Interviewee: Cauley Cortwright
Interviewer: William M. Cash
Date: December 20, 1973
WC: This is William M. Cash of Delta State College interviewing Mr. Cauley Cortwright of Rolling Fork, Mississippi, on December 20, 1973.
WC: Mr. Cortwright, would you share with us some biographical information, for example, your grandparents, your parents, your birth, and some of your early schooling, things of this nature?
CC: Thank you. I think I will reverse the sequence of the questions you asked and tell you a little bit about my birth, and try to move upstream from there. I was born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, on the twenty-first of May, 1918, and except for the period of my schooling and my military service4, I have lived here my entire life. I am a product of the local public schools system and have seen it develop to what we consider an awfully fin school system. I have been familiar with the church and, might I say, the small social life of the community through all of my years, too. My father also was born in Rolling Fork, Mississippi in 1881, and my mother was born approximately that same time, here. My mother died when I was just six months old, and my father remarried. And, though she not be my blood mother, my step -mother has been on e of the most gracious, lovely ladies that anyone would ever know. And she would be the one that most people in the community would think was my true mother. In fact, she is. My paternal grandparents came to Rolling Fork. My paternal grandfather, shortly after the Civil War, as a Republican and as a school teacher. I guess we might say he was a carpet bagger. He married my grandmother, who was a resident of this area, Clementine Roberts. On my maternal side, I came from the Casey group. My maternal grandfather was Mr. D.C. Casey, and, of course, Mrs. Casey was my grandmother. Mr. Casey died before my death, and Mrs. Casey, shortly after. I was actually with between 1918 and 1921, when my father remarried an aunt, Miss Louise Cortwright, to whom I’ve been very devoted through the years. My father’s family was a large family, he being the oldest brother; he had a brother Jim, Ira, Tecumseh, Ed and Ray. They, too, were part of the history of Rolling Fork between 1885, you might say, and 1920, before they established themselves in, some here and some in other locations. There were two sisters in the family, Ruth and Louise. They have spent most of their productive years in the Jackson area. My aunt Louise having been with the school system there as a teacher and then principal of several of the Jackson schools until retirement. On the maternal side of my family, it was a small family. I had only one half-sister, Charlotte Wammuck on that side. And of course my father remarried and I was born and then shortly after that my mother died so there are very, very few relatives in the area on the maternal side of my family. My understand, though, in his day, Mr. Casey was quite a prominent citizen of the area. He engaged in agriculture, commerce, and in banking. My paternal grandparents, Mr. J.H. Cortwright, Sr., though he came down as a school teacher, soon evolved into a general merchant in the area and ran a store that was on the west side of the creek, very near, just south of where the current post office is. He brought several of his brothers down from up in New York. They were in Red Bank, New York, where they came from. From time to time, they veered into the land business here, attempted to farm, made partial successes. But eventually all the brothers except my grandfather returned to New York to make their homes. These are the progenitors that I came from. I feel very fortunate to have had them as my family.
WC: You did suggest that you were a product of the public school system here in Rolling Fork. Could you tell us something of your subsequent education and, perhaps, and honorary degrees?
CC: Of course I finished high school here in Rolling Fork public schools in 1934, graduated on my sixteenth birthday, and as a very, very young and utterly green freshman, went up to Mississippi State University. I spent one year there, returned the next fall, spent about ten days or two weeks and decided I had enough education. I recall very well coming home and telling my father that. He said you can spend the night here, but tomorrow you’re going somewhere. So I did move on over to Mississippi College and spent three of the happiest years of my life at Clinton in Mississippi College. I graduated from Mississippi College in 1938 and there wasn’t too many job opportunities in those days and I was a little confused about what to do, so I did want to go on and continue my education. There was a great old gentleman in charge of the chemistry department over there, Dr. A.E. Wood. If he had a student that showed any promise, he always assisted him in continuing his education. We mad applications for any number of graduate scholarships and I finally accepted the first one that I was offered. Subsequently, I think I had nine more offers, but in those days you felt that when you accepted something, you had a responsibility to fulfill it. So I spent two years at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. doing graduate work with a major in organic chemistry. Those two were genuinely pleasant years. Washington in those days was vastly different from Washington of today. I lived in a fraternity house. I learned my first basic concepts of how things go on in federal government and what makes things move. But it became rather evident that my career was not to be in the scientific field. In 1940 I came home and became engaged in agriculture. The druggist of the era was Mr. J.E. Meek. He had been in this area for many, many years, operating the drug store and a farming operation. Mr. Meek passed away in the fall of 1939, and I was able to rent his land and to purchase his equipment and that was my first personal movement into agriculture. After that, of course, we moved into a family partnership operation with owned and rented lands had have been engaged in that since then. But my formal education did culminate with those two years at George Washington University as a graduate student in chemistry with my major in organic chemistry.
