The Hopson Plantation Commissary stands today in much the same condition as in its glory days over fifty years ago. The building is full of antique and historical items which create a nostalgic atmosphere reminiscent of the deep south Delta
Cotton had always required a large amount of hand labor, at one time over a million families to raise 22 million acres of cotton.
In 1935 the Hopson Plantation began a monumental changeover to become one of the first completely mechanized cotton operations in the world. In the fall of 1944, International Harvester introduced the first cotton picker on the Hopson farm making it the first in the world to grow and harvest a commercial acreage of cotton produced completely by mechanical methods.
From planting, to cultivating, to irrigating, to harvesting, to ginning, the Hopson enterprise became the showplace of Delta farming.
Check out the mass produced outhouses with the luxury of concrete seats and floors!
Hopson Plantation History
JAMES E. THWEATT
Mr. Hudson, who ran the grocery store, lived about a mile toward Clarksdale in a house on Mr. Hopson's place. He and his wife had four girls: Gladys, Agnes, Janet, and June, He later moved into the house attached to the Pure Oil Service Station located on Hwy. 49. I don't know much about any of these people after 1942 when I left for service.
At this time (1928) the only crop grown was cotton, and all the farming was done with mules, so it took a lot of people to make and gather a crop. Thus there were many, many black tenants or share croppers. There were about 3500 acres in cultivation, divided into four places: The Home Place, where we lived; Durham Place, about two miles down the road, not connected to The Home Place; The Sach Place, not too far from the Durham Place; and the Place across Hwy. 49 with a name I cannot recall.
Every place had their own barns where the many mules and all the harness was kept. Each place had a white family and the man who was head of the fami1y was called a "rider" because he rode a horse all day to get out into the fields to oversee the tenant farmers. Each barn had a "Hostler" who was in charge of the mules. The mules, by the way, were very well cared for. Dr. Gates, the veterinarian at Clarksdale, made his rounds quite often to take care of any ailing mules and particularly to see that no sores were on their shoulders where the collars fit. There was a very large bell at each place, rung only by the "Hostler", and it could be heard all across the farm. This bell signaled all hands, all day, for their daily routine. It was rung about 4:30 A.M. to wake everybody up for the day. Then the "Hostler" would go to the barn and catch the mules and harness them for the tenants so they could go straight to the field when they arrived. Then it was rung at 12:00 noon to signal "dinner" time so the field hands could go home and eat and also to give the mules a little rest. At 1:00 P.M. the bell was rung again to signal time to go back to the fields. Then it was rung again at 6:00 P.M. to signal time to quit and take the mules to the barn.
With this many acres being farmed it meant hundreds of plow points must be kept sharp. Bill, I showed you where my dad's forge sat and the anvil nearby where he would hammer the points out sharp after heating them white hot and then plunge them into a large vat of water.
I'm guessing, because I can't remember, in the 1930's Mr. Hopson began switching to tractors, the red International Harvester brand. They first had steel wheels with lugs on them and later switched to rubber tires. At this time they built the large tractor shed to house the 20 or so tractors. Our house would be covered with dust from the tractors going and coming to the tractor shed. Every winter my dad and his crew would overhaul every tractor and put a new coat of paint on it. Mr. Hopson believed in keeping up his equipment and keeping the grounds looking nice. Whenever the commissary or any other building got a little shop worn he would have a new coat of aluminum paint applied.
In the late 30's the mechanical cotton picker was being born by International Harvester Tractor Co. Every Fall a crew of mechanical engineers from Chicago would come to Hopson Plantation to continue perfecting the cotton picker. Bill, they would work under the shed attached to the shop. I got to know them by hanging around the shop after school. As I remember they were robust, red faced Germans dressed in nice khaki uniforms and wore large safety glass lens glasses. They were all business and never said much to me nor me to them. The first picker that they worked on was a single row picker that bolted on to one of Mr. Hopson's tractors. Amazingly, the very first rotating tooth attached to a rotating drum was the most successful of any and as far as I know it is still used today. Those German engineers didn't come in on a load of turnips!
