Bryan County has always boasted fertile farm lands, but tourists driving through today don’t see much except pastures and cattle. Some local residents are aware of a vineyard, orchard or corn field tucked away somewhere, but most are too young to remember the days when trains shipped carloads of produce from this area to other markets. Few understand the strong agricultural foundation laid by our ancestors.
In 1905 Mr. Moore of Caddo spoke to the “Indian Territory Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association” about “Growing and Shipping Cantaloupes.” At that time there were more than 100 acres of cantaloupes ripening in the fields around Caddo. There were another 200 acres planted in potatoes. Caney boasted 1,000 acres of each crop, plus another 100 acres of watermelons. Other communities in Bryan County were growing “truck” crops like strawberries, cucumbers, onions, celery, rhubarb, and tomatoes. Local orchards included apples, pears, plums, peaches. And of course the major crops- cotton, wheat, corn, oats, barley, prairie hay and peanuts- provided a good income for farmers as long as the weather cooperated and the insects weren’t too greedy.
Even the earliest newspapers are filled with crop reports:
The Caddo Star
July 27, 1876
The wheat crop of the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations is nearly all threshed and the average yield is but small- 7 or 8 bushels per acres, though the quality, as a general rule is good. Marchand & Fenlon shipped the first car load of wheat from Caddo this year.
A history of Caddo notes that in 1908: “The records in the freight department of M.K.T. railroad company show that Caddo shipped each year more car loads of agriculture products than any other point in Oklahoma.” A booklet produced that year by the Caddo Commercial Club described the farming conditions in the county: “For twenty-five miles in every direction from Caddo extends a gently rolling prairie that for fertility and productiveness has no equal in Oklahoma. The prairie will produce as much corn as the Wabash bottoms, more wheat than the prairies of the Dakotas, and as much cotton as the delta of the Mississippi. There is in the United States no tract of land of equal fertility that will produce so great a variety of crops.”
So what happened to the abundant crops of fruits and vegetables? Why were the cotton fields surrendered to the prairie? Why do herds of cattle now graze where corn once stood tall? Like most stories of change, it’s complicated. And while I admit that I don’t have the knowledge or experience to fully understand all of the political, financial, and cultural reasons for the current state of Bryan County agriculture, I can surmise from research that four major factors contributed to the demise of crop farming: weather, insects, soil depletion, and market changes.
Farmers have always been at the mercy of the weather, but most of those who settled in Indian Territory were far more familiar with the challenges of flooding and snow than the ravages of drought. How to deal with dry weather was a frequent topic in the local papers, especially the Independent Farmer. State crop reports or articles about local harvests often included the words “on account of the drought”. This item from the 1874 Caddo Star sums up the fate of the farmer: “The weather continues dry with no predicted rain at this writing. Ten days more of such weather will tell the tale for the corn crop in this vicinity. Up to a week ago a better prospect was never seen; now the outlook is anything but flattering. Last year we had almost an entire failure, and for such to be the case now would be hard indeed. Well, all we can do is to hope for the best and ‘stare fate in the face’”.
Farmers often took samples of their crop to the Caddo Herald editor to either brag about their success or bemoan their impending ruin. In 1901 W. P. Booker showed off some “fine early corn which the drought did not injure”. He had sixteen acres and predicted that it would produce about thirty-five bushels to the acre. A “protracted drought” of six weeks damaged much of the corn crop of 1923, but rains came in time to revive the suffering cotton. Of course no one was prepared for the drought years of the thirties, which caused many farmers to flee to other states and abandon their depleted land. In 1935 there were just over 200,000 farms in Oklahoma. More droughts occurred in the fifties and by 1980 that number had dwindled to 72,000. However, many of the new farms were twice as large as the previous average of 160 acres.
From the moment Oklahoma was settled many of the new residents began to grow the crop they knew best: cotton.