WC: Certainly a misnomer to refer to an honorary degree as not an earned degree because knowing that such awards are made where a person is most deserving, would you share with us the honorary degrees that you also have and I know that you made a sharp distinction between formal education and simply education. Certainly I would agree with your distinction between these two.
CC: Yes, I would be happy to share with you, and I do feel quite honored that in 1972, at the graduation exercises at Mississippi College, the president and board of trustees did confer upon me and honorary Doctor of Law degree. I think it was totally undeserved, but I must admit that I did have an inner pleasure with the recognition and appreciation that they tendered me by conferring this degree. Education, formal education versus, might we say, informal education is a continuing thing. Formal education really only gives you the basic tools with which to really grow further and become a better educated person. I think anyone always at any time fails to capitalize upon opportunities to learn and grow makes a grievous error. I daresay I’ve learned more from my informal impressions and associates than I ever did in the formal classroom structure that we term the educational process. It’s been my associations of some of the opportunities I’ve had since my college days that I feel I have really learned more than I ever did in my high school – college – graduate school situations.
WC: Certainly you’re having lived your life here in Rolling Fork, you are aware of what we might call early activities and social events, things of this type. Could you share with us some of your early memories here of Rolling Fork, whether it be in the form of schooling, churches, social events, or just what might come to your mind.
CC: Well, quite obviously, having been born in 1918, I would remember less than clearly prior to 1922 or ’23, so anything I might say would com in the context of 1922-23 to 1930, being early memories of the community. I guess the first thing that current people can’t remember is that Rolling Fork was and extremely small little community, consisting of a court house, the adjacent stores, and a few homes along the creek bank. There was no development whatsoever off of the creek banks in those days. It was and has been historically and agriculturally oriented community. The surrounding territory was almost a 100% black and different form many parts of the Delta, the management, the land-owning group, lived in town instead of out on the farms. They went out daily to their agricultural responsibilities. I remember particularly the Saturday evenings in Rolling Fork. You would see 200 wagons, maybe, each with mules, the farm labor coming in. Saturday afternoon and Saturday night was a tremendous event in the life of a rural community in those days. To help attract people in, the stores would always make a pot of some several hundred dollars and hold drawings. I think that was just to get all the people into the town at the same time so they would peak out their selling hours. But it was quite a memory to me to recall that you would see a hundred wagons with their mule teams and very, very few Model T cars on the streets of Rolling Fork. But this is about the situations: business boomed on Saturday afternoon and Saturday night and very little else transpired during the week. You said they were store-keepers, that’s what they would do, they would keep shop. They weren’t selling very much. The school system, I can recall when, I guess it must have been the second of the third school, it’s there now on the west side of the south branch of Deer Creek, south of the Methodist Church now, its know as Baggett’s Apartments. This used to be the first public school that I can recall. It was a four room structure with halls going across it. Of course, extensive remodeling has mad it usable as an apartment house now. I remember when the school moved from there and, as I recall, it was in 1923, across to the present location of the Fielden L. Wright Attendance Center. That was a magnificent building. I think it must have had eight or ten rooms and an auditorium that would seat 500 people. Really, for 1923, it was one of the finest school buildings in the state. A Mr. J.P. McCain was the superintendent at the time, and I started school in 1923, actually, I believe this was the second year this school had been open. Of course, one of the old teachers that many of us my era remember was Mrs. Boles, who for possibly forty years taught the first grade. Another great old lady of educational history in this area was Mrs. O’Neill who taught the sixth, seventh, eighth grade levels. Mr. McCain was able and popular school man. He had high ambitions, though. He didn’t stay in this little community but one year after I went to school, and moved on up to Cleveland and later ran for Congress from the area. But he was a very able and popular person. I guess educations in this area should be identified for a number of years with a Mr. J.P. Ellerd, who came here and operated the schools from , let’s say 1924 to about 1936 when Mr. Finton came here. I graduated under the tenure of Mr. Ellerd and He was a great personality and the entire student body loved him. We like to think that the school system in our day was the best that they’ve ever been, but in all candor, they