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back to index A Brief Ethnography of Magnolia Plantation: Planning for Cane River Creole National Historical Park

Chapter 5: Plantation Economy

As a traditional plantation, Magnolia had shared some characteristics with the historic old-world manorial system (cf. Hilton 1973). Both were shaped by the production and political goals of large-scale powerful landowners with limited cash but access to subordinate landless laborers. With meager or, in the case of the slave plantation, no options, the labor force confronted few reasonable alternatives to meeting some of their own subsistence needs outside the traditional arrangements. Magnolia’s subsequent transformation from a slave driven plantation to one using landless laborers and sharecroppers—rural proletarians—and, in the past century, to a mechanized enterprise, was accompanied by a gradual shift to an exclusive cash economy.

Actually, the 20th century and earlier “plantation economy” included several related economies. One is the commercial plantation system, which emphasized cotton, corn, soybeans, and cattle. The other is the tenant economy of sharecroppers and day laborers. The commercial and tenant farm economies obviously contrasted in terms of scale, land tenure, marketing, income, and other factors, but some commonalties existed too. They shared certain agricultural risks, such as bad weather and infestations, that could ruin everyone’s crops. The commercial losses resulting from natural disasters might force management to seek fiscal support from banks, neighbors, and associates to keep their holdings intact and tide them over until the next season. Without equivalent economic cushions so vital to survival and recovery, however, the contrasts between the economies became glaring as disasters threatened to permanently undermine small-scale sharecroppers. For day laborers, threats to commercial crops could devastate workers by reducing the plantation’s need for them. Everyone also shared the problem of being cash-poor most of the year, making the immediate exchange of cash for labor or commodities rare until the annual harvests brought a “settling up” time. Although conserving scarce cash was problematic for all, the problem was most acute for day laborers and tenant farmers.

Plantation Accomodations to Scarce Cash

“Croppers”: Half-Hands, or Sharecroppers; Fourth-Hands, or Renters

Magnolia had tractors in use by 1938, yet mules and farm hands continued to work nearby them (The Progress 1938) until mechanization became the dominant and then exclusive mode. Meanwhile, Magnolia necessarily depended on diverse arrangements to meet its labor needs. Classified by management either in terms of their physical input, that is as “hands,” or their take of the harvest, plantation tenants might be half-hands, or sharecroppers. Others were fourth-hands, also called “renters” by some. Still others were the landless day hands or day laborers who earned wages. Some workers also provided specialized services, such as domestic help or chauffeuring. All received housing. The tenancy arrangements gave management access to agricultural labor without requiring major cash outlays because Magnolia used available land to attract otherwise landless farmers to put its fields into production in exchange for various in-kind payments and potential cash incomes. The houses of numerous families who “worked on the half” or “on the fourth” once dotted the landscape on both sides of Highway 119 from the Big House north to Lakeview, the Cohen’s place.

Magnolia provided tenant farmers with fields, a house, and garden area and advanced them certain agricultural inputs and other items from the plantation store. Tenants varied somewhat in the extent and type of investments they made in producing the crop and, concomitantly, in the size of their split with the plantation. Tenants who worked as half-hands provided labor throughout the life cycle of the crop; used Magnolia’s mule team; and purchased seed, insecticide, and other inputs on credit. The plantation managed the sale of the crop and split the income 50-50 with the sharecropper or “cropper” as some called themselves. People recalled that the costs of purchases made on credit and against anticipated income were later deducted from the tenants’ portion of the harvest sale. Some remembered earning just enough to pay the year’s debts, starting the new year no further ahead than the old. In the worst scenario, sharecroppers ended the year with such major outstanding debts that they started the new cycle under a cloud. Some might have quietly moved away. In the best case, successful sharecroppers might eventually obtain their own mules and become renters, as one former resident recalled.

People working on a fourth-hand, or renters, were usually Creoles of color. They too provided labor throughout the life cycle of the crop and might purchase seed and other items at the plantation store. Like the half-hands who split 50-50, renters shared the crop and settled up after the harvest. But unlike them, the fourth-hands evidently exercised greater control over their time, labor, and resources, such as mule teams. Tenants who farmed on the fourth differed importantly from the others by owning their own mule team. As owners, they could and did rent their mules and their own and their children’s labor to neighboring independent farmers during planting and harvesting seasons, thus enhancing their incomes beyond the returns of the plantation harvest they shared. They also managed the sale of their crop, rather than have the plantation do it, and distributed the returns in a 25-75 split, with 25% or ¼th going to the plantation. Although all tenants shared the risks of pests, weather conditions, and the like, families working on a fourth-hand could anticipate potentially greater benefits.

