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It's hard to imagine any state having a rougher period than Arkansas had from 1927-60. Growth slowed due to a series of disasters--the Great Flood of 1927, the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, the Great Drought of 1930-31 and the Great Flood of 1937. Those events were followed by the rapid mechanization of agriculture, which forced former sharecroppers and tenant farmers to leave the state in search of work in the automobile and steel factories of the Upper Midwest. Throw in the Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis of 1957, along with the closing of the Little Rock public schools in 1958-59, and you have a bleak three decades for Arkansas.

Arkansas' population fell from 1,949,387 residents in the 1940 census to 1,786,272 residents in the 1960 census. From a percentage standpoint, it was the largest population loss in the country during that 20-year period.

In Sunday's column, I related how I was asked to deliver a speech about Arkansas to the board of directors of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. I came up with the title "A State of Disaster." If you distill the state's history down to its major elements, those elements are a series of natural and man-made disasters that limited population and wage growth.

I began Sunday's column with the natural disaster that was the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-12, which slowed settlement significantly. The other great setback of the 19th century was a man-made disaster: The decision to secede from the Union in 1861. Arkansas was a wild, often lawless place for much of the 19th century, a state where education wasn't a priority.

The state started making strides after Reconstruction as its population soared from 484,471 residents in the 1870 census to 1,752,204 residents in the 1920 census (about the same as it would be 40 years later in 1960). The first big blow of the 20th century came in 1927. April of that year saw record rainfall.

Arkansas historian Nancy Hendricks writes: "There was no place for the water to go because the ground was saturated. Lakes, rivers and streambeds were full. The swollen Mississippi River backed up into the Arkansas, White and St. Francis rivers. The White even ran backward at one point as torrents rushed into it from the Mississippi. Levees couldn't hold with every one between Fort Smith and Little Rock failing under the enormous surge of water. ... Homes and stores stood for months in six to 30 feet of murky water. Dead animals floated everywhere. Rich Arkansas farmland was covered in sand, coated in mud or simply washed away, still bearing shoots from spring planting. The worst destruction was in Arkansas. In some places, the Mississippi River was 60 miles wide. Almost twice as much farmland was flooded in Arkansas as in Mississippi and Louisiana combined."

The September 1927 issue of National Geographic focused on the flood at Arkansas City in Desha County. The story described how streets that were dusty at noon were inundated by 2 p.m. with "mules drowning on Main Street faster than people could unhitch them from wagons."

It wouldn't stop raining in 1927. It wouldn't rain at all for much of 1930-31. By that point, a lot of Arkansas farmers were giving up and moving elsewhere.

"The severest drought centered upon eight Southern states, with Arkansas 16 percent worse than the other states based on weather statistics," writes John Spurgeon for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "Agrarian blight became a precursor to corollary social, political and disaster relief issues, which escalated and attracted national attention. The devastating flood of 1927, financial upheaval from the 1929 stock market crash and killer tornadoes preceded the drought that struck Arkansas in the spring of 1930. Rainfall during June and July 1930 was the lowest on record--35 percent below rainfall in 1929. July temperatures, typically in the 90s, reached 107 degrees. By Aug. 2, Little Rock had seen 71 consecutive rainless days. August temperatures peaked at 113 degrees with successive 110-degree days."

Cotton prices went from an average of 16.79 cents a pound in 1929 to 9.46 cents a pound in 1930 to 5.66 cents a pound in 1931. The average yield in 1928 was six bales per 20 acres. That was down to two bales by 1930.

Then came the 1937 flood. Spurgeon writes: "Arkansas' floodwaters came from tributary streams no longer able to drain effectively due to the cresting Mississippi River. Bayou de View as well as the Black, Cache, L'Anguille, Little Red, Spring, Strawberry, St. Francis, Tyronza and White rivers spilled across agricultural terrain. ... The largely rural Delta saw the spread of the floodwaters into tenants' and sharecroppers' homes and communities already struggling from the effects of drought, the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl."

That was followed by a 20-year period of mechanization that cost most of those sharecroppers and tenant farmers their jobs. In 1940, sharecroppers and tenant farmers cultivated more than 60 percent of the farmland in the state, and more than 90 percent of them used horses or mules. By 1964, there were so few of them using horses and mules that the federal government no longer collected such data. Arkansas was changing. A new governor, Orval Faubus, took office in January 1955 and began focusing on replacing the lost farm jobs with industrial work. Faubus' efforts in that sector and his man-made disaster will be the focus of Saturday's column.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 01/09/2019

Print Headline: REX NELSON: A bleak three decades

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