Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Boll Weevil! Boll Weevil!



This post is dedicated to rockabilly pioneer Hasil Adkins, of Boone County, West Virginia. Hasil was found dead in his home today at the age of 67. A one-man band, Hasil played guitar, drums, and sang, all at once, 'cause that's the way he thought it was done when he first heard the music on the radio. A one-of-a-kind original, Hasil conjured the most primitive music imaginable, and I am happy to say I saw him perform once, in Athens, GA. He was supposed to go on around 11:30 PM, but took the stage sometime after 2:30 AM. Over the course of the next 45 minutes he screamed, groaned, moaned, and sang a little, too. At the end, he threw his guitar at a cymbal, kicked over his drums, and stomped off stage with a big grin on his face. So, for Hasil, we'll start this post with a tune. This ditty was sung by Charlie Patton, Leadbelly, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, among others. It's about the bug that tore the South apart. "Mississippi Boweavil Blues":



"Sees a little boweavil keeps movin' in; You can plant your cotton and you won't get a half a bale; Boweavil, boweavil, where's your native home?; A-Louisiana raised in Texas, least is where I was bred and born; Well, I saw the boweavil, Lord, a-circle, Lord, in the air; The next time I seed him, Lord, he had his family there; Boweavil left Texas, Lord, he bid me: fare ye well; (spoken: Where you goin' now?); I'm goin' down the Mississippi, gonna give Louisiana hell; (spoken: How is that, boy?); Suck all the blossoms and he leave your hedges square; The next time I seed you, you know you had your family there; Boweavil meet his wife: We can sit down on the hill; Boweavil told his wife: Let's trade this forty (acres) in; Boweavil told his wife, says: I believe I may go North; (spoken: Hold on, I'm gonna tell all about that); Let's leave Louisiana, we can go to Arkansas; Well, I saw the boweavil, Lord a-circle, Lord, in the air; Next time I seed him, Lord, he had his family there; Boweavil told the farmer that: I 'tain't got ticket fare; Sucks all the blossom and leave your hedges square; Boweavil, boweavil, where your native home?; Most anywhere they raise cotton and corn; Boweavil, boweavil, outta treat me fair; The next time I did you had your family there."



Historically, the South was dominated by agriculture in every way. Whether you were a plantation owner, independent farmer, storekeeper, or sharecropper, your life, and each day in it, revolved around crops. Tobacco was big, corn was not uncommon, but cotton was king. However, as with any king, the reign can't last forever. Before 1900, the boll weevil (Anthonomus grandis grandis) didn't exist in the U.S. Then, right round the turn of the century, an odd little insect with a snout half the length of its body appeared near the Mexican border. It so happened that this new arrival could only reproduce on king cotton, and it used its large snout, complete with vicious chewing apparatus, to drill holes in cotton plants for feeding and depositing eggs. The cotton plant had never had to deal with such a pest before, and so it didn't. Instead, large parts of the cotton plant died and dropped off after infestation by boll weevils. These parts of the plant had previously been highly useful: they produced cotton. As for the photos, we've been to Plum Branch before, haven't we?

Around 1914, the weevil arrived in Georgia. By 1921, the agricultural economy (i.e. MOST of the economy) of much of the South was in tatters. Check out the figures for Hancock County, Georgia, which includes Sparta, just west of Augusta and a bit south of I-20, considered to be one of the hardest hit regions in the entire South. In 1919, 19,789 bales of cotton were produced in Hancock County, at a market price of 40 cents per lb. In 1920, 11,685 bales were produced, but they sold for just 16 cents per lb. By 1921, only 1,509 bales were produced, fetching 17 cents per lb. The price went up in 1922 to 23 cents per lb., but only 710 bales were harvested that year. So, between 1919 and 1922, cotton production in Hancock County fell from 19,789 bales to 710 bales. And similar numbers were recorded all over the South. In 1921, the Sparta Ishmaelite reported that, across the South, 10,000 people were starving as a result of the failure of the cotton crop. Thus the boll weevil precipitated the Great Migration, during which everyone that could get out of the South did, and those that couldn't suffered badly.



And there appeared to be no way to stop the weevil. In 1921, desperate farmers tried to kill the weevil by spraying their plants with a mixture of cane syrup, water, and calcium arsenate. The only creatures that really died were the farmer's mules, who liked to lick up the sugary mix. RANDOM ASIDE: In Australia, in 1935, an effort was made to control two types of cane beetle by importing 101 cane toads from Hawaii. What the introducers failed to recognize was that the beetles spent most of their time high up in the cane while the toad, at least under its own power, was rarely airborne. The cane toad is now a serious problem in Australia since it eats anything it can fit in its mouth and is poisonous to boot. Yet another example of our complete ineptitude when it comes to managing our own environment. But, uh, back to the story at hand... In some towns, schools and businesses closed one day a week so that people could go to the fields and kill the pests by hand. Along the coast, the sea cotton industry was wiped-out in one year, never to come back. Below is a photo of the painting I mentioned last time we were near Plum Branch. It's just inside the door of the house in the top shot of that post.



As is often the case in times of economic desperation, even when they result from a force of nature, folks start looking for scapegoats. So it was that in 1921 there were more lynchings in the South than there had been in any year since 1909. In fact, the number of lynchings during each year over the period of worst weevil infestation has been shown to correlate closely (and inversely) with the per acre value of cotton. Also, the Ku Klux Klan began to make large gains in popularity, whereas for the decade or two previous its influence had been much less obvious. Am I suggesting that the boll weevil is responsible for increased attendance at Klan rallies in Georgia? Why, yes, I think I am. There were also some very ugly race-based killings in the state during the weevil years. As literary critic Frederic Jameson has said, "History is what hurts..." The little empty building below is located on Wizard's Cove Dr. and, given the above, the street name might refer to either of two types of wizard. I'd like to think the name comes from the kind of wizard that Black Sabbath sang about, one of which can be seen hovering under the awning.



Toward the end of the 1920's, cotton (the plant) was recovering from the weevil a little bit. But cotton (the industry) was not, and never would. Many farmers had switched crops, and untold numbers of people had fled. Those who kept farming cotton often had to spray their crops up to 20 times a year to keep the weevil at bay, killing the beneficial insects that increased yield, as well. And, of course, the Great Depression was right around the corner. Hancock County, once Georgia's leading farm county, would, 50 years later, have a per capita income on par with the poorest parts of the nation. Below is one of the very first photos I ever took of the type you've seen on this site. It was at the end of a roll of shots I took to document my thesis research for school. I was using a Fuji disposable, just before a rain storm, so the color is a little weird. But I never got back to take any additional photos here, so I present this and the shot below it for the record.



Difficulties with controlling the weevil continued through WWII. By the 1970's, DDT was being used extensively, but we all know how that turned out. Now, chemicals are still being used as insecticides, but genetic means have also been employed in the ongoing fight to bring the weevil to its knees. Yet, for the South, the point is largely moot. The major damage was done long ago. In the span of a couple years, cotton, the king of the South, was reduced to barely a shadow of its former self. A way of life largely vanished, as well. It was a tough, often unfair way of life, without a doubt, but it was all people had known. They then had to find something else; sometimes better, sometimes worse. And it was all because of a little bug with a big nose which, in 2003, for the first time since its arrival in the state, was not detected anywhere in Georgia. Information for this post came from Professor Barabara Foley (although she was discussing Jean Toomer's 1923 book, Cane), the University of Tennessee, and UGA. Next time, we'll take a final look at Phinizy Swamp.

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