The Tenant Farmer
And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. And Adam called his wife's name Eve; because she was the mother of all living. Genesis 3:17-20
I want to describe to you the way it was when I came along in 1937 on my dad's tenant farm. At one time Robeson County had many who were tenant farmers. Another name they were given was sharecroppers. Since this was an agricultural county where wheat, oats, corn, cotton and tobacco was grown, there were many who made their living on small farms. Usually, a small farm was worked by a tenant farmer who took care of it for the owner and shared the profit from the crops when they were sold in the Fall. The landlord provided a house for the tenant to live in, the seeds, and the fertilizer. The tenant farmer usually provided everything else. Tenant farmers didn't own very much. He and his wife and children agreed to work and tend to someone's farm on certain conditions.
My dad married and started farming for a living, having helped his uncle for some years gaining experience. A local land owner was persuaded to let my dad farm a small eighteen acre farm before I was born. Dad and mom moved into a small new house on the farm. This new house consisted of five rooms and a pantry. A pantry was a small room where canned food would be stored from the gardens the farmers had planted to feed the family. Practically every house back then had a pantry since people did not go to town to get their food like we do today. Most everything to eat was raised on the farm. There was also one tobacco barn and a corn crib. Near them was a twenty foot or so well where we got water for the animals, and to wash our clothes. These all were common features on the farms and necessary.
There was no electricity back then, but we used several oil lamps to give us a dim light. We had a hand water pump on the back porch to get our house water. Neither the outside or the inside of the house was painted, and there wasn't any insulation in the walls, floor, or ceiling to keep out the cold. Just the outside boards and the tongue and groove boards inside for the walls of the house made up our house. There was one fire place which had to be used to warm the entire house, which it never did. There were cracks in the floors and the roof leaked. I remember mama used to place pots around to catch the water when it rained. The roof was made of tin, and when it rained it made a loud sound. Neither was the house underpinned to help keep out the cold. It was a very simple structure, but much like what most tenant farmers lived in.
The house was built on the edge of the farm with most of the land spread out to the north of the house. It was good farm land that would grow a variety of crops. This is where my dad and mom, newly married, began their life together. On a farm that someone else owned. The following years would be hard working years, but they enjoyed this life together.
Most of the tenant farmers only farmed. Very few every tried to work a public job and farm too. The demands were too great to try both. Those who did get public jobs would usually leave the farm with its many chores. My dad tried a public job briefly and quit because he did not want to be away from his family. He just stuck to farming all his life. He never got rich, but he stayed home with his family and never complained about it.
Tenant farming began with the farmer using mules or horses to pull the implements needed to plant or cultivate the crops. The tenant farmers I knew all began with one mule. One mule was sufficient to farm around a twenty acre farm and this was about the size of most of them. Where I was born was an eighteen acre farm of cleared land, and woods.
Dad started off with one mule that was three or four years of age. She was not a fast mule, but very reliable and gentle. Her name was Maude and she lived to be thirty five or better before dad had to have her put to sleep because cancer ate her face so badly. After about ten years of farming dad bought another mule, and we named her Princess. This was so I could help him take care of the plowing. Later, he even purchased a third mule we named Tongue, because she held her tongue out nearly all the time. We thought we were really farming then. Looking back to that time I can recall that the other tenant farmers did the same thing. So the tenant farmers started out with nothing but some personal belongings and the willingness to work a farm for someone else.
My dad was blessed to work for some people who were very kind to him and mom and they thought very well of each other. Some of the tenant farmers had hard owners to deal with, but my parents never did have any problems at all with our landlord. There was great respect for them. My dad was serious about his farming. He didn't want any grass in his fields and or "suckers" on his tobacco to drain away the quality of the plants. Some of the farmers were not particular and sometimes they would have to move or get out of the farming business because of their slothfulness. The landlord daddy farmed for looked out for a number of farms. I don't recall. maybe fifteen or more.
Money was scarce in those days. The tenant farmers had none except in the Fall of the year after they had sold their crops. Often after the farmers had sold their crops, they had to turn around and borrow money to live on until the next Fall. Most of the farmers had to borrow money to live on to purchase coffee, sugar, flour and such items until they sold their crops. When we finally got electricity it was two dollars a month and some farmers had to borrow that. You know, folks were poor! Do you know of any that poor today, living like the tenant farmer had to live? Haven't times changed?
During the days of tenant farming there wasn't any welfare. There were no government checks being mailed out, except after World War Two. And the to only some of the men who had served in the war, that qualified to receive a small check. Quite a few of the tenant farmers were exempt from the war because they were farmers and farm products were needed. So they were not drafted into the service if they were married and had children and this was the situation with some.