Mr. Hopson had a five stand gin to gin his cotton and many other smaller farmers brought their cotton to be ginned there. My dad ran the gin and took care of all mechanical equipment. He only had about a third grade education, but was very intelligent. All the equipment at the gin was run off one large electric motor with many pulleys and belts to run the equipment. He could figure what size pulley required to run to another pulley to get the right RPM on the equipment. I was taking Algebra at the time and I could figure that, too, and he was always right. The gin that stood for many years burned in the 30's and the present one was built. Bill, the motel units that you are building are located along where the stands were located.
The wonderful seed house was built just a little later by contractor, Mr. E. G. Morris. I remember him as always dressed up with dark blue trousers, a long sleeved white shirt, and a red tie. He wore a white Panama straw hat and expensive black oxfords. His shirt was usually wet all over with sweat and his shoes were covered with splashed concrete and mud. Mr. Morris was as an articulate "cusser" as you have ever heard. The seed house was built from wonderful Cypress wood that came from a Cypress Break on the Durham Place. Mr. Hopson had someone come in with a sawmill and cut all the timber to Mr. Hopson's specifications. All the lumber was stacked in the tractor yard to cure, and I might say, in nice stacks in straight rows. We had all the lumber that we needed to build anything. There were several pieces of milling equipment under the shed located behind the shop.
This reminds me of a sad experience that I think about to this day. One of the black men, Ike Clay, who worked for my dad had a baby boy die when he was about three months old. I built a small coffin from the very best Cypress that we had. I sanded it both inside and out to make the best looking coffin that I could, but it was sti11 just a box. I drove the truck down to the "Red Line" where Ike lived. He took the box inside, put the baby in it and we drove up to the tenant cemetery on the bank of the Sunflower River. There we dug a grave in the sandy loam soil, placed the box in it, covered it up and drove away, How sad, 1 sti11 remember vividly after all these years. If I could remember where to dig, I would say that Cypress box is still there.
This river bank grew lush Bermuda grass and served as a pasture for every one who had a cow and we had one. Part of my afternoon chores was walk to the pasture, find our cow and drive her home. I would walk the gravel road to the river and then walk the "turn" road up the river bank along where there were tenant houses. Bill Hopson's was the first on the right. Bill was descended from a slave who had adopted the Hopson name. The next house was occupied by Bill Hopson's parents, Pappy and Mammy Nancy Hopson, who were too old to work but Mr. Hopson took care of them. Mammy Nancy had a gaggle of the meanest geese you can ever imagine and they chased me every day as I passed their house.
I forgot to tell you one thing about Ike Clay. He carne by our house one Saturday night and asked my dad to lend him $2.00 so he and Moot (his live in girl friend) could get married. Well, when he came to work on Monday morning, my dad asked him about the wedding. Ike said, "No sir, we didn't get married after al1 - we bought us two pigs instead we can get married anytime!"
The tenant arrangement that Mr. Hopson with his tenants was this: Hopson Plantations furnished housing, food, farm land, mules, seed, fertilizer, and all equipment. The tenants furnished all the labor, so large families were desired. Mr. Fite kept books on each family and everything was charged to their account. The tenants basically had one pay day - in the Fall - and were broke by the first of March.
Mr. Hopson then furnished them basic grocery items once a month until Fall, all charged to their account. I worked there handing out supplies from a very early age until I graduated from high school. The supplies were doled out according to family size. Mr. Whalen, the "rider" for the Home Place called out their names and what each family would receive. They all brought their cotton sacks to put the supplies in. The things typically issued at Mr. Whalen's direction were: a slab of salt meat, 6 bars of yellow Octagon soap (that had been unwrapped), dry navy and pinto beans, a sack of flour, a sack of meal, a bucket of lard, rice, salt, sugar, and a bucket of molasses. All the beans, rice, etc. were bought in one hundred pound bags and separated into smaller paper bags of about five or ten pounds, each sea1ed with a twine string wrapped around the bag.
