Interviewer: Charles Pearce
Interviewee: Jere Nash
Date: June 22, 1976
C.P.: Today is June 22, 1976 and I am Charles Pearce interviewing Mr. Jere Nash, Sr. of Greenville, MS. Our location is the Delta Implement Home Office in Greenville and the topic today is mechanization of Delta Farming and specifically the role of James Hand, Jr. in the advent of farm machinery. Mr. Nash is a long time associate of Mrs. Hand and is also a very prominent figure in the mechanization story. Mr. Nash, would you begin by relating the reason why you came to the Delta and under what circumstances you met Mr. Hand in the early 1920’s.
J.N.: I had farmed several years at Westpoint, MS and on December of 1923. I went to Memphis and got a job with International Harvester Co. They hadn’t had any activity of sells or dealers in the Delta in a number of years. They sent me to the MS Delta. I had traveled most the Delta and traveling the lower part of the territory around Rolling Fork, I saw a store building burning and I stopped naturally to inquire and met Mr. Hand. His store and office was burning. Mr. Hand had a hardwood sawmill out from Egermont which they gad out the timber and were disposing of the equipment. Of course, the timber business in the crash of 1919-1920 left little desire to continue in the manufacturing of timber. Since the lower part of the Delta from Rolling Fork south, because of the exodus of labor from the 1920 back water, and the labor gone to industries in the North, half or more of the bank was idle growing in weeds and grass. Mr. Hand had the idea of having a hardware store and implement store in Rollin Fork which there were none at the time. He purchased a stock of hardware from a hardware company in St. Louis…Shapely, I believe, and leased a building a building in Rolling Fork. About the same time he signed a contract with International Harvester Co. to handle farm equipment and tractors. As time went on, I spent most of my time around Rolling Fork endeavoring to sell tractors and farm equipment. In July, the Harvester Co. management of Memphis came to Rolling Fork and an agreement was made between Mr. Hand, Memphis management and I worked Rolling Fork full time with Harvester paying half of my salary and Home Hardware paying the other half. This association has continued for 56 years. Our problems, of course, have been many, but nothing that the two of us couldn’t solve; even during the 1927 overflow and the Depression of the 1930’s, and during World War II without any equipment to sell. As you know, Mr. Hand has been very active in flood control, and has been Chairman of the Delta Council Committee on flood control since its existence. He was President of Delta Council and a supervisor of Sharkey County, as well as other interest of any importance was his thinking first, of course along with his business. During the years we acquired property in the Lower Delta of which Mr. Hand looked after and to see to the management of five plantations. At the same time after Mr. Gibbs death, Mr. Hand became president of the Delta Implement Co. and our office was in Leland, and he came to Leland to or three times a week while still looking out after the plantations. In 1955, we moved the general office to Greenville. He continues to come there two or three times a week. He elected me president of Delta Implement Co. in possibly 1962 or 1963. The plantations have been very successful and at the same time during the Depression, the Harvester dealer in Yazoo City, Indianola, Cleveland, and Blytheville were having financial difficulties and the Harvester Co. approached us to take these operations over, which we did. Later we established one at a little town called Manilla, Arkansas. These operations have been, I would say, successful during the years. Many problems, as you know, during World War II we couldn’t get any equipment and during the last 3 or 4 years the equipment has been on allotment. However, we were in a position to survive the 1927 overflow, the Depression in the 1930’s and the shortage of equipment during World War II. Our company at the present employs about 200 people. The plantations that we operate at one time had no less than 150 families and that many mules. Since we’ve operated them there hadn’t been any mules and 48 to 50 families. Mr. Hand was one of the first to put running water and bathrooms in the nigger cabins. He tore all the old cabins down and moved them up on the gravel road which proved to be a splendid move. We have had very good laborers; I understand it on the plantations. This fertile land had been lying out, we might say, since the exodus of labor during World War I and the backwater for 1922, and the overflow of 1927 and the backwater of 1928 and 1929 demoded all of that property’s labor from Rolling Fork and Mayersville to Vicksburg, leaving 50 to 60% of the land growing up in weeds, with the Federal Land Bank, and various insurance companies having to foreclose property. Most of this property that we thought was purchased from these companies.
C.P.: Why was the Farmall tractor superior to any other tractor that was on the market at that time?