The tenant farmer began his days often around five o'clock in the morning when he arose to feed his animals, even before he ate. The mule was to be fed, the cow fed and milked, the hogs, the chickens all had to be taken care of. His wife would be awake cooking breakfast and tending to the family, as most farmers had between two and eight children. After breakfast it was off to the field because on the farm there was plenty of work to do, and it would normally last all day six days a week, every week.
Usually on Mondays the wives of the farmers had to do their weekly washing. To begin with the family washing was done outside near the deep well of water. Close by, a big black wash pot was heated with wood that had been cut and dried sometime during the winter to be used for this purpose. Also, wood was cut to be used to heat the tobacco barns to cure the tobacco. Sometimes there were wood cuttings with the farmers at night in the winter, because it was a hard job, cutting down and cutting up trees. We needed a lot of wood to heat the house and keep everyone warm during the winter. It was hard on the farmers to get the wood and stack it at the barns and at the house. But it was also hard on the women who had to get out in the heat, or cold and do the weekly washing for the family. A lot of water had to be drawn from the old well. If any of the children were big enough they could help, and this greatly aided in getting the washing done. The clothes were put into the pot of hot water with homemade lye soap and a long wooden stick to stir and job the clothes to help get them clean. All the women had a scrub board they used to take each piece of clothes in their hands in order to scrub it up and down over the metal grooves. Many times I saw my mother's hands red from the bitter cold as she scrubbed our clothes in the winter. After they were washed, they were hung on a long clothes line to dry, later to be taken in and ironed. A hot iron was used to press our shirts, dresses and pants. Yes, just doing the washing was a big chore that had to be done. I thank the good Lord for the washing machine which came after long hard years of washing clothes by hand. I have felt that is one of the greatest inventions there has ever been. Electricity sure changed things in the country for everyone and what a blessing it has been.
When I was just a small boy mama would have me take a jar of water to daddy while he was plowing in the field. He would see me coming and smile at me and stop the mule. He would lean back on the plow cross bar between the handles. Then he would take the jar, turn it up and drink the water mama had pumped from the hand pump. Very often we didn't have ice in those days. When he had finished, if there was any left, I would drink some too.
In the Spring the land had to be plowed up and disced to grind under any stalks from previous crops. Then it was planting time for the various crops. First was Irish potatoes for the home, onions, and other such foods. In the field corn was planted and later cotton. Tobacco was set out in May with the plants grown in a plant bed sown back in January or February. So many things to do and so many of them needed to be done at the same time, with little help. I remember we were often out in the field in the rain working to get planting done with the tobacco. Summer came and time to plow the crops growing in the fields. On the farms the grass grew no matter how dry it got, and sometimes it got dry. It was not unusual for it to go a month sometimes, without rain. The crops would often be damaged and the poor farmer stood by helpless to do anything about his loss. He had to depend upon the goodness of the Lord to send the rain. When rain didn't come, he was very sad because all he could do was replant, or retry next year. I have seen my dad standing out in the edge of the field looking up at the sky when it was so hot and dry hoping for rain. Looking back now I wonder if he was not also standing there praying for some rain. What a wonderful sound it would be late in the night or the very early morning hours to hear the sound of thunder in the distance. Then later to hear the patter of rain on our tin roof house as Heaven opened and the Lord blessed with rain. Dad's facial expression changed and a smile crept upon his face. Rain meant he could pay his bills and support his family. That's the way it was with all the tenant farmers, they were all so thankful.
Then the crops had to be harvested. First it was the tobacco which started getting ripe in July and had to be put into barns. This took about seven or eight weeks. In the meantime, the tobacco had to be gone over every week to get the suckers off which was a big, hot job. When the tobacco was all harvested, by September, it was prepared to be taken to the market. This too was a tedious task of having to grade each leaf and divide them into six, seven, or even more grades. A very good grade, a good grade, a second grade, a third grade, a trash grade, a green grade, and a red grade. Yeah, that's how it was and then each grade had to be tied with one of the leavens into bundles about as big around as the size of a broom handle. Then each grade was put on a stick about three to four feet long and packed down in a pile until the farmer was ready to take it to the market.
After the tobacco was all sold, it was time to get out the cotton sacks and head for that cotton patch. A cotton sack was a burlap bag made into a large sack with a band on it to go around your neck and over your shoulder, so you could pull it along with you as you picked the cotton. When picking the cotton it usually had dew on it the first thing in the morning, but soon dried off. Many mornings it was cold enough to wear a coat, but soon it got so hot in the field you removed it and left it at the end of the rows. Cotton worms were on the cotton leaves and if not careful you would get stung and it was painful. There was also briars in the fields, and they could be painful, also. The cotton burrs were also painful, sticking into the end of the fingers when one picked the cotton out of them. Oh, ain't farming fun!!! The farmers and their families would sometimes have to stoop to pick the cotton, and sometimes had to crawl up and down the rows on their knees. Long, miserable days were spent picking the cotton and getting it to the gin and having it baled up. It seemed like to us children we would never get done picking that cotton. But one day we finally made it, and then it was time to start pulling corn and hauling it into the crib. By now winter had come and another chore had to be done. It was time to sharpen the bush axe and head for the ditch banks, to cut all the bushes off of them. Then we would clean out the ditches, so if there was a wet season the water would flow out of the fields to keep the crops from drowning. Yes, there was always work for the tenant farmer and his children.