won’t event match the educational system that we have in this area, and particularly the educational system that we had before the recent implementation of the Supreme Court decision and they’re determining that freedom of choice would not meet the acceptable standards. About the early church life, the Methodist Church was located on Ray Street. That’s some two or three blocks really due west of where it stands today. It was a small wooden structure. You’d like to think of it as having been quite large, but I imagine it would have seated maybe a hundred, under stress. We have two or three Sunday school rooms built around it. The heart of the Methodist church in those days, contrary to common belief, was not the minister, but was a gentle man of the community, Mr. J.G. Parrum. He was a Sunday school superintendent and possibly as dedicated and convicted a Christian as I ever knew. He was superintendent of the Sunday school during my entire childhood memories and he never failed in his loyalties. He was just a great, great gentleman. Mrs. Francis Perry, Mrs. Earl Perry, was on of my earliest Sunday school teachers. And if anybody ever was a dedicated person in church work, it was Mrs. Perry and she has continued to do this and has given her leadership through the formal society of Christian service, not only on a local but on a state level. I went also in my very, very early years to the Baptist Sunday school. It was located right where the current Baptist Church is. My mother’s father Mr. Stacey, he was the Justice of the Peace here, lived with us, and he was a great Baptist. My father, like most fathers, liked to avoid the responsibility of Sunday school and Mr. Stacey used to take us to Sunday school in my earliest days and we went to this very, very small Baptist church in that location, I think it was 1932 or 33 that the Baptists put their first brick building in, and I guess it was about 1936 that the Methodist church, the current sanctuary was built. This was necessitated by virtue of a fire that totally destroyed the old church. We met for some several years in the Royal Theater in Rolling Fork, and had Sunday school and church there. It was 1936 that we came out of the depression before we were able to get enough money together again to build a new church. Mr. Paul Grifes was pastor here and he was the spark that made the people realize that this was a real opportunity for the community to move forward in its religious responsibilities. Rolling Fork in the early days, you have to remember the people. I think some of the names that come to mind would be Mr. W.H. Clements he was the father of Coleman Clements and the grandfather of Rush Clements, who are here now as attorneys. Mr. Clements was a very distinguished and an outstanding lawyer. As I remember him he was white – headed, always immaculately groomed and inevitable he would come to his office each day with a fresh shirt, a blue suit, just what you would think a lawyer to be. He had associated with him then a young man in the law practice, Mr. Fielding L. Wright. Mr. Wright had, was born here, and reared here and he knew most of my uncles and aunts and grew up with them. Mr. Wright from his associations with Mr. Clements, what he learned there, eventually branched off into politics and became Speaker of the House of Representatives in the Mississippi Legislature, Lieutenant Governor, and then Governor of Mississippi, and possibly one of our best-know citizens, particularly in the area of politics. Again, in the early days and who you remember, I remember, and most people can’t remember this type thing, but we had livery stables here. I remember a Mr. Charlie Barnton who used to run the livery stables. He was very outgoing person, probably weighed about 250 lbs, with red, flushed face, and very, very extroverted. I remember so me of the conversations he carried on. Remembering again, Mr. L.C. Hicks, who, in the early days ran a service station. He married Mr. Fielding Wright’s sister and from this he became interested in county politics, and he was sheriff several times and he finally moved on up as chief of the highway patrol and in his last years lived in Jackson. But he was a great sheriff, he was a great personality. He knew how to get along with people just wonderfully well. It, I’m sure, reflects his success in county politics. I recall two in the educational field, a Miss Olive Alexander who was superintendent of education for many years. I guess if any one person could be responsible or could claim credit for the development of a public education system in Sharkey County on a truly county-wide organized basis, it would be Miss Alexander. She held that position for many years and finally became postmistress here and was postmistress for her latter years in life. These are some of the people I remember. There are many, many if I had time to think. But they were the leaders. They were part of my pleasant memories of this community and I’m sure that we all of today owe a debt of gratitude for the groundwork’s they laid for us.
WC: Certainly floods and high-water have been very prominent in the history here of the community and some of the adults, as of the time of the flood of ’27, have shared their impressions and their memories with us. You would have perhaps been around ten, nine or ten. Do you have a memory of the flood of ’27?
