Muzzled Oxen Part 4: Malaria and Tornados


Author Genevieve Grant Sadler

Author Genevieve Grant Sadler

In several past columns I’ve discussed the recent publication Muzzled Oxen: Reaping Cotton and Sowing Hope in 1920s Arkansas. Written by the late Genevieve Grant Sadler of California and published by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, this memoir tells of Sadler’s time in the bottoms outside of Dardanelle, Arkansas where she and her husband and three children lived on a cotton farm passed down in her husband’s family.

I originally planned to write only one column about the book. But I soon realized it was loaded with extensive, if subjective, information about this region. In the 358 pages Sadler touches on everything from the all day singings, to the floods around Mill Creek, to the crushing poverty under which many of the sharecroppers lived. She details the ups and downs of the cotton markets and speaks to the vast differences between life in town and in the bottom communities of Stringtown and Cotton Town. She touches on race, class, child rearing, education, childbirth, religion, and gardening.

As I mentioned in a previous column, this isn’t a feel good book about days of yore. Despite her own prejudices, Sadler’s work is well worth reading and doesn’t back away from calling out the inequalities she sees in the world of cotton. For example, near the end of the book she details her less than welcome reception at the Home Missionary Society in Dardanelle where she points out the hypocrisy in abundance of food at their meetings when down in the bottoms people are dying from lack of basic medical care and, as she says, “there are so many hungry and ill-fed people around us.” This column is the fourth and last installment in this series on the book.

Due to all the mosquitos and malnutrition, malaria ran rampant in the bottoms. The whole Sadler family eventually came down with bouts of the illness. They were wealthy enough to access the services of doctors in Dardanelle and had a regular supply of quinine for the symptoms. “Severe headaches, fever, aching of the bones, loss of appetite, nausea, and dullness were all common symptoms,” she writes. “If the parasites became so thick in the blood stream that they clogged the capillaries of the brain or kidneys, death generally resulted. Even quinine was no prophylactic,” she continues, “although it was the best known.” Eventually her infant son came down with malaria fever, nearly dying. Per the doctor’s suggestion they took him up to the Ozark mountains where he was quickly healed. Few sharecroppers in the bottom were so lucky.

Throughout the book she talks about the large storms that regularly came through the bottom, sending everyone running to the dirt storm cellars. In doing oral histories in Dardanelle I’ve often heard about the large tornado that came through town in the early 1900s, and I think this may be the same storm Sadler mentions when she writes about the destruction near her home. “On some places sheds and barns were blown down and then the boards all blown away, so that there was little left to show that any buildings had been there.”

Though much of the book discusses the difficulty of life in the bottoms, Sadler also pays great attention to the beauty of the nearby hills and provides detailed information about the gardens, sunsets, bird songs, and wild foods. Do any of these stories sound familiar to you? I’d love to hear about them. We’re considering hosting a book discussion sometime soon at the McElroy House in Dardanelle. Please let me know if you’d be interested. 

You can order the book via the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, River Market Books in Little Rock at (501) 918-3093or through University of Arkansas Press in Fayetteville at(800) 626-0090. the press has been kind of enough to send a copy of the book to give away to a column reader. I’ll be doing a drawing next week, so if you want your name in the hat, visit me online and click on the “contact” link and send me an email and I’ll add you!

Read the previous columns in this series:

Muzzled Oxen Part 1: Culture Shock and Hazel Bushes

Muzzled Oxen Part 2: The Price of Cotton

Muzzled Oxen Part 3: Community Singings and Square Dances