Fannin County Agriculture: An Historical Perspective
By Tom Scott
Date and place of publication unknown
In the early part of the nineteenth century the great American movement to the vest and southwest was fueled by one thing, land, abundant and fertile land. Like their forebears of colonial America the nineteenth century pioneer desired land and would go to almost any lengths to acquire it.
Most of the country was a part of an agrarian society, dependent on the land, trusting nothing but the land and what it could produce. The farm lands of the eastern United States were already worn out by nearly two hundred years of poor agricultural practices. In the southern states the land was worn out by tobacco and cotton production. In the more northern climes, the already poor rocky soil yielded up little to support the farmer.
When Texas won its independence in 1836, the leaders of the republic, recognizing the surest way to maintain its tenuous hold on this vast land, began to encourage those hard pressed eastern farmers by offering large quantities of free or cheap land. Land could be had for the taking. More land than many could imagine was there waiting. And it was good land, rich, fertile, and teeming with natural attributes.
Nothing like our modern agricultural organization existed in 1836. There was no governmental agency to offer advice or record the productivity of each section of farmland. What we know about the agricultural pursuits of our ancestors comes from a variety of writings, journals, correspondence, and the like, which have been preserved for today's historical agriculturalist. Among these writings and one of.the most telling was a report issued by British physician, Dr. Edward Smith, in 1848 and 1849. Smith took a protracted journey through northeast Texas examining the area with an eye to introducing a group of English colonists, who like their Texan counterparts were interested in the acquisition of rich, productive land.
Dr. Smith's travels and inspections were published and distributed in England in late 1849. Included with the publications was a map of northeast Texas, a circular route from Jefferson, along the Red River Valley, into north central Texas and back to Jefferson.
In his introduction Dr. Smith reported that the trip was an examination of and report upon the following matters: "The relative advantages of Northern, Western, Eastern,and Southern Texas as respects the heat of the climate, salubrity, fertility, internal intercourse, and the variety, abundance, and remunerative characters of the productions; as also the security, commercial position, and the probability of producing wealth."
Dr. Smith spent an extended period of time in Fannin County and produced a clear picture of the agricultural pursuits of the inhabitants. He first turned to the quality and quantity of the soil stating that the "soil is generally alluvial, and has received names according to its colour rather than its composition; as black, mullatoe, grey, ash, and red, and of these the the black, red, and grey soils are the best defined. The black soil commences in Red River county on the east and extends through the magnificent prairies of Lamar, Fannin, Grayson, Collin, Cooke, and Dallas. The red soil is found on all the banks of the Red River . There are two grand divisions, one is of an homogenous nature and is called the Red 'river soil*and the other is of a gravelly nature, evidently mixed with ironstone and red marl.. The former is greatly preferred and is unsurpassed for the growth of cotton and corn."
Dr. Smith was particularly interested in cotton production. In his report he stated that the best cotton produced in northeast Texas was produced on the second bottoms of all counties bordering on Upper Red River." That produced in Lamar and Fannin Counties is a shade inferior in quality, and consequently in price."
Smith reported that the average yield was somewhat under one bale per acre. His report also discussed that the price for cotton had been very low during the past season, "the Red River planters have not cleared more than 6 1/2 cents per pound." Dr. Smith compared this to Alabama where he reported the land very poor producing only 200 lbs. per acre, and that of inferior quality and sold for 4 1/2 cents recently.
Cotton was not the only crop to interest the physician. His declaration was that corn was of fine quality and the best crops were along Red River in the Lamar and Fannin County areas. Smith declared that the demand was much greater than the supply resulting in prices higher than any other state in the Union. During his travels he never found an instance in which corn was selling for less than 75 cents per bushel. Leaves from the corn stalks were pulled in August and September and gathered into bundles of 2 or 3 pounds to be used for fodder. These were sold by enterprising farmers for $2 per 100 lbs.
The wheat district of northeast Texas could be found on the black limey soil of Lamar, Fannin, Collin, Grayson, and Cooke Counties. The grain was small owing to the lack of fine seed but it converted into excellent flour. The average was 67 lbs. to the bushel which brought in the major markets $1 per bushel almost twice the price in the rest of the country.
Oats and rye were other grain crops which did well in the valley soil, along with a variety of grasses suitable for pasturage.
