While we were enjoying the bonanza years of 1910-1918, Georgia farmers had no idea what lay ahead. What the Harpers and thousands of other farmers did not know was that the boll weevil, which had entered Georgia in 1913, would soon destroy them. The boll weevil caused a three percent loss to Georgia cotton crops in 1916; the loss rose to ten percent by 1918. But the U. S. Department of Agriculture had made a remarkable discovery of an effective weevil control, calcium arsenate, so farmers were dusting their cotton with that, completely reassured that all would be well. But by 1919, Tommie’s eleventh year, it was clear that neither calcium arsenate nor anything else was going to stop the boll weevil from destroying the crop.
For the next five years, until 1924, when Tommie was sixteen, farmers were plagued by the boll weevil. Yield dropped from 200 pounds an acre to eighty pounds an acre all over Georgia. The state’s total cotton crop dropped from two million bales in 1918 to 558,000 in 1923 and would never be the same again. (Georgia farmers were going to be in almost constant economic distress until 1933, when Tommie was twenty-five years old.) Farmers lost. Merchants lost. Bankers lost. Everybody lost. The “winged demon” caused panic and disaster.
THE YEAR THAT PAPA WENT BROKE
After the boll weevil struck and times got dark, Papa almost murdered a man over our Willis Whippet Overland Touring Car.
It happened like this: The first year the boll weavil hit our crop, instead of thirty to thirty-five bales, we made ten bales of cotton to six plows. The next year was even worse. Nothing was made, and the farm was in debt. We couldn’t pay our taxes, and we couldn’t pay the bank. Many farmers were forced to leave the community and try to seek work in town. We lived with out backs to the wall, staying on the farm, working hard, living close, and doing without a lot of things.
To stay ahead of the boll weevil, farmers had been advised to fertilize high and grow the cotton fast. But this was a great mistake, as the boll weevil loved the shade of the large cotton plants. In just two years of this kind of farming, we lost everything.
The second year Papa bought a young mule from a dealer in Brooks, as it was necessary to get at least one new mule every year. But no cotton was made this year, so there was no money to pay the debt. The bank gave us a year longer to come up with the money we had borrowed from them, and this brought hope to our family.
But the stock dealer at Brooks, who had a mean reputation for charging exorbitant interest and who many people said was a crook, wouldn’t give us a year longer to pay for the mule. He demanded full payment now.
Finally, he came out to the house to get his money. Mama and the girls were up on the porch, and Papa and the rest of us were standing out in the yard. Papa said to the stock dealer, “Buck, I don’t have any money to pay you. Can you give me till next year?” Buck looked around the yard and out toward the barn. It was clear his answer was no. “I’ll just take the mule back, then, and I’ll take your car. You’ll still owe me money.” Papa’s face swelled up, and his lips trembled. “Buck, there’s nothing left for you to take,” he said.
“Well, I’ll just take those four milk cows out in the cow lot.” (A young mule sold for $175, and cows brought $25 or $30 a piece. Papa owed for the mule plus the high interest the dealer had been charging him all year.”
The dealer said to his helper. “Lead those cows out of the cow lot.” Papa got madder than he already was. He lost his temper and whipped his pistol out of his picket. The helper looked at Papa and then he replied,” No, Mr. Buck, I can’t lead those cows out of the cow lot, for I’m not ready to die.” The dealer was furious. “Well,” he said, “I’ll just do it myself.”
Papa said, “If you open that gate, you’ll die.” And he started walking toward the dealer. But knew he was about to die, so he began to beg Papa not to kill him. Papa then ordered him off the place. “You’ve got five minutes to get that car and get off this place, or I’ll kill you for sure.” And Papa would have. The dealer went running toward our car, jumped in, and tried to start it. But the motor was dead. He then jumped out of the car, pushed it out of the yard onto the road, left it there, and went running down the road. He had somebody else come out later and get the car.
Things got so bad that the bank closed in Brooks. Granddad had a little money saved in the bank. When he heard about the closing, he walked two and a half miles, mad as an old wet hen. (He was Irish with a high temper.)
Well, he walked up to the bank door, and it was locked. He knocked on the door with his walking stick. A man came to the door and said, “You can’t come in; the bank is closed.” Granddad knocked the fellow down with his stick; walked into the bank, stayed a while, and walked out. He never spoke to a person outside. He just walked straight on back home. When asked about the money later, he’d say, “Some lost all they had; some didn’t.”
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