In the days of tenant farming, most of them went to church. I recall several families though, that did not, and some went occasionally, but for the most part these poor hard working people went to church faithfully. Some walked, some went on wagons and a few had a car of some sort. The churches were usually heated with wood or coal from a big pot belly heater. Some churches had two of them, but we had only one as I remember. People on that side of the church were hot and those on the other side were cold, but still they went to church. As a teenager I had the job of going out to the church early to make a fire so there would be some heat when it was time for the services. At that time they had switched to using coal in the heater. There wasn't any fans or air conditioning back then, and the pews were old hard wood seats. The only padded pews were those who took a pillow to sit on. But when the piano sounded and the hymn books were opened, the songs of the people was one of joy and thanks to the Almighty. I have wonderful memories of going to church.
In the hot summers the windows were raised and paper fans from the funeral parlors were used to make a little breeze. Gnats, mosquitos, and flies were common distractions, and pests among the congregation. There were not any screens over the windows so the critters just swarmed in, it seemed. They were faithful to be in every service to our dismay. They were put up with as an accepted part of life.
Most folks put on their Sunday best when they went to church. Everyone was going to worship and learn about the Lord. After the services there was always someone going home with someone for dinner. It was common because that was mainly when you got to see your neighbors. The children always enjoyed having other children over to play with. Sometimes the preacher went home with one of us, and when he came to our house, boy did my mom put on a big spread for him!
The old church was never locked and there was never any fear of anyone going in and stealing or damaging it. Haven't times changed? Now many churches have burglar alarms, steel doors and locks. Bright lights also burn at night to help distract any who might consider breaking in. Churches, and church people were respected back then and the preacher was truly a man of God in the eyes of the saved, and unsaved of the community. The churches, like our homes, usually had no insulation and were rather plain buildings. But they were respected places of worship and considered the house of God in that sense.
Each church had revival services sometimes in the Spring, and sometimes in the Fall. Also, there was a quarterly singing at a different church every revival when a number of churches came together for an all day singing and dinner on the ground. Many of the people from all of these churches were farmers.
Tenant farmer's children often missed quite a bit of school. They were so needed in the Fall, gathering in the crops, or for planting in the Spring. Some parents tried hard to keep their children in school as much as possible, but others seemed to be a little slack with it. My dad's goal was to get his children through high school and if he could do that, he felt that was enough. Higher education at that time was not a priority for many of the tenant farmers' children.
Most of the tenant farmers were not very educated. I know my parents only went to the sixth grade and many of the others had less than that. During the days of tenant farming the people began to see the value of getting more of an education because of the companies that began moving into the area. Spinning and weaving plants came to town looking for cheap help, and this drew many away from the farms. The plants also paid a weekly check and many liked, and needed it. Dry weather, bad weather, disease or whatever, had made farming difficult and unsure of as a payday, and these plants offered more of a financial security at that time.
The school we attended was a country school mostly made up of farmers' children and even most of them were likely to be tenant farmers' children. Later when we were sent to a city school, we found there were more town children, and less of the tenant farmers' children. I suppose, also, some of the tenant farmers' children had dropped out of school. Those of us who made it to and through high school were thankful for the effort our parents made for our education. It has been very helpful to some and I sometimes see those who did not obtain sufficient education and notice how it has hampered them in life. It is sad to see an adult who cannot read or write. I have known a few over the years and it is such a disadvantage and handicap to that person in so many ways.
The tenant farmers often had families that were large and close. These people spent most of their time at home and transportation was usually a mule and wagon. Families were more isolated at that time than they are today. There were some cars, but not at the ratio they are today. Tenant farmers were more stuck on the farms and although we visited with the local next farm neighbors, families more or less were always together. The children met other children at school or church, but that was mostly it. Husbands and wives constantly together night and day, Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter, meant a new baby nearly every year for a while. That's the way it was at our house and many others I knew. The entire family would be in the fields working if they were big enough. Babies and the smaller ones, were often left on blankets at the end of the rows. By age three or four, they started being trained to pick cotton, or if at the house, how to wash dishes and sweep the floor or yard. Believe it or not, children used to work. I never have heard of it hurting anyone, and I believe it taught them strong values. By the way, at our house no one got an allowance for doing chores. We all just worked and thought nothing of it. That was the way life was and we knew no better.
