Muzzled Oxen Part 2: The Price of Cotton

muzzled oxenLast month we explored a recent book published by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies entitled Muzzled Oxen: Reaping Cotton and Sowing Hope in 1920s Arkansas. Written by the late Genevieve Grant Sadler of California, the memoir explores her years in Yell County Arkansas where her family worked the cotton fields outside of Dardanelle. The book is so loaded with information about local history, folklore, economics, and cultural history I’ve decided to feature the book in a short series of columns. This is part two in this series.

The author’s husband, Anthony Wayne Sadler, spent his childhood years in Yell County where the family owned bottom land outside of Dardanelle. Like so many people from the area, his family migrated to California in the early 1900s.  As an adult in the 1920s, Sadler brought his family back to Arkansas to manage the family’s bottom land and try his hand at farming. Out of place in the poor and rural community and perpetually homesick for California, his wife Genevieve Grant Sadler documented everything from the price of cotton, to home births, to the square dances.

At the center of the book is Sadler’s constant grappling with an economic system she finds deeply unjust. “I began to see what was really important, what was in everyone’s thought and controlled his every action,”she writes.  “This was cotton. To plant it, cultivate it, to pick it, worry about it, talk about it, so filled their minds that the final step—to cash in on it—was a blessing of such rarity that it was almost taken for granted that either total failure or at best a meager reward would be the common lot, and nothing more was expected.”

While she watches young children and grown men die from easily treatable illnesses and complications from malnutrition, she tries to make sense of how such an unjust system is allowed to carry on  “I never knew a sharecropper who actually figured on definitely having money in his hands for a year’s work with cotton,” she writes. “And I saw very little that money bought. Some had the essentials of common clothes and necessary foods, but little else.” In many cases the women went barefoot in winter and went days without food. All the while the wealthier classes reaped the benefits of the sharecroppers hard work.

There’s no point in sugar coating this book. If readers are looking for a nostalgic look at the cotton farming system they won’t find it here. Sadler does not shy away from discussing the poverty she sees in both the black and white communities and even tries to have conversations about this injustice with the wealthier landowners and bankers in Dardanelle. In almost all cases she is met with indifference or flat out disregard for the men, women and children picking the cotton.  “It was amazing the amount of gumption and tenacity these cotton farmers displayed,” she writes.  “They had a dogged determination to carry on. They and their mules alike, tough and wiry and stubborn, suffered from the awful conditions under which they labored—poor shelter, poor food, and little hope of reward.”

In next week’s column we’ll shift the focus a bit and explore what she has to say about the different musical traditions in the area including square dances and gospel singings. The folks at the Butler Center were kind enough to give the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action a copy of the book to pass on to one of the column’s readers. Just send me a message telling me why the book interests you and/or something about your own connections to the history of cotton farming in the area. I’ll put all the names in a hat and draw a winner for next week. Thanks so much for reading!

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 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.