Bill Hopson had a deaf mute brother who lived with his parents, Pappy Theodore and Mammy Nancy. He did not go to the field; he worked for Mr. Fite in the commissary building as janitor and handy man. Mammy Nancy wore long dresses of her generation, an apron and a bonnet when she was out of the house. She had light brown skin, sparkling brown eyes and always a smile on her face, respected and loved by all. When she saw you (including Mr. Hopson) she would hug you to death. The deaf brother, cal1ed "Dummy" before political correctness, would cut the soap cases open, take all the bars out, unwrap them and put the soap back into the cases. At that time Colgate-Palmolive Co. had a program going where you could trade in the Octagon soap wrappers for furniture. Mrs. Fite took all the wrappers to her Methodist Church in Clarksdale, they in turn redeemed the wrappers for furniture for the Methodist Children's Home in Jackson. This was quite a windfall for them, since we issued hundreds of bars of soap a year. Ironically, many years later I went to work for Colgate-Palmolive Company staying forty years, selling hundreds of bars of Octagon soap, retiring in Little Rock, Arkansas. "Dummy" also did all the bean, rice, and sugar bagging.
The issuing of groceries would continue until the cotton crop was picked. The picking started in late August or early September. When a family had a bale of cotton ginned, Mr. Fite gave them cash for the value of the seed. This put some money in the tenants' pockets and they were on their own until March 1st. After all the cotton had been picked and ginned, about the middle of December, Mr. Hopson would "settle up" with each tenant family. He would call the head of each tenant family into his own PRIVATE office. There they would go over the books with Mr. Fite; shown what their crop sold for; how much they owed the company; showed what part of the net they would get and Mr. Fite would pay them in cash. Some years they would get a few hundred dollars and other years they ended up owing Mr. Hopson a hundred dollars or two, and some years they would just break even. In the latter cases Mr. Hopson would give them a couple of hundred dollars and charge this against their next year's crop.
If a tenant got unhappy and wanted to move to another plantation, there was an unwritten rule among the plantation owners that you would not let a family move onto your plantation without permission from the former place. Also, if they owed their plantation any money, their debt went with them so if they made any money at their new place, this plantation owner would deduct from their settlement and send to their former plantation owner. This rule kept the labor supply stable, thus insuring better crops.
The "day crop", Mr. Hopson's land farmed by day labor, as well as the tenants land always produced more cotton than they could pick before bad winter weather set in. So every Fall Mr. Hopson would import one or two truck loads of Mexicans from along the Rio Grande. There would be twenty five or thirty on each truck, some entire families, and many single men. Most of them did not speak English, but the truck driver could and he was responsible for each person on his truck. They would be housed on the bank of the Sunflower River, which was for bathing and other bath room use.
We built wooden platforms with wood sides up about three feet and pitched Army type tents over this. The area inside the tent was about 18' X 18' and housed several people. We installed several of these tents in a row which provided a somewhat home like atmosphere, since they all wanted to live close together. Their stoves were a flat piece of sheet metal about 36" square mounted on four corners with about four bricks stacked on top of each other. They would fry their tortillas to make tacos, brown their hamburger meat, re-fry their beans here and have a meal. I was never tempted to want to try any of their food but now that I have acquired a taste for Mexican food, I wish I had!
The main commissary was divided into four main sections then. The back fourth was the bookkeeping office with a small PRIVATE office behind it that was Mr. Hopson's. Also in the corner of the building closest to the shop there was a small efficiency apartment. It was occupied by Mr. k Mrs. Patterson, who I think lived there for free. There was a partition from the front, back to the office area. Looking from the office, the left side was used for storage of many supplies needed to run a farm. The other side was divided from side to side with the front part used as a sma11 retail grocery store run by Mr. Hudson. The back part in front of the office, was the commissary where we issued groceries. The large side doors were always kept open in the summer time to insure a breeze throughout the building.