J.N.: The Farmall tractor, manufactured by the Harvester Co.., was like the McCormick reaper that was manufactured in 1830. The Farmall tractor was first introduced in 1924, which was a successful tractor to plow, plant, and cultivate the crops. We started out with tow –row equipment and in the early 1930’s we had four-row equipment. The tire companies played a big part in manufacturing rubber tires for farm tractors, which was an education problem for us and the rubber tire people to educate our farmers to use them. We had the same problem to educate our farmers to go to mechanization, because the owners and management were only interested and knew how to farm with sharecroppers. Those that were gone the land was idle. One of the big problems during the beginning of mechanization was our financial institutions that loaned money for crop production. They didn’t believe in and didn’t see the necessity of the success of mechanical operation. We had a big selling job to do this. Of course our big competition was the mule and they didn’t have anyone to work the mules. Later, the Harvester Co. developed the first cotton picker. They had spent millions of dollars over a period of 60 to 70 years developing it. During the 1930’s what land that was planted in cotton, we could get white and black labor from south Mississippi to come up and pick it. Then we couldn’t get this labor and it became so high, around $50 to $65 a bale, to pick a bale of cotton with this type of labor. Finally in 1941 the first successful picker was sold. We had a big problem of educating our farmers that that was the way to pick cotton at the price of $9 or $10 a bale instead of $50 or $65 a bale. Their idea was that they didn’t have anyone to operate it which was easy to do. Then, too, the problem of cotton gins to clean machine-picked cotton. Harvester Co. spent $100,000 at Hopson’s Co., Clarksdale, and developing cleaning equipment to gin mechanical picked cotton. Then the gin people came around and made improvements. We had very few pickers during World War II. They were scarce and high priced.
C.P.: What was the role of Mr. Joe Aldridge in the promotion of the tractor and how was he connected to Mr. Hand and Delta Implement Co.?
J.N.: Mr. Aldridge after the 1927 overflow, by his foresight and ingenuity, who operated 3,500 acres of land south of Leland, started buying tractors to farm with and was one of the first completely mechanized operations in the Delta. We have a letter back here written by him, and he gives his reasons and how successful it was even when our equipment was not what it was today. Mr. Aldridge was a good friend of mind as was his two brothers. He had a great influence over the mechanization of corps in the Delta.
C.P.: Why did Mr. Hand get involved in the business of buying land and plantations and becoming a farmer himself in the Delta?
J.N.: Well, Mr. Hand had always farmed. His educational background was in agriculture at Missouri. He farmed some when he got out of college, around Purvis, MS some of the cutover land that his father had cut over. Mr. Hand, Sr. had sawmills in Purvis, New Orleans, and Mobile where he cut pine timber and some Mahogany. After the cutover they went to other things. Then was when they came to the Delta and bought hardwood timber. The plantations we bought for one reason: nobody didn’t want them because there wasn’t any money in 5¢, 6¢, and 7¢ cotton. We had a number of repossessed tractors on hand, I believe during the years of 1931 and 1932 we repossessed and bought repossessed tractors (approximately 200), and sold them at a very low price with the equipment with them. The Harvester Co. came out with a program that the farmer didn’t have to pay anything down on a tractor, cultivator planter, and disc to make a crop. That was their contribution to help the farmers cultivate their soil and produce cotton, corn, and what hay and grain they needed.
C.P.: Mechanization of farming means more than just the availability of machines. It depends more on how you use those machines. What kind of progressive farming methods did Mr. Hand use on his plantations in the Lower Delta?
J.N.: He had some good men as managers, and he practiced the best know methods of farming. Of course we didn’t have the chemicals at that time. He checked the cotton which he planted both ways to keep the grass and weeds out. Later, a number of our farmers followed this same procedure. Later, too, they planted the cotton thick and cross plowed it which was to check and it was very successful. It hadn’t been for that, I don’t know what would have happened, because we didn’t have the chemicals to control weeds and grass that we have at this time.
C.P.: How did the Depression affect the progress of mechanization and how did Delta Implement Co. survive these hard times?