Day Hands and Seasonal Laborers

Partly because the design of plantation fields had not been fully adapted to tractors and other new technology, Magnolia depended on day and seasonal laborers to work the fields along with machines and mules. For example, mechanized pickers did not harvest the ends of the turn-rows because the machines missed them in making wide swings around the ends of the cultivated rows. In the late 1950s, people were still picking the end of the turn-rows, helping to plant, and chopping cotton. As Magnolia’s 1957 Work Book list of laborers and their hours noted, the cotton harvest—a peak employment season—drew day workers from the few black families still living in the quarters. They paid no rent but were available as needed for short-term or long-term help and for work as domestic specialists in the Big House. Other occasional field hands came from families of black and Creole tenant farmers living up the road. Workers put in long days, from “sun up to sun down” during the peak labor seasons (Magnolia Plantation Papers 1957). One worker recalled, “you would be going to the fields when the sunrise, and you didn’t quit until, maybe, five minutes to the time to go home. You’d be so tired, and you might have a mile or two to walk…I have come across that field, cutting off every which a way myself.”

The additional laborers needed to cultivate or chop the cotton plants in order to thin the fields and pick cotton came primarily from Natchitoches. Presumably underemployed or unemployed people responded to the call of a major labor recruiter, Reverend Turner. He was a respected black preacher and entrepreneur who had left the countryside for residence in the city. He spoke with pride of the many years his school bus periodically did double-duty. It carried children to school during the school year and, when school was suspended during the harvests, hauled black men, women, and children hoe-hands to chop or pick cotton at Magnolia and other Cane River plantations.

Special Workers

Some tenant laborers and sharecroppers might also do more specialized permanent or temporary work. Supervised by the overseer, who managed the day-to-day field operations, their roles included:

  • Yard-man: usually came from the quarters, maintained the area around the main house, tended the garden and sheep and other barnyard animals. He might also use the buggy to pick up mail in Derry.
  • Lot-man: came from the quarters, tended the horses and mules, fed, and watered them in the afternoon and evenings.
  • Blacksmith: sharpened plowpoints, fixed axles, shoed mules and horses, did some carpentry, and ran the grist mill. The longtime blacksmith, Cliff Lemell, was also the collector at the store and a deacon of St. James AME.
  • Cowboys: cattle were herded by several workers, including some from the quarters, and others, Creoles of color, from nearby areas.
  • Tractor drivers: some came from the quarters; others came from near Melrose. They earned more than others and received bonuses for working overtime during harvest.
  • Stable hands: tended the thoroughbreds and other stock.

Managing the Big House required considerable domestic help, including:

  • Laundry help: washed, ironed, and sewed for the Big House. In the summers, in anticipation of harvest needs, someone from the quarters used an old sewing machine on the back porch to repair sacks for holding cotton.
  • House servants: included men and women from the quarters.
  • Nurse maids: included women from the quarters who helped care for children.
  • Cooks: including the well-known and respected “Aunt Martha” and her daughter, Rosa, who lived in the cook’s house, and Mary Jane Cheatham from the quarters.
  • Chauffeurs: several lived in the quarters, including Mr. Matt’s driver who also repaired tractors. The drivers sometimes also worked in the Big House.

Other specialists, people from urban Natchitoches and adjacent areas, were overseers, store managers, and accountants. Usually they were white.

Animal Husbandry

Diversifying its economic base probably gave Magnolia insurance against pests, such as the crop-specific boll weevil, poor weather, and other natural threats. The plantation maintained a small flock of sheep. Like other resources they served multiple purposes, which, in this case, included browsing on the Big House lawn to keep the grasses down and providing yearlings for the Hertzog family dinner table. Pigeons provided squab for the Big House dinner table and some recreational benefits. Geese, briefly, helped clean the lawn. Plantation cattle were a principal commercial investment raised for sale. Perhaps twice yearly, auctioneers would come from Alexandria, sometimes from a firm called Dominique, or from Hodges, to take the calves back for auction. Cattle also provided food sources for the Big House and for laborers on festive occasions such as June 19th and Thanksgiving when Mr. Matt donated cattle for the community feast. In the 1960s, management recalls, Magnolia ran about 1,600 head of cattle. Skilled handlers were required. Although ranching was less labor intensive than agriculture, management commented on the difficulty of finding skilled cowboys to tend the herd at Magnolia or, as occasionally needed, drive it to the Kisatchie hills when necessitated by floods and rotting grasses.

Unlike its present stock of mostly work horses, Magnolia once had an active breeding program. Its stables raised prizewinning thoroughbreds, saddle-gates, and single-foot horses, as well as ponies, called “creole,” and mules, some of which were exported to Texas and elsewhere. Magnolia’s fine horses were a matter of pride to the Hertzogs as well as to former workers. Among the more memorable ones, management noted, were prize-winners, such as Magnolia Mary, the pony Black Giant, the showhorse Major Mosley, Charley, Blackbird, Gray Mack, and Frank, Mr. Matt’s horse. Charley Williams from the quarters was the jockey when Frank won one of the more competitive regional races. But the best known and rewarded might have been the Flying Dutchman who won the Stakes in the early 1850s at the Metarie course in New Orleans. A visible symbol of his achievement is the heavy sterling silver service the Hertzogs received to mark their win, now proudly displayed in the dining room of the Big House. When the Flying Dutchman died at age five, the family buried him near the thoroughbred stables.

