Muzzled Oxen: Reaping Cotton and Sowing Hope in 1920s Arkansas, Part 1

muzzled oxenA recent book published by Butler Center Books, the publishing arm of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, examines life in the Yell County cotton fields in the 1920s. Written by the late Genevieve Grant Sadler, Muzzled Oxen: Reaping Cotton and Sowing Hope in 1920s Arkansas is a captivating memoir drawn from letters Sadler wrote to her mother while making her home in the cotton fields outside of Dardanelle.

Originally from British Columbia, Grant Sadler was raised near Santa Cruz, California. There she met her future husband, Anthony Wayne Sadler, a man originally from Dardanelle who had migrated west with his parents. In 1920 the Sadlers and their two young sons loaded up the family’s Model T touring car and moved to the bottoms for what was supposed to be a short trip to oversee the family’s cotton farming land. Anthony’s mother accompanied the young family, eager to visit the region she’d once called home. They wound up staying for seven years, raising cotton on land that had been in the Sadler family since the plots were cleared by slaves decades before.

Experiencing culture shock and homesickness, Sadler turns to writing to make sense of her new home, offering detailed descriptions of the land and people while also deftly exploring larger economic and cultural realities that haunt the region today. She writes of the beauty of the landscape: “goldenrod, mullen, milkweed, and tangles of dusty brambles all filled in the spaces between the chinkapins and hazel bushes.” She discovers muscadines, describing them as “tough-skinned and far surpassing in flavor any grapes I had ever tasted.” She notes how the sharecropping women love to dip snuff and writes of the large kettle where they teach her to do laundry. Sadler keeps record of the songs sung in the evenings and describes seasonal eating, including the popularity of wild greens in the spring, hunting for roots to make sassafras tea, and making snow ice cream in the harsh winters.

Found amid her observations of daily life is a detailed assessment of life in the tenant and share cropping cotton communities, an economic system that made a few families rich while keeping others in poverty year after year. The Sadlers were land owners, one of the few in the region who profited from the fickle crop. She soon discovers that many of the more monied residents had little knowledge or concern for life in the bottoms, noting their absence in the fields and the shanty communities:  “The owner did not live in this neighborhood and was interested only in the amount of cotton picked. He seldom saw his tenants and cared nothing for their problems.”

Over time she became close with the people in the community and formed close bonds: “I went there a rebellious and homesick young woman, hating even the way the grass grew in that so-foreign land,” she writes. “I departed years later, with a deepened understanding of the teeming life of the land, and of the friends I left behind me—kindly, courteous, hospitable, hardworking people, uncomplaining under the most unsatisfactory conditions. Indeed, to me, muzzled oxen.”

Compiled by Sadler’s youngest son Gareth, this memoir is so filled with information about life in the region that it warrants multiple columns. More on this book next week. You can order the book via the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, River Market Books in Little Rock at (501) 918-3093 or through University of Arkansas Press in Fayetteville at (800) 626-0090. Thanks so much for reading!

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The Seed and the Story is a partnership with the Courier and Post Dispatch newspapers in Pope and Yell County, Arkansas. This weekly column explores folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. Columns are often written in partnership with the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action and humbly attempt to bridge intergenerational themes in the region.