CC: My earliest memory of floods, backwaters, water problems, is somewhat earlier than that. I can remember 1922 was the first one that we lived out west of Rolling Fork, some three miles. It was a home that my grandfather had built for my mother, but she never did move into it and after my father was remarried in 1921, we moved out and did considerable work on it and were very happily situated there. So in 1922, we have my first recollection of water. This is the place that is known as Borderland Plantation. Backwater that year got some four and a half or five feet deep. We, of course, had to move into town and we stayed at the Gibbon Hotel in that day for about two months while this water went down. To give you some comparison, though, the recent water of ’73, the water was about 4 feet deeper on that plantation that year than that water was in 1973. So we had water right up in and around Rolling Fork in ’22, nothing but the very highest creek banks were out. Then the ’27 water, of course this is the flood as far as most of us in the lower Delta can remember. I was a kid, oh, nine years old I guess. We had determined that, by this time we had moved to town, and folks pretty well knew that we were in a difficult situation. We had had adequate warning to scaffold up three or four feet in the house and move the furniture upon these scaffolds. My father had determined that we were going to ride it out; we were going to stay in town during the flood. So we had moved to the second floor of what was then known as the Brown Hotel. It was right across form where the current depot is located, just due east of the depot, and the Gibbon Hotel was just south of it. But we had the upstairs. I recall when the levee broke at Scott we went the next day up old 61 and we met the water at about Pantherburn. Nobody had any idea how deep it was going to get, but then we came back home, knowing that we were going under. It was great fun for a few days. Everybody had a boat, I guess there were some 75 or 100 people still in and around Rolling Fork. Possibly more than that. But as a kid, we would play in the boats and just frolic in the water. In early efforts, there were an attempt made to save two areas of land. One … (Lost from side 1 to side 2)…household possessions of the labor on the place. It was a 2-story gin in this bound, and as it ended up after the levee broke, most the labor lived up in the second floor of this gin, probably 30 or 40 for several weeks. The last levee that was to give way was the one Mr. F. B. Craft had tried to maintain. That was, of course, around the mounds and extended from the south side of the Indian mounds just below Rolling Fork up Highway 61 and tied into the railroad as a highway makes the curve through the creek. Mr. Craft was a little more successful. It was one of the last levees to give way in the area. Of course he did have the three big Indian mounds there, and eventually it did give way and everything that was saved, livestock and so forth, had to go to the Indian mounds. But it was very fortunate that the mounds were there because some of the mules were able to survive the flood and you were able to get in some crops after the water went down in early June. The Red Cross was a big factor in this area during the flood. They, as best they could, by boat, sent foodstuffs in, feed for the livestock, administered to the population as best they could, and tried to evacuate the population. I recall a tremendous barge on this effort that came up and tied to the platform at the depot and a number of tents were erected on it and I presume at least 500 Negroes were taken out of the area on this barge. They went down from Rolling Fork, down Rolling Fork creek into Sunflower River and thence to Vicksburg. It lacked of being a perfect situation, but it was in those days the only method of getting people in that number out of the area. I recall tow rather interesting events shortly after the levee broke, maybe some two days. Deer Creek was a roaring torrent. I guess water was, the current must have been 15 miles an hour going down it. On the bridge between China street crossing now, that’s old concrete bridge, I remember as the water just about was at bank level looking upstream and a darky in a boat with a sewing machine and a pig came down and he couldn’t, there wasn’t enough clearance under the bridge, so he lost the pig and the sewing machine and the boat, but we got the darky out. So there’s some of those memories that are rather amusing. The Red Cross did tremendous work in here, though and we used to have a great day when they came in with Pet milk and other things of that nature. After about four or five weeks of this, living conditions weren’t so good for a family with four small children. I had two younger sisters and a brother and I think my mother’s temper or my father’s temper was getting frayed under these conditions so it was decided that he would stay and that we would leave. We went by motor boat to Meyersville, and of course, it was scheduled that we would catch a Mississippi River steamer to get out. I remember the name of it was Uncle Oliver and we spent I think a day and maybe two nights and a day going to Vicksburg. Even when we returned there was still not transportation and we cam back up the Mississippi – Yazoo – Sunflower complex to Rolling Fork and began the reconstruction of the area to clean up after the flood. Those were quite difficult days, and it really left his area destitute because, as you will recall, shortly after ’27 we had backwaters in ’28 and ’29 and then went into the years of the Great Depression, so this area had very little going for it in and economic sense until after the Roosevelt election, after some initiation of farm programs, and some technological developments. The first year any real progress was made was about 1936. but the flood years were in some ways great. It brought a unity among people. They worked together in adversity, they still had a sense of humor, they could joke and laugh, knowing all the time that all of their materials, possessions were gone. They had their help, they their friends, they had the desire to rebuild and it had its compensations as well as the bad things about it.