Plantation Store

(photo) Magnolia plantation store.
Figure 10. Magnolia plantation store. (D. Fricker)

A public space, the store served as an economic and social magnet for men, women and children of all ethnicities (Figure 10). Working men might have been the primary users, making purchases, as well as lounging on the porch and its bench and at the nearby stiles where they exchanged news and gossip, played dominos, or sometimes shot craps. Gas and diesel fuel were pumped here. Magnolia’s tractor drivers would start lining up to fuel their equipment by 7am and make another stop around noon when they returned for lunch. As a market, the store’s almost exclusive clients were cash-poor residents who needed foodstuffs, including wheat flour, condiments, such as sugar and salt, and other necessities, and occasionally supplemented produce from their gardens or barnyard animals with canned foods. The store also sold unparched green coffee beans. Residents of the Big House still pleasurably recall the early morning aroma of parched beans being ground and roasted at home and wafting up from the quarters. Medicines, candles, kerosene, some clothing, and small tools were available too and later ice cream and frozen foods after Mr. Matt purchased a freezer in the 1950s. Agricultural needs for seed, fertilizer, insecticide, and other inputs were met here. This is also where residents paid, in kind, for having the plantation grist mill grind their corn and where people came to be paid and “settle-up.”

Day workers and tenant farmers were paid in plantation-specific paper scrip or brass tokens for many years until new banking laws in the 1930s prohibited this form of payment. Not legal tender, scrip substituted for the limited cash available to the plantation management. It represented payment for past services or for future labor, that is, an advance that day workers drew against expected earnings or tenant farmers drew against the anticipated income earned from future harvests. Each plantation had its own characteristic scrip, which could be redeemed only at that plantation store or in Magnolia’s case either there or, for a brief time, by arrangement with Cohen’s neighboring Lakeview Store. Scrip gave the plantation the option to use its limited available cash to meet other demands while also ensuring its store of a supply of steady customers. Workers received convenient access to needed goods but, unless they had some ready cash, no opportunity to purchase provisions at competing stores. Plantation stores were unlikely to extend credit to strangers with unknown or unknowable credentials whose bills could not be easily settled.

“Settling up,” as residents called it, occurred for both management and tenants once the harvest was sold. Management sold its own crop and the sharecropper yields, paid its own debts to suppliers and banks, and settled with residents. Settling had management paying day laborers their wages and sharecroppers their share of the harvest sales and also deducting the outstanding debts accumulated at the commissary against the earned wages or sales. One former sharecropper recalled the habit of charging everything at the store-shoes, clothing, anything. “They had all that at the store. But now, when you come to settle, they would take what you bought out of your half. So you see how far that left you behind.” Debtors considered themselves fortunate if the year brought a small surplus after the “settling up” or saw them just clearing the debt burden without carrying it all over into the next year.

The store was an entertainment center too where local musicians staged popular performances. Residents from the Big House and the quarters recalled gathering around the porch Christmas Eve to enjoy hearing and seeing the LaCour brothers perform. The Creole family, Youk, Duma, and Sheck LaCour (another brother, Eveck, might join them elsewhere), had formed what might have been the most popular local band. Mr. Matt would bring the three LaCour brothers to the plantation at Christmas and other occasions to play for the community before moving on to family festivities at the Big House. The store was also where Mr. Matt’s brother, Dr. Hertzog, would treat rapt audiences to viewings of the movies or photos he had shot on previous trips to Magnolia. Many of Dr. Hertzog’s photographs of special events and people, baseball games, and horse races permanently decorated the store walls, reflecting the faces of the community back to the shoppers. As his photos and films show, Dr. Hertzog and his family regularly returned to his Magnolia birthplace for holidays, family celebrations, and vacations. A center for trophies and memorabilia, the store also displayed the ribbons and trophies management’s well-bred walking horses and mules won, thanks partly to the care lavished on them by workers and owners alike. Walls were also adorned with musical instruments, such as a guitar and fiddle. Children found reasons to be at the store too, sometimes accompanying their parents and sometimes, as recalled by a former overseer’s wife who worked there, stopping for a piece of candy, and to practice reading, writing, or reciting their alphabets.

The store closed after Mr. Matt’s death in 1973. Even before then the store was losing its economic edge for the plantation as well as the community, as one Hertzog family member observed. Keeping it stocked with merchandise required trips to Natchitoches or Alexandria, entailing small investments of time, labor, and gas. Wholesale prices had also been rising beyond the level that could be covered by a mark-up that was affordable to the purchaser yet yielded the store a reasonable profit. In addition, for some time the store had been open only part-time because most residents had already relocated and others had access to transportation or could obtain provisions for cash elsewhere. It seemed more expedient and economically satisfying to everyone to use the supermarkets that had come to urban Natchitoches.

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