J.N.: I would say, the Depression, really, was helpful toward the mechanization of our land, although money was scarce and cotton was cheap. The only thing we raised was cotton, oats, and some corn. We carried on our business without any interruptions which was reasonably successful and has continued to be since. In 1936, cotton to 13¢ or 14¢ a pound. In 1937 the Delta country raised a big crop, and it raised all fall and had to hand pick it which was very expensive. The gins were ginning the cotton for the seed. Some of them would, others wouldn’t and it wasn’t worth it. I would say that 90% of the 1937 crop in the Deltas was put into 8 ½% loans. At that time we were paying during the Depression, $25 to $30 a bale to pick it and we were selling a bale of cotton for $42.50. So you can easily see where the profit was, which wasn’t any. Many farmers had struggled to keep going. Fortunately most of them continued and came out of it in good shape.
C.P.: International Harvester’s first experimentation with a mechanical cotton picker was with a pneumatic or suction type picker. Did you see any of these used in the Delta or did you have any kind of business with these?
J.N: No, the first picker the Harvester Co. sent to the Delta was in 1926. It was pulled by a Farmall tractor, one-row. It picked cotton very well, but our people were not ready for it, the company couldn’t produce them, and that type picker was not satisfactory. The company’s engineers knew that it would have to be self-propelled. The main thing was to develop a picker that would pick cotton and not damage the unpicked bolls that were yet to mature and open. So that experiment went on from 1926 until 1941 when the first mechanical picker was developed by the International Harvester Co.. We had quite a program with a moving picture showing the mechanization of cotton and to help our sales office show these pictures to towns throughout our area. We would have a dinner meeting with 40 to 60 farmers, and we had the moving that would show the pictures from time of plowing the land, planting the cotton, cultivating the land and picking the cotton. I believe that picture was made in 1943 or 1944.
C.P.: Did you witness any of the earliest tests with the spindle picker in the Delta? Do you know where they experimented with the picker in the Delta and could you describe some of the experimentation that International Harvester did here in the Delta?
J.N.: Some of the experiments were on the Joe Aldridge plantation, some at Hopson’s plantation at Clarksdale, and some at the Sam Logan plantation, Pertshire. Several pickers were sent to our company at Rolling Fork to experiment on the plantation.
C.P.: Did you invite farmers to come?
J.N.: In the early stages we didn’t encourage many farmers to come. Those who wanted to would. But the farmers themselves weren’t particularly interested in picking cotton with a machine as long as they could get it picked any other way. So that was the educational program that we had to educate our farmers to pick cotton mechanically, same we did to plow, plant it, and cultivate it mechanically. It was all an educational program which Mr. Hand along with the rest of us participated.
C.P.: This is Charles Pearce continuing our interview with Mr. Jere Nash, Sr. of Greenville, MS.
J.N.: In discussing the further development of the cotton picker, this has been in the time of Mr. Alexander Lay, who was president of the company then , McCormick, who was the son of on e of the founders. They visited the Delta often with engineers during the development of the cotton picker. Also, Brooks McCormick, who is presently president of the Harvester Co., also paid visits to the Delta, our company, and our plantations from time to time.
C.P.: the International Harvester’s experimental picker at first had some local competition. Why did the International Machine eventually triumph over the Rust Brothers picker?
J.N.: That I can’t answer. The Harvester Co.’s picker was successful. It gave little trouble, few problems, and it had a dealer organization to stand behind it, as well as the Harvester Co.
C.P.: I’ve heard in talking with other people and I was wondering if you might have an opinion about this, is it true that the Harvester Co. used the doffing device developed by a local Greenville resident, Hiram Berry? Did you know Mr. Berry?
J.N.: Yes, I knew Mr. Berry and his son, and Dr. Gambel. Harvester Co. always used the spindle-type to pick the cotton. They had an opportunity to buy the Berry – Gambel cotton picker, but didn’t see fit to do so. Their engineers could see that they had a cotton picker in the making.
C.P.: Do you recall some of the political opposition or newspaper opposition to the introduction of the cotton picker? I remember reading newspaper columns where newspaper men would come out and say that the cotton picker ought to be thrown in the Mississippi River. There was a politician in Memphis who wanted to legislate the cotton picker out of existence. Do you recall any of this propaganda?
J.N.: You’ll have to go back farther than that. The editors of all newspapers that I know about criticized the mechanization of cotton from planting to cultivating to picking. The reason was that most of the writers said that mechanization and mechanical picking was the reason that Negroes left the plantations and had nothing to do. Well, it was just exactly the reverse. The help was gone, and the mechanization of cotton was two or three years late. This was the reason that so much land was idle. The cotton picker, itself, was two or three years too late. There has got to be a demand before anything is going to be developed, there was definitely a demand for a good tractor, like the Farmall tractor and its equipment, and the cotton picker as it developed. There was a great demand for that. In other words, there wasn’t any us in building, manufacturing it, and go to the expense of millions of dollars unless there was a demand, and there had been a demand. Of course, you can’t do these things overnight.