WC: Certainly, as suggested, changes did begin to take place in the ‘30’s, improvements in technology and so forth, certainly had its impact in the field of agriculture. Do you recall other changes that you have witnessed in the community, aside specifically from agriculture, which will be a major topic with us later in the tape, perhaps changes brought about in part by civic clubs, changes brought about by the churches and their activities? You did mention some changes that took place in the school system, things of this type.
CC: Course change is inevitable and it’s always hard to identify the precise cause of the change. I guess, as I’d look at change, as I understand it, change in attitude of the people has been the greatest thing that we have seen here. This is probably largely due to the church leadership concepts and a better understanding of the mind of Christ, so to speak. Where I at one time, we could not tolerate any bi-racial system in this county, we have been able to adapt ourselves to it, and if not saying that we desire it, we’ve been able to live in peace with it. We haven’t had any violence at all. This has been as the result of educations, compulsion, but basically to the good will of the people, of being adaptable to changing situations. Of course all of us know that the civic clubs in a community are a positive force, as are the churches and though it’s hard to identify any specific things that they have done, I recall a number of years ago that the Rotary Club constructed a lighted softball field for the black community. This was long before any of the pressures of the 1954 Supreme Court decision were evident and it was just an indication of the recognition that there was a responsibility to this bigger but this less privileged community in the area. The blacks were at a different economic level form the whites. They were treated differently, but we’ve seen many, many of these things change without any violence. But this is simply an example of civic club taking a positive move before any compulsion had to force it. There are many, many changes that have come about in Rolling Fork. I remember the days that we were in the mud, not even a paved street. First we had a little gravel, and then in about 1940 under the Works Project Administration, in I guest this was the first time or the first part of the second time of President Franklin Roosevelt, they put our several money in the various communities in trying to give economic stimulation, and this money was used to pave some of the main streets in Rolling Fork. This is the way we got out of the mud. The first gymnasium at the school was built in about 1941 or ’42 with some of this federal money. These examples of a change in situation where the federal government moves out to help the local communities. It would seem now that we have come to a state of mind to where we cry to Washington on any small thing, where it was most unusual in my early days. I don’t recall of any federal programs prior to the Roosevelt Administration where the federal government gave or hardly took away from the local community. Private organizations, such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army, church groups met the local emergencies. We didn’t expect anything from Washington in those days. There was a tremendous patriotism under that system, at the same time, people were more self-dependent than they have become now. They really think it’s their due to get help from the federal government now when adversity comes about. But the changes I recall have largely been for the good. People might want to go back to the “good old days” , but as I remember them, they weren’t quite as comfortable, quite the same lifestyle as we live in now. People can hardly remember it, but when I was a child, and I’m not an old man now, I was in a home that used wood logs for heat, kerosene lanterns for light, and had a little water pump, a gasoline pump, and a big tank to catch the rainwater for our water supply. And this type thing is not compatible with the conveniences that we have today, so there have been many, many changes in the fifty years of my memory, and all of them are for the good I think.
WC: Mr. Cortwright, Mrs. Harry Carpenter, or Ms. Annie, as we affectionately call her, has identified you as the person with more knowledge of cotton than anybody in the world. Now she has referred to you as “Mr. Cotton”. I’m certain that when we turn our attention to agriculture, it would be almost presumptuous on my part to suggest individual topics, but I know that you have been active in local, regional, state, and national organizations. Delta Council, National Cotton Council. We know that you views as an expert on the status of agriculture, the changes that are taking place now, the projection, the future would be of tremendous significance not only to those of us today who might be reading a transcription of this tape or hearing the tape, but certainly to people in twenty, thirty years from today. So let me just turn over to you for your comment, your memories, your evaluation concerning agriculture in the Mississippi Delta.