Tenant farmers were always helping their neighbors. Sometimes there was a serious sickness or need in the family. It was not uncommon especially in planting time or harvesting time, for neighbors to pitch in and help someone who was in a bind. When that happened no one was paid. It was just the thing to do. Who knows, you might need help soon. Tenant farmers often swapped help when getting in the tobacco and settled up at the end of the season. Time was kept of each worker, and if there was a difference in one family larger than the other working when swapping help, there might be a small wage paid to that family. Usually, back in the thirties and forties help was paid to crop tobacco, from ten to thirty cents an hour, and forty cents by the fifties. For those working at the barn, it was a little lower. In other words, no one got rich working on a tenant farm.
Not only was helping neighbors plant, cultivate or harvest their crops something people often did, but also they built barns, cribs and pack houses where the crops were stored. Even when killing hogs, the neighbors often helped you, then in turn you helped them with theirs. In the community there was seldom any trouble. Sometimes after hogs were killed, salted down and put in a smoke house behind your house, someone might sneak in and steal some of the meat, but that was rare. There was hardly any drinking or carrying on, although there might be one drunk in the community and everyone had a low opinion of him. When revival time came they were often encouraged to attend the meeting in hopes they might see their need for the Lord and get their life changed. People cared for people then, and saw the value of a person.
Tenant farmers were never really appreciated, I don't think. Why? They were poorly educated, dirty farmers, that it seemed had no skills or special talents. Today, I challenge anyone with that ignorant view. I doubt if anyone raised a better family than the tenant farmer. I doubt if anyone appreciated people more than these farmers and their neighbors. I doubt if anyone contributed more to the nation than the tenant farmer raising his products to feed the nation. At that time we were often next door to several Indian families. We never did have any complaints with our Indian friends and that was a long time before there was integration. Yes, they went to their churches and schools, and we went to ours, but that was just the way things were then, and no one griped about it. Many times I was sent to their house to get sugar, flour, eggs or something, and it was the same way with them coming to our house. I remember clearly how my mother would loan a cup of sugar or coffee to our Indian neighbors and sometimes we would borrow the same from them. They were some of the greatest neighbors anyone could have ever had. We worked together and we loved one another like kin folks, and some even better. My what good people they were, and I love the memories I have of them today.
In the early fifties tractors came roaring to town. Dealers would let the farmers try out their tractors for a few days, often a week, to see if it would persuade them to buy their tractors and the equipment that went to them. Their tactics worked and soon all the mules were practically gone, or replaced in the fields with these iron machines roaring across the land. Now the farmers had new bills, gas, oil, equipment repairs and paying for all the equipment they had agreed to purchase. As this trend began, and another started, tenant farmers decided to expand their operations by taking on other lands to farm. They needed to make more money to pay for all the new expenses. In the end, the farmer was working just as hard, but riding more and walking less, but, he no longer had to holler at the mule! In those days the old tenant farmer took his crops to town to the markets, and he was given whatever the buyers wanted to give him. It wasn't very much, but he had to take it. He had no way to set his price for his hard work in the cold, rain, and hot sun. Just whatever they would give him. How many times have I seen and heard those old tenant farmers so discouraged at what they received. They were never going to get ahead. Maybe next year it would be better, they thought. Tenant farmers were helping feed the nation, but by the way they were paid it seemed so unimportant and has always been so with farming. Many of the tenant farmers' children vowed when they grew up they were not going to farm and many held to that. And, I was one of them!
Some of the tenant farmers who managed their time, and farm well over the years finally were able to purchase a farm for themselves and build themselves a more comfortable house with modern conveniences. As time went on the tobacco allotment was cut and that had been the primary money crop for the tenant farmer. It was then farming began to decline. More and more of the tenant farmers took public jobs or retired altogether leaving the life they once knew and loved. The nation's rejection of the tobacco industry which was blamed for cancer and other lung problems, was replaced with other crops like soy beans, cucumbers, bell peppers and other similar crops. The ole mule was replaced by a tractor, and soon the tractors were being replaced by mobile homes, as farms were turned into mobile home parks to accommodate the growing population. Today, the grandchildren of the tenant farmers know nothing of the poor, hard life their grandparents had when they were sweating out their lives from sunrise to sunset, on a grass infested piece of dirt out in the country.
And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you.
1 Thessalonians 4:11
For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.
2 Thessalonians 3:10
Heavenly Father thank you for parents who taught us to work, and respect others. Thank you for the farmers who feed us. Bless them we pray. May many learn of your love and mercy in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen, Preacher