Smith was also taken with the luxurious growth of two species of wild grapes. One variety was seen with vines running up trees to heights of 100 feet or more with grapes of great size and sweetness. The other species grew on small bushes or lying on the ground. The grapes were large and sweet and Smith counted on one bush twenty or twenty-five bunches. Dr. Smith noted that the grape was not cultivated in northeast Texas but he suggested that its cultivation would produce a profitable crop rivaling that of northern states where 400 gallons of wine were produced per acre. Smith stated, "it is believed that no county surpasses Texas in the growth of the grape.
Tobacco was also grown widely in the county, not for exportation but generally for local use. The local product produced fine flavored cigars and smoking tobacco but the lack of experience and knowledge prevented local growers from properly curing the leaves for smoking tobacco. (Note: the majority of the settlers in Fannin County came from Tennessee and southwestern regions of Kentucky where tobacco cultivation was relatively unknown. Most immigrants to Texas from the tobacco growing states settled east and south of the Red River Valley.)
Flax grew readily according to Dr. Smith. Some early agricultural records show that flax enjoyed a certain popularity with local growers. Smith's report doesn’t say so but the popularity of flax may have been for the seed used to produce linseed oil rather than for the fiberous part of the plant. Flax in America lost a great deal of support after the invention of the first cotton gin in 1792 made cotton a more desirable crop.
Edible crops were also important for the immigrant prospectus. In addition to the wild grapes Smith was also much taken with fruit production. Figs grew luxuriantly in the area. Peaches were in abundance and early varieties of apples were sought after.
Happily Dr. Smith recorded, "we saw every variety of vegetable known to the English gardener growing luxuriantly. Irish and sweet potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, peas, beans, rhubarb, beet-root, lettuce, celery, parsnips, carrots, turnips, etc. There is not a month in the year in which the settler has not fruits and garden vegetables
Practically every crop mentioned by Edward Smith in 1848 was a mainstay of agricultural production in Fannin County for more than one hundred years. Flax probably disappeared before the Civil War. Tobacco certainly has all but disappeared. Other crops not mentioned by Smith have long been popular products, such as the variety of berries now available, plum and apricots. Nowhere does he mention the widely varied nut crops.
But as some crops have disappeared others have gained sufficient import to have been important to agricultural production. Peanuts and soy beans probably unknown to Smith have certainly had an impact on the county's economy. But today one will be hard pressed to find the variety of agricultural production recorded by Smith. Cotton, which once covered the county so thoroughly that a drive through the countryside in early autumn gave the appearance of a heavy snowfall, is all but non-existent. Wheat doesn't enjoy the position it once did. Oats and corn are rarely seen.
Despite the differences 160 years have made, two of Dr. Smith’s revelations, bear a re-examination. The first of these comes from an off hand remark he made in a discussion of the timber produced in Fannin County. "Timber will grow abundantly upon the prairies, but they now prefer Osage Orange (bois d'arc) as a fence."
Dr. Smith was unaware that less than ten years after he wrote this declaration, one of the most unusual agricultural pursuits took root in Fannin County. Even today this amazing activity is generally unknown.
The first settlers in the area quickly discovered that young stands of the bois d'arc tree, when properly trained, could grow into almost maintenance free and impenetrable fence rows which served to confine cattle, but also had a secondary use a windbreaks.
Shortly before the Civil War and for a few years after one major agricultural program was the exportation of bushels and bushels of bois d'arc seeds to the midwestern United States and on the high plains. These plants adapted themselves to the same use as discovered by early Texas settlers penning up livestock, but most importantly as erosion control against the dry dust blown conditions prevalent on the high plains.
No records of the amount of bois d'arc seed produced and shipped from Fannin County are known to exist, but one interesting document is still extant. The document is labeled "Partial Sale of Osage Orange Seed for the Account of Messrs Weldon and Redner." Weldon and Redner were a firm located in Ladonia.
Essentially the document is a bill(s) of lading for 100 bushels of bois d'arc seed shipped from Fannin County to St. Louis on February 14, 1857. The point of exit from Ttexas appears to be at Jefferson via Red River. There was a change of transportation, probably at Nachitoches, to the vessel Belle Creole with this vessel carrying the cargo to its destination at St. Louis.
Charges for the transportation were $346.37. The seed sold for $550.91 for a seeming profit of $204.54. No information on other costs is recorded.
Edward Smith would be more than a little surprised if he were able to pay a return visit today. Most of the splendid crops he so highly praised would be hard to find. Perhaps more than anything he would feel somewhat vindicated when reminded that he predicted that cultivation of the grape would be highly profitable for the Fannin County farmer since, "It is believed that no country surpasses Texas in the growth of the grape."
Fannin County Museum of History
One Main Street, Bonham, Texas