CC: Well I guess I should give a little bit of my memory of the changes that have taken place before I try to project what we might expect for the future, and it’s always a hazard to make a projection or a speculation because most of the time it doesn’t happen the way you anticipate it to. You mentioned Mrs. Carpenter. Her husband, Mr. Harry Carpenter, was one of the ablest and most progressive farmers, and one of the most honorable people that were ever in the area. I expect he was a trend-setter in the changes in agricultural patterns that I can recall. I was brought up in the days of the mule and the Negro, so to speak. My father, of course, was a farmer. He served a couple of terms on the Board of Supervisors, but his total life, we might say, was devoted to farming, and he was a successful farmer, and a good farmer. His ability to do this and to make a success of it, in my judgment, was based upon his knowledge of how to handle the Negro labor that he had. He was gentle and kind, never abusive with them.. He tried to meet their demands, he tried to reason with them, to counsel with them in wise ways. We did have an awfully high quality labor component, as I remember the Negro families of the early days. They had integrity, they believed in the work ethic, they maintained respectable homes on the farms, they always had a garden, a few hogs, totally different from the situation we find ourselves in today. As I said, this was a mule and Negro agriculture. I recall that if we had a man and a wife only, we would give them an 80 acre field of cotton to work and usually 2 acres of corn. This was the tenant system. My father furnished the land, the work stock, the fertilizer, they furnished the labor. We divided the crop half and half. We would generally begin to furnish these tenants in March with, we ran a commissary, and we would begin to furnish groceries and the modest needs they had, in March and would carry them through on a furnish basis for their needs, until usually the second week of August when cotton picking would begin. When cotton picking began, well of course, there was seed money, there was ready work available for them, and they became independent of us then, and usually at the end of the year, they would clear enough money to lay in their winter supplies and carry them through to March. It’s unbelievable how little money it took in those days to live on. If a man made $300, he was able to have his Christmas and go through January and February to the first of March. We had about a hundred families on our farm in those days. My memories of it are most pleasant. The quality of the people, the Negroes I knew in their day, their loyalty to my father, and his loyalty to them. This, of course, began to change in the early ‘30’s, mid ‘30’s, after the flood disaster of ’27, we had a big exodus of Negro labor who never returned to the area, and with the subsequent backwater conditions in ’28 and ’29 and going into the ‘30’s and the Depression, we began to see negro labor go to more advantageous economic situations that were developing in the northern cities and actually in the north Delta we found that they could do better, and they would move in that direction. This exodus of labor was compensated for by the introduction of mechanical power instead of horse and mule, and we went from, began to move from a tenant system in the mid ‘30’s and I guess this was completed largely to a commercial, day labor system by the mid ‘40’s. In this period of time, it was an evolutionary period, and you did some of your farming by the tenant system, the remainder you put on a cash basis and used the spare time of these people to work by the hour. The tractor, of course, was the prime implement that relieved us of the pressure of not having labor here to go with the historic mule system. It is, I guess, the one great thing, I think, that has contributed to the technology of agriculture in the area, and the difference between the tractors of the mid ‘30’s and the tractors that are available today is just about the same difference as it is between the very early automobiles and the very fine ones that we use today. Contributing to that, of course, was the introduction of advanced technology in agriculture. You know in the early days, people didn’t believe too much in research and extension systems. But the Delta experiment stations had become a very good source of information by the mid ‘30’s. there were certain production practices that they had researched enough to just know you could do better, and with the extension system wi9thin the state of Mississippi we began more and more to be dependant on the research findings of the Delta experiment station. We had sufficient hand labor in this area through the ‘30’s to continue to do all of our weed control by hand. We had a few tractors operating, but basically this was mule and man agriculture until the beginning of World War II. With the advent of World War II, and of course the double-prong demand for people in the military and into the industrial machines to supply the military, there was a tremendous out movement of blacks, particularly young and middle-aged blacks. I think this would be the area of dispersion. We had families leave us that went as far as California and became established there. We had people going to New York, to Detroit, to Chicago, St. Louis, and these families never returned after