C.P.: What were some of the defects, if any, in International’s first pickers and how were these defects corrected?
J.N.: When the Harvester Co. placed a picker on the market, I don’t recall any specific defects. They did build a two-row picker that mounted on an M Farmall tractor. This picker did a good job, but the Harvester Co. didn’t think it was the proper way to pick cotton. It should be self-propelled. What they though at first was that they could use the tractor for other uses. Then mount the picker in the fall. That was after they had the one-row picker mounted on a Farmall tractor. Then they put the two-row on it, but they didn’t think too well of the idea, although it did a wonderful job. We sold two, and they sent their engineers down here and instructed us to go out with them to these folks that bought the picker to give them their money back. They instructed us to junk the picker, that is, where it could not be used for anything. We sold the junk to the junkman. Those pickers picked on crop and the farmers who had them, we had a time giving their money back and taking their pickers. They wanted to keep them. That was the Harvester Co.’s idea which they didn’t want to think was the successful way to pick the cotton.
C.P.: Are you aware of any suggestions that Mr. Hand might have made to International Harvester Co. to improve International machines, either tractors or cotton pickers?
J.N.: In those days, many engineers from the factory come and visited with Mr. hand and getting his ideas to plows, planters, an cultivators for the mechanization of cotton which were very helpful. The engineers were responsive in lending their ears to his suggestions.
C.P.: Isn’t it true that you were involved on the improved ginning techniques at Hopson’s Plantation? Would you please describe the problem that you had with cotton grades and describe the operation at Hopson’s Gin for us?
J.N.: Harvester Co. spent several years in improving ginning, and perhaps if the gin people hadn’t come forward with ideas to better gin mechanical picked cotton, no doubt, the Harvester Co. would have had to start building the gins. They did build a cleaning device at Hopson’s Gin, this side of Clarksdale. My guess would be that they spent up to $100,000 building this equipment and the same time developing trouble free cotton pickers on the Hopson’s plantation as well as other plantations in the Delta.
C.P.: What kind of changes had to be made in the type of plant that was planted in the Delta in order to make mechanical picking more efficient? In the length of the staple, wasn’t there some kind of changes made or the length of the fiber?
J.N.: Cotton that was planted 40 or 50 years ago, there was some difference as to the maturity date and some difference in the ease to pick cotton, that is, to pick the cotton from the bur. Our cotton still, we can pick it from September to March. Perhaps more of the cotton will fall out on the ground from the present high developed seed than did 40 or 50 years ago. As to the variety of the height, largely depends upon the climatic conditions during the growing season. The cotton has been bred to produce more cotton per acre, with a shorter maturing time, and a 1 1/10 to 1 1/8 inch is the most desirable length for the consumption by the cotton mills.
C.P.: What kinds of alternations had to be made in the soybean and rice combine so that it could be adapted to local conditions?
J.N.: The soybean combine is largely the same as the wheat combine with some modifications. The rice combine is a heavier machine built to stand the pressure necessary to harvest rice in the wet fields with rice levies all over the field. They are hard to get over and across. It was very difficult for the machine to handle. Rice is beginning to be and has been on of our most profitable crops.
C.P.: Mr. Nash, in conclusion do you have any final remarks you would like to make about the contributions of James Hand, Jr. to Delta farming and to the mechanization story?
J.N.: No doubt what I’ve said has covered the story, however there has been many hardships in mechanization. Plantations that Hand look out after and farmed were among the first to be completely mechanized which stood for a lot of criticism according to what you paid your labor. It wouldn’t have been practical rod ethical for Mr. Hand to pay labor more than Joe Doaks, his neighbor, was paying to do mule work, even though it’s more profitable to pay labor more and have better labor. But being in the implement business, it was to Mr. Hand’s disadvantage to retain good labor at the same price of his neighbor plowing one mule with a double shovel, instead of a man plowing two rows, cultivating 25 to 40 acres a day, against the same labor cultivating for 4 or 5 acres a day.
C.P.: Thank you, Mr. Nash, for all this valuable information.
J.N.: Thank you.
END OF DOCUMENT