Vidalia, LA - Events of Saturday, June 2 to Monday, June 4, 2012
When we arrived in Vidalia on Friday after 4 days on the road, we noticed our fridge and pantry needed restocking so we made a Walmart run on Saturday. We relaxed around the motor home on Sunday, planned some of our sightseeing stops, and watched the NASCAR race.
On Monday, we went to visit Frogmore Plantation located on the Louisiana side of the Mississippi about 10 or 12 miles west of Vidalia. Frogmore is an 1800-acre, working cotton plantation. It was built in the early 1800s by an Englishman by the name of Daniel Morris. It is thought the name came from the gardens that are adjacent to Windsor Castle in England. Windsor Castle is the residence of the British royal family.
The frequent flooding of the Mississippi River made the land along its banks very fertile. This was a huge advantage in the days before man-made fertilizer. The warm weather and the fertile soil are what attracted Daniel Morris to this area in the 1800s.
George "Buddy" Tanner and his wife, Lynette, bought Frogmore in the 1960s to grow cotton. In addition to growing cotton, they operate a modern cotton gin capable of producing 900 bales of cotton a day. An average cotton bale weighs 500 pounds.
The cotton gin (short for cotton engine), which was invented by Eli Whitney in 1793 to remove the seeds from cotton, was key to the rapid expansion of cotton plantations in the south in the 1800s. It took one person up to an entire day to separate the seeds by hand from one pound of cotton prior to the invention of the cotton gin.
In the late 1990s, the Tanners began to restore the old buildings on the grounds and offer tours of the historical side of the property. There are about 18 antebellum structures including a steam-powered cotton gin from the 1880s, a log cabin, slave quarters and a general store. The tour includes an excellent video on the history of the area and a second, even better video on the history of Frogmore and on modern cotton growing and ginning.
We arrived just as a tour started. After stopping at the reconstructed smoke house, we visited the slave quarters.
The slaves lived two families per house, and they had small vegetable gardens between the houses for their personal use. They worked 6 days a week from sunup to sundown with only Sundays off. On work days, the noon meal was prepared by other slaves in the cookhouse.
The overseer, who was himself a slave, lived in a dogtrot cabin that was more spacious and better furnished than the homes of the other slaves. A dogtrot cabin is essentially two separate cabins covered by one roof. One side is the kitchen, and the other side is the sleeping quarters. The name comes from the fact the dogs used to hang out in the open space between the rooms to catch the breezes on hot days.
On the porch of the overseer's cabin, there was a display of cotton plants and some of the bags used to hold the cotton after it was picked. As we mentioned earlier, it could take up to a full day for one person to separate the seed from one pound of cotton by hand. The small basket at the bottom of the picture contains a pound of cotton.
Part of the overseer's job was to make sure that each worker kept up with his or her full potential for picking during harvest season. Each worker's cotton was weighed as the bags were filled.
When the slaves were freed after the Civil War, they had no property, no home, no education, no money and no jobs. Southern landowners had the land, but no money to pay wages. The South turned to sharecropping. The sharecroppers were loaned a plot of land (usually 40 acres) in exchange for a share of the crop produced (usually around 50%). Sharecropping was a hard way to make a living. Low yields caused by bad weather or boll weevils was a threat to both the landowners and the sharecroppers.
Landowners frequently ran a store to provide food and seed to the sharecroppers. Since the sharecroppers had no money to pay for the provisions, the landowners put a lien on the entire future crop so the sharecroppers could buy supplies on credit. When the harvest came in, the sharecroppers were lucky if they could sell their crop for enough money to pay off the landowner and break even. By the way, the landowners often controlled the prices paid for the crops.
With a heavy influx of immigrants into the United States in the early 1900s, sharecropping continued into the 1930s. Sharecroppers usually lived in the former slave cabins, which is the reason many of the cabins have survived until today.
In the early days, plowing was done by mule, and planting and picking were done by hand. Mechanical pickers were developed in the early 1900s, but they caused a lot of damage to the plants and to the cotton bolls. Although there were some successful designs in the 1930s and 1940s, mechanical pickers didn't come into wide use until after WWII. Diesel tractors became popular around the same time. We also learned a lot about growing cotton when we visited the Plantation Agriculture Museum near Little Rock, AR in 2009. Click here to read that post.
Frogmore has a shed with numerous pieces of farming equipment on display.
As we have mentioned a couple of times, the cotton gin was the single most important development to the cotton industry. Frogmore has an excellent example of a steam-powered cotton gin from the 1880s designed by Robert Munger.
After we toured the building housing the cotton gin and saw the gin itself and the baling equipment, we stopped back at the general store and at the log cabin to see the videos on the history of the area and of Frogmore that we missed at the beginning of the tour.
Visitors to Frogmore can also tour the modern Tanner cotton gin when it is in operation from September through November. For those visitors like us who weren't there during ginning season, there is a portion of one of the videos that does an excellent job of explaining how it's done.
Buddy Tanner does not charge the farmers to gin their cotton. He keeps the seed removed from the cotton as his payment. It was interesting to learn about all the products that come from cotton seed. The small amount of fuzz that sticks to each seed is called linters. Linters are used in U. S. currency and high-quality stationery, in medical supplies, and in duct tape. Cellulose made from linters is processed into plastics, sausage casings, and film. The seeds are pressed to produce cottonseed oil, which is used in shortening (Crisco is made from cottonseed oil), salad oil, and margarine. Some of the seed is also processed to be used to plant next year's crop.
We also browsed the books and souvenirs while we were in the general store. Frog-themed merchandise is very popular.
The tour at Frogmore is very informative. The Tanners have done an excellent job telling the history of Frogmore, the history of cotton cultivation, and the history of the local area. It should also be noted Frogmore has no foundation to fund restoration and research efforts, nor has there been any financial help from the government. The Tanners fund everything out of the proceeds from admissions and out of their own pockets. If you are in the Vidalia or Natchez area, we highly recommend stopping by for a tour.
On our way back to the motor home, we decided to stop at El Ranchero Mexican restaurant located in Vidalia a few miles west of the RV park for a late lunch.
We started off our meal with traditional corn chips and salsa. The salsa was excellent with plenty of fresh cilantro.
Lunch combos run around $6 and dinner combos are $8 to $9. We decided to have dinner even though it was only 1:30 PM. We both had the same three-item combo with a beef enchilada, a beef burrito and chili relleno. Many of the combos, ours included, do not come with rice and beans. That helped us save a few carbs after eating a basket and a half of corn chips. Our dinners were good, and the portions were generous. The wait staff was friendly and efficient.
With our bellies full, we headed back to the motor home to relax for the rest of the day. We'll tell you what else we found to do in our next post.