Simmons Speaks at Rector History Luncheon

Thursday, February 25, 2016
Richard Simmons addresses the crowd gathered for the history luncheon sponsored by the Rector Area Chamber of Commerce.(TD photo/Jessica Rainwater)

Long before Clay County was the agricultural mecca it is today the entire area east of Crowley's Ridge was a land of timber and swamps.

That was the starting point for a program on the area's development of agriculture presented last Wednesday by former state representative and farmer Richard Simmons at the second history luncheon sponsored by the Rector Area Chamber of Commerce.

The event was held at the Rector Visitor Center, a beautifully-restored building full of Rector history.

Simmons began with the New Madrid Earthquake of 1811-12, a time when all of Eastern Arkansas was sparsely inhabited.

The most important community in this area in the early days was Scatterville, located north of present-day Rector. Those original settlers, Simmons said, were primarily from Tennessee and the Carolinas.

"Farming during that time was done on Crowley's Ridge," he said. "East of town was too swampy."

In 1882 the St. Louis and Southwestern Railroad was constructed down the eastern edge of Crowley's Ridge and Scatterville businesses began moving as a result.

The town of Rector began to form and it was incorporated in 1887.

The railroad was an impetus for clearing the land to the east of Rector as the timber products were shipped throughout the region and beyond.

Simmons noted that the grandfather (Theron Wright) of one of those attending the program, Christa Hedrick, operated a sawmill in the Hickory Donick area southeast of Rector.

After logging, drainage was the next issue to tackle. In 1905 the St. Francis Drainage District of Clay and Greene counties was formed by five local men. The drainage organization dug Mayo Ditch and Big Slough, helping open agricultural development and flood control for the Eastern District of Clay County. The drainage district began collecting taxes in 1912 to help maintain the effort.

The drainage of Blue Cane Lake "took away a wildlife paradise for hunting and fishing, but made room for something else," Simmons said.

It was at that point that Blue Cane-Leonard began to develop as a highly-productive agricultural area. Gins were established, but the original versions were quite different from today, with Simmons noting an early facility produced one bale of cotton a day.

At one time, 28 gins covered Clay County and schoolhouses were located every two miles, Simmons said.

Congress later added agricultural programs to colleges throughout Arkansas, including the important Cooperative Extension Service. Other key developments were the expansion of the Mississippi River Commission and formation of the Farm Security Administration.

When the Depression hit, rural areas were affected first. Conditions led to the election in 1932 of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who developed several other federal programs in an attempt to pull out of the Depression and assist rural parts of the country. In Rector, banks had closed and agriculture had come to a standstill. The devastating flood of 1927 also had proven to be a major setback in Clay County as well as all of the lower Mississippi River Basin.

FDR believed overproduction had caused the market to plummet, which in turn caused farmers to lose their livelihood. The Agricultural Adjustment Act was passed in May of 1933 -- "for one year you plowed a third of your cotton and they (the government) would pay you for it," Simmons said.

According to millercenter.org, this process was to decrease production and covered wheat, cotton, corn, hogs, milk, rice and tobacco. The AAA was intended to augment farmers' incomes by offering cash incentives.

According to the website, perhaps nothing helped the rural farmer more than the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), which brought electricity to millions of rural areas who hadn't had it. "I remember when we got it; I was six-years-old," Simmons said.

Simmons said Paul Pfeiffer of Piggott owned over 60,000 acres in Eastern Clay County and was instrumental in the development of agriculture in the area. He was also known as one of the larger landowners who treated his tenants well, building nice houses and operating under conditions fair to all.

Simmons said an influx of wealthy, professional investors, including several families from the Paragould area, began to buy farms east of Rector. Most also developed fair terms for their tenants, as opposed to some situations in farming areas in more southern areas of Arkansas.

Through the 1930s and the early 1940s, agricultural equipment was hand-operated or team-driven, but after World War II tractors became prevalent.

A flood in 1937 in the Mississippi Valley forced affected farms in the St. Francis River area and Congress noticed. Flood control lakes such as Wappapello on the St. Francis and Clearwater on the Black alleviated the situation.

State-of-the-art levees along the St. Francis River also have proven to be a key to successful farming in Eastern Clay County, Simmons noted.

"In 1949 Clay County planted 65,000 acres of cotton, compared to this year's 20,000," Simmons said.

Several of those attending the program reminisced about "split terms," when the schools would close down for cotton production. "Everyone picked, rich, poor, adults and children alike," Simmons said.

"That's what we bought our school clothes with," said Sherry Dills, one of those attending the program.

During the early days of tenant farming, families would grow crops in the summer and raise hogs in the winter. They would sell the hogs for income through the non-growing months.

In the 1940s more than 28,000 people lived in Clay County. The population today is less than 16,000. Simmons said a major reason for the decrease is that large scale farms have taken over; "and there's nothing to replace the jobs lost."

In the late 1950's and early 1960's mechanical pickers and other large equipment took over and the technological revolution of farming has changed with every year.

Simmons told the audience modern chemicals for weed control have tended to replace the job of farm hands. Precise machines also are used to apply chemicals. "Other big differences are seed tech (genetically modified organisms), which allow the seeds to be resistant to different kinds of chemicals and GPS, which has done away with markers," Simmons said.

At the end of the meeting, Chamber president Ron Kemp thanked Simmons for his insight into the Rector-area's farming history and noted additional programs will be scheduled in the coming months.

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