Mr. Howell Hopson I, who owned and managed the farm was living when we first moved there. In the Spring and Summer he sat on the small side porch in front of the large doors to enjoy the breeze. I don't ever remember his driving out into the fields. He had people to do that and he managed from the office. He was a large man, over six feet tall, always wore blue serge trousers with western style pockets, a long sleeved white shirt with a tie. I was mightily impressed by the black leather belt with the small but beautiful gold buck1e that he wore. The large upstairs of the commissary was one large undivided room. There was a scattering of things stored up there including a large boat much like the Coast Guard used at the light houses along the Atlantic coast. The Delta was subject to flood up until the Mississippi River was contained by the gigantic levee system built. There were steps going up to the cupo1a where Mr. Hopson could sit and see much of his farm.
The concrete porch at the front of the store was a cool place to sit and visit a minute, sitting on the long green bench. This was where I learned to skate. The artesian well out front overflowed into a large trough, one half of a big steam boiler where the mules were watered as they pulled the cotton laden wagons to the gin. There was a large 1-1/2" pipe with a valve where anyone could get a wonderful drink of good cool water. There was also a large overhead type pipe where you could fill up barrels of water that were hauled there on a wagon. Many of the tenants used this as their source of water for many years.
About 1936, my dad built a pile driver from parts scavenged from other equipment. We drove a pipe into the ground at each tenant house, attached a pitcher pump and all the tenant houses had water. At the same time with the Cypress lumber in the tractor shed yard we made window screens in the shop for all the houses. We also made and installed screen doors for all the tenant houses, none of which were ever painted. With this same Cypress lumber Mr. Hopson built a row of about eight "shot gun" houses located not too far from the gin, extending across Hwy. 49. This is where some tractor drivers and some people who worked for my dad lived. These houses were all painted a brick red. This became known as "The Red Line".
In the early 1930's, Mr. Howell Hopson I died and Mr. Howell Hopson II took over the management of this plantation for the heirs. He was about the same age as my dad and he was the "boss" most of my growing up years. He also had one son, Howel1 Hopson III, who was a couple of years younger than me. He was known to the tenants as "Mr. Little Howell". Mr. H. H. Hopson II was also a good dresser, but leaned more to dressy casual, like a landowner in England might dress. He wore jodhpurs and riding boots. He drove his nice car all over the fields in the dusty "turn roads". His car sat outside his office, always covered with a half inch of dust.
After the tractors became available, Mr. Hopson set aside many acres that were called "day crop" acres. All the money derived from this acreage was put in the estate bank account. All the cotton was planted by tractors from four row planters in a drill, meaning the cotton seeds were released in a steady stream. When the cotton got about four inches high, "day labor" was brought in from Clarksdale to chop the cotton. With sharpened hoes the cotton was thinned into hills and the grass cut out. Tractors were used to do the plowing and "day labor" was brought back in about three weeks later to cut the grass that had grown up among the cotton. Frank Bluntson, a former tenant who had moved to town, acquired an old ton and a half truck, installed a canvas over the bed of the truck and added bench type seats along both sides and the middle. Frank would pick up about thirty five or forty "day laborers" at Clarksdale and haul them out to the farm. There was a designated leader who set the pace for going down the rows chopping and also a "tail end Charlie". All the laborers stayed in a row between these two people. Frank had a water barrel hung on the back of his truck so he could carry water to those working. He also had a big 12" Black Diamond file and a little tripod thing that he carried to each worker and kept their hoes sharp. This kept everyone chopping cotton and not lagging behind. In fact, if you tended to be a laggard, Frank would not let you on his truck again.
