Where Have all the Plantations Gone?
By Morgan Gates, Historic &Haunted Vicksburg
I was in the Old Depot Museum the other day and a lady from Texas was in the museum. She asked one of the docents if there were any plantations nearby. The docent, knowing that I conduct city tours, referred the question to me. I listed a number of beautiful tour homes in Vicksburg, but told her, “No – there are no plantations left in Vicksburg/Warren County." Our Texas visitor was looking for an “attraction” that was representative of the Old South, of course, and there a few of those around, but not here.
In the strictest sense of the word, there are still working plantations in this county. A plantation, you see, is simply a large farm, and there are plenty of those still around and some still use the word “plantation” in their name. I knew however that she was not looking for the latest John Deere 4wd tractor, or high tech combine harvesters, huge chicken barns or even long rows of soybeans and corn, all of which can be found just a short drive outside the city.
Once upon a time Warren County was once teaming with the traditional cotton plantations of the old south. In fact, most of the community names and quite a few of the county roads are named thus because they once were part of or went to a plantation. I live on a road named Mount Alban because it went to a plantation of the same name. I used to go hunting in a part of this county named Oak Ridge. You guessed it: a plantation. So just what did happen to the plantations of the Vicksburg/Warren County area particularly and the Old South in general?
Many people who had been plantation owners were ruined by the War. The planter economy, much like the modern business world, was heavily debt dependent. The tools and materials of cotton production were bought on credit and paid off at harvest. While demand for cotton boomed and the land was at peace, this worked, most of the time. Planters did go bust however, even in the antebellum period.
The war of course interrupted the steady market for cotton. The Union burned plantations, confiscated cotton, and freed the labor force. Still, not every plantation burned and the demand for cotton remained high after the war. In fact, the area around Vicksburg became a Union enclave after the siege and cotton production quickly resumed. You see cotton was 60% of the AMERICAN economy before the war! The North needed cotton, so much they were willing to make a deal: The citizens of Vicksburg that were willing to sign the loyalty oath could go right back to the cotton trade where they had made all their money before the war.
Not everything was “hunky dory” post siege of course. Some of the plantation owners were still fighting in the war or had been killed, but the Union was happy to bring unscrupulous carpet baggers down to take over their interest, so still, the economy began rolling again.
The problem was the labor force: Who was going to do the planting and picking? The Union thought hiring the former slaves –freedmen-- was the answer, but many freedmen didn’t want to go back to the fields. (Can you blame them?) Some did go back as contract laborers, often to be swindled by unscrupulous carpet baggers. Contract labor turned out to be a less than ideal situation. North of Vicksburg, in the years following the war, efforts were made to recruit both Chinese and Italian immigrants to pick cotton, but this did not work out either. The solution became renting the land out in manageable parcels to small farmers without land of their own. Freedmen or poor white famers would rent a 40 or 50 acre plots, and grow enough cotton to support their families. The rent was paid and supplies purchased with cotton after the harvest. This effectively redistributed the wealth. The plantation owner (former Confederate or former Northerner) still made a crop and was still a wealthy man; although, not as wealthy as the antebellum planter. The smaller farmer also had a marketable crop but not the wealth of the planter. The small farmer did business with local merchants, where the antebellum planter did business with New Orleans.
The merchants of Vicksburg became the wealthy magnates of the post war south. They were the ones doing business with New Orleans now and building the post war mansions. (For an excellent example of post-war elegance, visit the Baer House Inn !)
The Cotton Kingdom did manage to briefly reestablish itself post war, but never with the wealth and grandeur of its antebellum glory days. Land was sold off to pay taxes. The army worm appeared on the scene in the late 19th century, Great Britain began cultivating cotton in India, and in the early 20th century, the appearance of the boll weevil dethroned king cotton. By the 1930’s, to quote the band Alabama, “somebody told us Wall Street fell, but we were so poor we couldn’t tell!” The next thirty years changed not only the South, but the whole country. The Great Depression, World War II, and the Civil Rights movement, created the world we live in today.
The post WW II era saw the rise of industrialization and urban migration, share cropping quickly died out with the rise of mechanization, and the “planters” of today grow a tremendous variety of crops from pine trees to sweet potatoes. You can of course still see vast fields of cotton as you drive down U.S. 61, or many other southern highway, but you are just as likely to see, corn or soybeans or even winter wheat.
So, what happened to the plantations? Life happened!