they moved out for one reason or another during the early days of World War II. It became mandatory at the end of World War II that we adapt every conceivable mechanical advancement that we could learn about to maintain this acreage in agriculture. And actually because of the lack of labor and because of the lack of implements in the years immediately following the War, considerable lands were not tilled because this was not available. Advancements came fast, though, in technology in the mid ‘40’s and through the ‘50’s. We saw such techniques as cross cultivation or cross plowing. We developed more powerful tractors, we used wider discs. We still did not have any of the effective pesticides and herbicides that we have today, but these began to come on stream pretty well in the very late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s. We now, I feel, have reached about the peak of efficiency in so far as labor or man-hours per acre and production. I think we’re approaching and irreducible minimum. We do have a wonderful group of herbicides to used today, this thing of hand-weeding is almost non-existent, we do have these very, very high horse-power tractors that have trailing implements so large that if we build them any larger we’re not going to have mobility on the highways, so I doubt if we’re going to move in that direction. I think one of the directions that we might move in agriculture, though, is in self-guided implements. Certainly, if technology is advanced to the position or to the point that we can put a man on the moon, bring him back, and make him hit within a few hundred yards of a pre-determined point, we can put a guidance system on tractors that’s just almost unbelievably perfect, if ever needs be. So I would expect us to begin to look at guidance systems on agricultural implements in the area. This area, of course, is soil type-wise sandy loams moving into intermediate clays and to heavy clays. I guess roughly we could say forty percent of it is sandy loam and the other sixty percent is in one of the clay type soils. Sandy loams have historically been very good for cotton. As they’ve opened up, they were very productive, but we’ve developed things like cocoa grass. Mules didn’t have the power to uproot this grass and it became a problem, so the better cottons eventually were grown on the newly opened buckshot soils while they still had humus on them. And these soils would be productive for three or four years and then they lost their humus and fertility, well they became impossible for cotton. In my early years, we had found out what ammonia nitrogen would do. We used a chemical called nitrate of soda, and we planted these sand loams when we were able to get enough money we put nitrate of soda on them and made acceptable cotton crops. The clays in those days ere very unproductive lands. We would try to plant oats or corn, and very, very low yields and very, very limited prosperity in the agriculture of the area, as I remember it, until the post-war years. These are some of the things I remember. Which way we are going, well we are not into a largely cotton, soybean, wheat agriculture in the area. As you know, cotton has this vast array of synthetic alternatives that it must compete with. Whether it will continue to be the prime crop of the area, I would hate to predict. I do feel like, though, cotton on theses deep Deer Creek sands is going to be the most profitable crop there. On our clay soils, the soybean has almost been a miracle crop to us. Where they have historically been lost type soils to farm, with the advent of the soybean and with the great demand fro protein, animal protein, feedstuffs in Western Europe and Japan, in particular, we have seen this become a major crop and a profitable crop. I would predict that we will continue to grow soybeans on these type soils. We will probably look at some wheat or other small grain rotations, but climatically these type crops require harvesting on a strict term schedule, they don’t tolerate any adulteration by sand or other things, and with out torrential rains and unpredictability of our weather, I rather doubt personally that we’ll ever see large scale agriculture of that type in the area. I would think for the next half century, cotton-soybean complex would pretty well take care of it, and possibly this with the introduction of self-guided implements and tractors and a further reduction in the on-farm population, the greater use of a more sophisticated group of chemicals, both in the fertilizer and the herbicidal and insecticidal area, the use of many of our environmental means to control the insects instead of so much of the chemicals that we use now, we will probably see these introductions within the next decade. With the continuing population pressures world-wide, though, with the productivity, and the very, very able core management group in this area, I can’t help but predict a most bright outlook for the agriculture oriented people of this area.
WC: Certainly two organizations in which you have served as leaders and have oftentimes been called the leader, the Delta Council, the National Cotton council, have you made tremendous contributions to the field of agriculture. Could you possibly discuss your personal role, then the role of these organizations in assisting in this tremendous change that we have just discussed in the field of technology in agriculture?