Mustang Enterprise (Mustang, OK)
July 22, 1910
(cotton) In 1896 on 1,981,000 acres, Oklahoma raised 900,000 bales which was the largest yield per acre produced of any state in the union…
Every crop grown in Bryan County had its pros and cons, but perhaps the riskiest was cotton, thanks to its dual adversaries – weather and the boll weevil. It would take three newspaper articles to begin to explain all of the problems caused by “America’s most destructive agricultural pest”, but it bears mentioning here that by 1922 the little beetle had infested the entire Southern cotton belt. In the winter of 1921 a professor from Oklahoma A & M in Stillwater came down to Durant to set up a “boll weevil cage” to help area farmers decide whether they could even attempt to plant a crop the following spring. Cotton continued to have its ups and downs as a cash crop and in 1930 Oklahoma had 1,310 public gins, 132 of which were cooperative gins. The number of gins in Bryan County varied from year to year because of prices and fires, which were common in the gins. In 1959 the county had five gins- two in Caddo, two in Durant, and one in Kenefic.
If cotton was the king of the crops, corn was certainly the queen. In 1915 Oklahoma produced 123,000,000 bushels, the largest crop in the state’s short history. By 1923 Bryan County again boasted one of the biggest corn crops in the state. For several years Caddo celebrated its abundant annual harvest with a Corn Carnival that attracted thousands of visitors to the community each August. The whole town decorated stores, floats, and vehicles with corn and engaged in a three-day carnival of activities.
Even in good years, corn and other fruit and vegetable crops still presented a problem that other crops did not: storage. Storage time varied with each crop and was quite short for some. Although some fruits and vegetables were sold directly to local customers and canneries, most were shipped to Kansas, Texas, and other states. The Bryan County Fruit and Truck Grower’s Association was organized at Bokchito in 1923. Nineteen farmers joined together in hopes of marketing their crops, especially potatoes, more successfully. In 1924 they shipped seven car loads of strawberries to OKC, Wichita, and Omaha. In 1943 over forty car loads of potatoes were shipped by the Bryan County Potato Growers Association. But the problem of a ready market persisted. A 1949 article lamented the fate of two Mead farmers. Their crops of watermelons, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes had nowhere to go. “The problem still remains – what to do with products that could be produced in more abundance in Bryan County. Markets…we need markets.” At that time Bokchito was harvesting 300 bushels of cucumbers per day and sending them to Garland, Texas. Idabel still had a cannery that was accepting produce.
Crop diversity was always encouraged as the solution to the dual problems of soil depletion and poor harvests. One year the weather might destroy the cotton crop, but deal gently with corn. Another year oats might save the family farm. In 1927 wheat was hardly more than a memory due to repeated low production. The paper’s editor bluntly reported that “Cotton is out of the question. The weevils have eaten this crop … not much promise can be held out for a crop next year.” Most farmers managed to avoid starvation by raising chickens, potatoes, produce, and feed grains for their cows and hogs. However, a “cash crop” of some kind was required to pay the mortgage and taxes, and several were tried over the years.
The Caddo Herald
February 27, 1921
To Try Broom Corn as Money Farm Crop
Mr. Ward and Mr. Callahan were in Caddo Monday and announced that they would be back here Saturday, March 7th at Kenefick from 9 until 1:30 and at Caddo from 2 until 5 to make contracts for buying whatever broom corn raised in this section.
Mr. Odil raised it here for 30 years, but the trouble is it has to have a ready market. These men represent factories and are contracting to pay $90 a ton for the corn at harvest time, regardless of what the market may be … This part of the country certainly needs some other crop besides cotton and oats for a money crop.
Farmers also sought improvement with better seed, terracing, crop rotation, and cooperation. In 1931 fifty county farmers joined together as the “Bryan County Crops Improvement Association” and met with County Agent G. M. Parker to discuss a “pure seed program” for the county. The 1932 state crop report listed cotton, corn, wheat, oats, barley, grain sorghum, hay, potatoes, apples, peaches, pears, grapes, and legumes as the primary crops.
By 1997 over half of the farms in Oklahoma were operated by people who listed their main occupation as “something other than farming.” Studies have shown that the smaller plots of land owned by these part-time, family, and hobby farmers is typically more profitable as pasture than cropland. And pasture land can be shared with deer, which adds recreation and an additional food source. Certainly large farms are still raising grains, cotton, and corn in the state but the majority of farmers in Bryan County seem to have opted for cattle and other livestock. Cantaloupes, watermelons, strawberries, cucumbers, potatoes and other traditional “truck” crops have been relegated to the garden. However, no matter what tourists see when they drive through the area, the land remains fertile and the spirit of the farmer remains strong.
Mary E. Maurer has previously published historical features in the Democrat.