressman Gathings of Arkansas and the Influence of Southern Elites on Government, 1938-68" (University of Mississippi, forthcoming). Two books of special note for interested readers are: The Plantation South: 1934-1937, by William C. Holley, et al. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1940; reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1971); and A New Plantation South: Land, Labor, and Federal Favor in Twentieth-Century Arkansas, by Jeannie M. Whayne (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996). Soon to be published is the History ofPoinsett County, Arkansas, edited by Clyde Ford and Sylvia Evans Witte (Harrisburg: Poinsett County Historical Society, forthcoming).
LIST OF PEOPLE INTERVIEWED
Former Sharecroppers, Day Workers, and Children:
Katie Hollimon Nathaniel Bailey
Buddy Anthony Maxine Anthony
Pearline W. Norman Rosie Thompson
Mae Lee Scott Richardson Troy Lee Wilson
Magnolia Mitchell Elbert Mitchell
Henry Estes Earsie Alcorn-Feliz
Essie B. Hull Victor Hill
Former Renters, Supervisors, and Children:
Billy Floyd Baker Helen E. Webb
Loyel Johnson Dorothy Johnson
Acquaintances and Business Associates:
Joe C. Benson Louise Downes
Burley Wagner Mae Wagner Williams
Mary Julia Houston Wayne W. Hinds
Elaine Downes Looney