Because all the workers were bunched up together, as well as bored, someone would start singing a spiritual that they all knew and everyone joined in and the field turned into a moving choir line of beautiful singing. I have gone into the field often when they were chopping near our house and heard some really good voices. The singing helped to pass the day as well as to distract them from the heat searing down on them. Also, the singing may havc helped establish a rhythm for their chopping. O~ ~ide note about the singing on the plantation - there was a men's quartet that sang spirituals and performed at the various black churches in the area and possib1y other places in town. I can only remember the names of two of them, Sam Brown and Henry Day. I "flashed back" to them when I saw and heard the black quartet singing in the movie, "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou". As I recall both Sam and Henry went to Detroit to work in the factories.
Then Frank Bluntson would haul "day laborers" out in the Fall to pick the cotton and they were paid by the one hundred pound sack; one dollar per one hundred pounds. The average picked about two hundred pounds per day, but the really past pickers who picked two rows at a time could pick four hundred pounds per day. So this was how the "day crop" was made.
There was a cotton pen at each tenant house, a small (maybe 8' X 10') house with a front door split in half vertically. They emptied their cotton sacks into this pen until it was full enough to gin a bale of cotton. These pens were unventilated and sometimes the seed would sour and the cotton mildew if moisture and conditions were just right. So when I was in about the ninth grade, Mr. Hopson and my dad designed a radical type of cotton pen. It was ventilated from all sides and had a roll top on it to let in the sunshine and fresh air. I spent one summer helping build these cotton pens with our wonderful "pecky" Cypress.
Sometime about 1942 labor was scarce because of the war and many other job opportunities that paid more money. By this time a cotton planter had been designed to plant the cotton seed in hills so you did not need labor to thin the cotton. Here again, Mr. Hopson and my dad designed and built a "flame cultivator" This was mounted on n tractor, driven down the rows with this hot flame blowing down the middle and up to the cotton plants. This killed the grass but did not harm the cotton which was protected from the flames by a metal baffle. So you could make a crop with a tractor since the cotton picker had already been perfected; therefore, not too much labor was needed.
About this time I left to join the military to do my part in the "BIG" war. Also, many of the tenant farmers and day 1aborers left to join the military or move to Detroit or other industrial cities for much better paying jobs. Many that I knew well left - Henry Day, Sam Brown, Henry Perrrin, Buddy Thomas, and on and on - I never saw them again.
My dad died in 1945 at the age of 49 as the result of a brain aneurysm. I was in England with the 4&7th Bomb Group (8-17's) and my brother was in Italy with the Air Force. My dad lingered three weeks, first in the hospital at C1arksdale and then in the hospital in Memphis, by direction of Mr. Hopson to be under the care of the best doctors in the South. Unfortunately, at that time they could do nothing for my dad except to try to ease the great pain that he was suffering in his head. Since there was a war going on, neither my brother nor me could get home to help with the funeral. Of course, there was no health insurance at this time, but huge medical bills to be paid, and Mr. Hopson paid them in full. He was a true Southern gentleman, who really cared for his hired help and tenants.
My mother and sister, Margie, moved to Oxford before I got home from England on a short leave on my way to the South Pacific. So, Bill, I never got to "come home" after the war. My visit with you a few months ago brought back many memories as I stood in the shop and talked with you and actually made me feel young again. I hope to get over again sometime this summer, spend the night in one of your new gin units, wa1k the grounds where I played growing up and visit your Pub. The house that I grew up in is missing, moved to somewhere else, I guess, but I plan to walk around what was once my yard and home for my dog, "Mickey".
It is said that you cannot "go home again" but this will be close for me. I can close my eyes, see all the people that were here then; smell the different seasons; see all the buildings as they were then; hear a11 the sounds that were so familiar and turn back time sixty-five years.
I do not know the history of the plantation since 1945, so maybe you can fill me in as well on the lives of some of the people: Hal Hopson III, Annell, Billy Garrett, Richard Hopson, "Mother Hopson", the Nances - Billy - and others whose names I cannot reca11.
I hope to sit in the shop and dream of the long ago. It will be good for me to visit with all the people of my youth.
JAMES E. THWEATT