CC: Well I can’t give too much credit to these organizations for the organized cooperative leadership that they have furnished as we have spanned these almost revolutionary changes that have come about in this area. Delta Council, I think, dates back to 1936, such people as John petty, Billy Winn, Billy McKinney, Jim Hahn, Oscar Johnson, had the early conception – Walter Sillers, Dr. Kethley up at Delta State was, I believe, the first president. They came together and joined largely to get a unified effort to get a highway system in the Delta. The Delta had no paved roads prior to 1936. And their second primary mission was to develop a unified flood control plan for the area. Inland waterways needed some protection, but mainly the main line levee. These fights simply couldn’t be handled effectively by individuals and it took a cooperative effort, and, of course Delta Council led in this effort. And they have been most successful in making substantial improvements in these areas. But Delta Council has extended to many, many areas beyond this. From flood control and highways it has gravitated more and more toward agricultural orientation as the various farm programs and the importance of farm programs were in the changing agricultural scene, they have effectively worked not only on the state level, but at the Washington level. They have looked at such things as ginning improvements related to the agricultural scene, health and safety, education, just all of those things that make for a good society. In 1957 they developed and industrial division in Delta Council, and I think it was the year Mr. Leroy Percy of Greenville was president, and since 1957 they have had a substantial effort in what I would term a very successful effort in trying to provide industrial jobs for our Delta citizens. At the present time I should expect industrial employment is as responsible for as much income as agricultural employment. Out of the first cooperative efforts of Delta Council and seeing that they were being met with success, and knowing that cotton was the great economic backbone to this area, some of the visionary people of the era determined that we needed a national organization to work for cotton. And out of Delta Council itself was born the National Cotton Council of America. Mr. Oscar Johnson, who at that time was president of Delta Pine and Land Company in Scott, who I can remember as a young man, assumed the leadership in this. Mr. William Ray Blacke, who was then Secretary-Manager of Delta Council, with Mr. Johnson and people he know on a national basis undertook the organization of the National Cotton Council. It was my privilege to have served as president of Delta Council in 1957 and of National Cotton Council in 1965. So from first – hand knowledge, I know some of the things that they have done to make this a better, a more desirable area to live in, and to raise the standard of living in this area, as reflected by economic progress. My interest in these organizations largely was on the production side of agriculture. I served as chairman of Delta Council’s Agricultural Committee several years before I was president, and looked real hard at the production side of Delta agriculture. In the National Cotton Council, some three of four years, I served as chairman of their production and marketing committee, and got a good look at belt-wide production problems in agriculture. It was also my privilege to, beginning in 1953 going through 1961, to serve on research and marketing committees on cotton within the Department of Agriculture. From 1961 to 1965 I served on President Kennedy’s National Agricultural Research Committee. So with these rather broad experiences and opportunities, I might say, I gained a great appreciation of what an organized agriculture can gain for a commodity or for an area. The Mississippi Delta never did come up short in national programs because of Delta Council, and together they have made probably the most significant contributions that I am aware of of any organizations to the area, to the economic viability of it. I also had an opportunity to be a member of a Presidential Commission appointed by the late President Lyndon Johnson. He termed this the National Agricultural Commission on Food and Fiber, and we spent some two years putting together a report entitled “Food and Fiber for the Future”. During those four years – two and a half years, rather, that we were in operation, I had the opportunity to meet people from across the whole structure of the United States, such men as Tex Cook with General Foods, Bob McGowen with Safeway Stores, Herman Colemeyere with Colememyer and Company, Harold Hughes, farmer from Nebraska, Palmers from Illinois, just a broad spectrum education. We brought together an economic staff, as foolish as it might seem, we spent about a million and a half dollars of the taxpayers’ money making this report. But this is apart of the continuing education I got. I guess in those two and a half years associated with these people, doing the massive amount of reading that was required to come up with conclusions, I probably learned more than in any similar period in my life. I would simply say that I’m a man that believes in cooperative effort, and I am sure, because of the cooperation that has come about because of the existence of Delta Council and National Cotton Council, that this area and that this commodity, cotton, has made much, much more progress economically that would have been possible had they not existed.
WC: Certainly, we’re appreciative to you for granting us this interview. You spoke in terms of achievements of the cooperative effort, certainly we’re also indebted to you as citizens of the Mississippi Delta for your outstanding leadership and your contributions. And as a concluding area for discussion here, and for purposes of placing on the tape, at least concluding this phase of the tape, would you perhaps share with us your philosophy of life, perhaps your advice to youngsters who might be hearing this tape and might be looking for guidance, say twenty years from now?
CC: I guess, without being philosophical, I would say primary to success in any area is attaining a skill in the area. So I would urge you, whether it be manual labor or the highest degree of education, to pursuer it to the point that you’re a specialist in it, and pursue it to the point that you know you’re a specialist and you can do your job just as well as anybody else that you are in competition with. Philosophically, I guess I have come to the point where I am less aggressive than I was. I believe that a lot of life is found in attaining what we might phrase peace of mind, the satisfaction of knowing that you are doing and you have done your part in making this a better world as you stood upon the stage of it. The realization that material values fail in the ultimate, that there is a spirituality that must pervade all of us and only as we attune our spirits to the spirits of the Creator do we become completely relaxed and at peace with ourselves, our fellow man, and our God. I guess this would be my simple philosophy. Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with thy Lord.
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