“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
– Mark Twain
“Look back, to slavery, to suffrage, to integration and one thing is clear. Fashions in bigotry come and go. The right thing lasts.”
– Anna Quindlen
October 5, 2015 – Day 37 – Ferriday, Louisiana
I decided to surprise Lil Jan today with something that wasn’t on the original agenda. We broke camp at Natchez State Park and headed west across the Great River into Louisiana, the final state on our Great River Road adventure. Just south of Ferriday, we pulled into today’s surprise stop, the Frogmore Plantation. I couldn’t have designed a better stop to satisfy Lil Jan’s love languages. They were all spoken here. For starters, Frogmore is a working cotton plantation with modern equipment and farming practices. That alone would be enough reason to visit. But Frogmore is also a historic cotton plantation dating back to 1815, and that is what makes it special and what truly made Lil Jan smile. In fact, it is the only one of its kind in the entire South. We highly recommend this place for your bucket list.
Stepping into the Frogmore gift shop and museum was like stepping back into time. Caught up in the moment and wanting to impress my Southern wife, I immediately sat down in a rocking chair and threw down an RC cola and Moon Pie. As the Moon Pie crumbs fell down my chest and I belched RC, Lil Jan exited the store, apparently overwhelmed by my Southern swag.
Our tour began in an adjacent building and we were surprised that Lynette Tanner, the co-owner of Frogmore, would herself lead the first leg of it. She spoke passionately about the history of Frogmore, cotton farming, slavery, sharecropping, and the Civil War. She has written and edited a book called Chained to the Land which is a collection of interviews of slaves from the state of Louisiana (of course, Lil Jan purchased one from the store). The slaves’ poignant recollections of food, housing, clothing, relationships, weddings, and funerals, as well as their treatment, echo memories of a past era, and some will bring tears to your eyes.
After answering questions, she passed us off to another tour guide who walked us around the property. We saw original slave quarters, the kitchen, farm equipment, the commissary, an original cotton gin and steam engine, the church, and much more. A few of the buildings are original to Frogmore while Mrs. Tanner brought others here from other plantations. We also got to go out into a field and pick some cotton. This time Lil Jan got caught up in the moment and ran across the field singing Walking in High Cotton. We are such nerds. Our guide had a firm grasp on the history of the place, explaining what daily life would have been like for a slave on the plantation. There was certainly a very surreal, sobering feeling when we walked into the slave quarters and tried to wrap our minds around the harsh quality of life these residents would have endured. At one point I looked over and Lil Jan was wiping away some tears.
My favorite stop was the overseer’s cabin where we learned about Willie Smith, who used to live in the cabin with his family. According to an exhibit inside the cabin, “Willie Smith became the first African American farm manager on a major cotton plantation in Louisiana at the demise of sharecropping and remained so until his death in 1995. Willie represents thousands of sharecroppers across the South whose lifestyle abruptly ended with the advent of mechanization. Willie started working the Frogmore fields at age eight and only completed 3rd grade. After he married Janie Green, Willie and his family sharecropped Frogmore until the early 1960’s along with over fifty other sharecropping families. Willie, unlike many other sharecroppers, did not move to town when diesel equipment forced them out of work. He learned the mechanics of modern farm equipment and cotton gins and stayed abreast of a wave of new technology to become a well-respected farm manager and ginner by all landowners in the area. Members of Willie’s family still live in their family home on Frogmore.” Stories such as Willie’s are what make these tours so interesting. From humble beginnings, he worked hard, overcame obstacles, and made a name for himself. Well done, Willie.
At the final stop on the tour, we watched a movie about cotton production and the Frogmore plantation. I learned that cotton is classified based on its quality and priced accordingly. For example, cotton of average quality might be given “Grade 31—Middling”. For many years, my now deceased grandfather, when asked how he was doing, would answer, “Fair to Middling”. I never really understood what he meant, but figured it must mean that he was doing okay. Now I finally understand that he was describing his current state of being using the quality standards of cotton. I’ve decided to continue this tradition by trying to confuse my future grandchildren. When they ask how I’m doing, and it’s been an average day, I’ll simply respond, “89 octane”.
We also learned about the many uses of cotton. For example, cottonseeds are used to feed cattle. The exterior fuzz on the seed, called linters, is used to make currency, banknotes, quality stationery, yarns, felt, sausage casings, medical supplies and duct tape. The linter cellulose becomes plastics, cosmetics, and nail polish. The outside of the seed, the hull, is used for cattle feed, chemicals, mulch, and insulation for drilling rigs. After the hulls and oils are removed, what remains is high protein cotton meal, which is compressed into cakes and fed to cattle, deer, crawfish, and catfish. There is also cottonseed oil which, after refining, is an edible oil that is 100% trans-fat, cholesterol, and gluten free. It is used as a cooking oil, flavored salad oil, solid shortening, and margarine. In 1914 Procter & Gamble packaged cottonseed oil in solid form and named it Crystallized Seed Cotton Oil, or CRISCO, which is used in cookies, crackers, and chips. Of course, cotton can also be used to clean earwax, make a fake Santa beard, or euthanize lab animals. So next time you see a cotton field, I hope you’ll appreciate that it is the source for a lot more than just cotton t-shirts and underwear.
I hope you enjoyed today’s blog and that you have a great day, or at least a middling, 89 octane one.
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