Gene: “My granddad walked here from Water Valley driving a few cows. It was probably just after the year 1900. His brother bought a little piece of land on the Sunflower River and told my granddad to come down. They cleared the land with a chopping ax and a handsaw. Granddad was a single man when arrived. He married a widow who had five kids. Then they had two more together. My dad was one of them. He was born in 1911. I was born in the old house under the pecan trees on Straight Bayou. People say we live out in the sticks, but this is where we were born and raised. We don’t know anything different.
My grandfather bought about 40 acres of land for a quarter an acre. My dad asked why he didn’t buy more. Granddad said, ‘There weren’t any more quarters.’ When dad got old enough he bought his own land. He eventually had about 2200 acres. My three brothers and I farmed with him. Our families lived, went to church and worked together. Our wives helped us do everything. They cleared the land and drove tractors. We grew soybeans, corn, wheat, cotton, and catfish. When you have land and work it all of your life, it means something to you. It’s part of your body.
We have Indian mounds on our land and have found many arrowheads. The mounds are the highest ground around. My dad and grandfather stayed on the mounds during the flood of 1927. Other family members stayed in boxcars in Midnight.
When dad retired, we divided the farm into 550-acre lots and drew numbers to divide the lots. We did it as fair as we could. After we divided the place up, my brother and I built catfish ponds about 2000. That was a big mistake. The price of catfish bottomed out while we built. The price stayed down for years. It broke the small farmers. We were one of them. We went into debt and sold much of our land to pay it off. The bank foreclosed on my brother’s place. They sold it on the courthouse square in Rolling Fork.
The average farmer puts up his land, equipment and crops for collateral to sign for a bank loan. We put our lives up for collateral every year. Then we prayed to the Lord for rain and to keep the crops alive. We had a decent year pretty regularly. We were happy with breaking even.
We retired after we went broke. Most of the farmers I came up with got out. Farming changed so much in our lifetime.”
Carolyn: “I was the oldest of four daughters and grew up on Straight Bayou a few miles from here. My parents worked from daylight to dark away from home. I was the oldest and learned how to cook and take care of my sisters. I was raised on homemade buttered biscuits and syrup made of sugar and water. Gene and I went to the same church. He told me he was going to marry me on account of my cornbread. We’ve been married for almost 55 years.
I wouldn’t wish raising catfish on my enemy. That was a hard life. I checked the ponds at night with my pistol, my .308 rifle and my dog. People tried to steal fish from us. The mosquitoes were terrible. After we lost the ponds and went broke, I started working at the hospital in Yazoo City taking care of the doctors and nurses.
My daddy made a mean fisherman out of me. I love to hunt and fish. I can clean, butcher and cook anything. We’ve always eaten squirrels, deer, frogs and raccoons. We can live off the land. My favorite is to catch an alligator gar to make gar and gravy. Gar is the best fish in the water. They have beautiful white tenderloins. I have trophies for my duck gumbo. I use the whole duck–bone, skin and all. I make duck enchiladas and duck dressing. When you cook something you have to start with something good. I tell my kids to make sure the cornbread is good before making dressing, or you’re going to have lousy dressing.
I love it out here. I couldn’t live anywhere else. I couldn’t survive in town. But you have to watch out for cottonmouths. In the Mississippi Delta, they are aggressive. They’ll come to you to bite you.
My granddaughter asked why we don’t sell more of our land to live better. I told her we’ve already lived and had a good life. We’re not going to sell any more land because we’ll never get it back. Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren are our heart. They’re getting their forty acres. We raised our grandkids while our daughter worked and went to school. We’re doing without today so the next generations of our family will always have this land.”