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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: The Sharecroppers’ Village

Cotton still ruled the south in the early 20th century, but prices fluctuated so wildly that cotton was called a “gambler’s trade.” Ira Washington Ethridge would gamble on cotton during the next 40 years, but he also “hedged his bets.” He built a sharecroppers’ village to withstand the fickle cotton economy. All of the structures built by 1920, except for some tenant houses, are still intact at the Shields-Ethridge Heritage Farm.

It took a safe-cracking in 2002 to discover what a record-keeper Ira Ethridge was. At the direction of the Ethridge heirs, a locksmith attacked a safe that had sat in a corner of the gin office for more than 30 years. Inside the safe were Ira Ethridge’s meticulous records, all related to the farm’s production. Those records tell us a lot. Some suggest aspects of both black and white sharecroppers’ lives in rural, upland Georgia during the early 20th century. Others record the decisions made by “Mr. Ira” as he responded to threats to the crop, a fluctuating cotton market, and mechanization.

The surviving buildings and equipment at the Shields-Ethridge Farm also help tell the story of Ira Ethridge’s leadership and the shared culture of the community. The gin’s concrete blocks and a water tower that still stands bear witness to a fire in the gin house on a September night in 1910. “Mr. Ira” rebuilt the destroyed gin with concrete. He also built the tower to provide readily available water, should another fire occur. The Ethridge Gin increased production by almost 47% between 1915 and 1921.
 
Ira Washington Ethridge announced his business goal when he designed a 1913 letterhead. It read, “I.W. Ethridge and Son, Planters, Ginners, and Dealers in General Merchandise.” While cotton was the state’s chief crop value, “Mr. Ira” understood what effect changes in the price cotton could have.  Experts warned against growing only one crop. Rather than growing other crops, however, Ethridge diversified by building a business complex and self-supporting operations on the Shields-Ethridge Farm. “General Merchandise,” the last part of the letterhead, served to keep the farm afloat in the tough days that lay ahead. 

Ira Ethridge’s sharecroppers’ village was a busy place. During a period of relative prosperity, he added a number of buildings. By 1920, there was a mule barn, a grist mill and hammer mill in daily use, and an active blacksmith shop. Also, a commissary stocked supplies for sharecroppers and neighbors, the wheat house did double duty by storing wheat above and wagons below, the milking barn housed a dozen cows, and a smokehouse was full. That’s in addition to the new gin and water tower.

A sawmill operated in the sharecroppers’ village and neighboring farms paid for lumber. Ethridge charged other farms a fee for pulling a threshing machine by mule, and later by tractor, to harvest grain on their land. A large garage housed trucks that needed repairs and automobiles needing to be painted. Susan Ella Ethridge housed six cows in a milking barn and sold her butter. A barber shop also operated at the sharecroppers’ village. Mr. Ira missed very few opportunities to diversify. By 1930, “Mr. Ira’s” business complex was in full swing. Things were going so well that he built a five room servants’ house within a few yards of the main residence. Ruby and Rooster Shields lived there until their deaths; Ruby was the Ethridge cook and Rooster managed the gin equipment.

All these buildings mark a time of relative prosperity. But in 1921 and 1922 the boll weevil, also called the “winged devil,” destroyed entire fields of cotton throughout upland Georgia. The Ethridge Gin’s production of cotton bales decreased 51% during that period. Despite this reversal of fortune, “Mr. Ira” kept searching for a way to control the boll weevil’s damage. Sharecroppers on the Shields-Ethridge Farm learned to “paint” cotton stalks with insecticide. By 1929 Jackson County had routed the boll weevil. Cotton production rebounded.  

Encouraged by the increased supply of cotton, Ira Ethridge decided to upgrade his gin. He bought the latest model from Lummus Cotton Gin Company in 1929, a “three 80” consisting of three gin stands containing eighty saws each. The “three 80”could gin 24 bales in 6 hours 36 minutes, increasing production greatly. It was the best available in 1929. The Ethridge Gin reached the peak of its production in its first season. The three 80 gin shut down in 1964, but its presence speaks loudly of “Mr. Ira’s” tenacity.

Records from the gin office suggest much about life in the Sharecroppers’ Village. One historian mined these facts from papers stored within “Mr. Ira’s” safe:

  • There was an equal division of black and white sharecroppers on the Shields-Ethridge Farm in 1930. In addition to working cotton, sharecroppers also labored in the wheat and corn fields for 75 cents a day.
  • Some sharecroppers were as entrepreneurial as “Mr. Ira.” James Johnson operated a barbershop from his house. Others helped in the grist and saw mill. Each year sharecroppers received a cash advance of $5.00, which was added to their annual bill, along with medical bills and drivers’ licenses.
  • “Mr. Ira” donated $10 and a coffin to the families of sharecroppers who died.
  • Some sharecroppers never got ahead. Others consistently “settled” their bill at the end of the year. An example of a successful sharecropper was Augustus Shields, a former slave with no property in 1883. By 1910, Augustus was married and labeled a “general farmer,” rather than a laborer.

Questions for Reading 2

1. Why did experts warn against growing only cotton? How did Ethridge diversify?

2. What effect did the boll weevil on cotton crops in Jackson County in the early 1920s? What impact did that have on the Shields-Ethridge Farm? How did Ethridge fight back?

3. What businesses did “Mr. Ira” create at the sharecroppers’ village? Who used these businesses? How do you think they helped the farm be self-sufficient?

4. What difference do you think the sharecroppers’ village would have made in the way sharecroppers interacted that would not have been true without the village?

5. Looking back also at Reading 1, how do you imagine life as a sharecropper? What would you like best? Least?

Reading 2 was compiled from Frances Patricia Stalling, Presenting Mr. Ira’s Masterpiece: Two Centuries of Agricultural Change at the Shields-Ethridge Farm (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia, 2002); Jack Kirby, Rural Worlds Lost: the American South 1920-1960, (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: The Louisiana State University, 1987)James Giesen, “Cotton,” The New Georgia Encyclopedia (Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press, 2001); S. Konter,C. East,. (Eds.) Vanishing Georgia, (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1994); Denise Messick, J.W. Joseph, Natalie Adams, Tilling the Earth (Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Historic Preservation Division, Atlanta, Georgia, 2001); Gilbert Fite, Cotton Fields No More: Southern Agriculture, 1865-1980 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1983); Pete Daniel, Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures since 1880 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985).

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