A reminder of the good old days at the Plantation Agriculture Museum
SCOTT “A century ago, five out of six Arkansans lived in rural areas. Today, the state’s rural population has fallen to two in five. This continued decline lends an aura of nostalgia to the Plantation Agriculture Museum.
Operated as a state park in Scott, 15 miles southeast of downtown Little Rock, the museum’s three buildings along with outdoor exhibits recall a time sometimes more fondly than its realities have always been. . Exhibits focus on growing cotton, Arkansas’ No. 1 crop for acres planted in 1920 and fourth today behind soybeans, rice, and corn.
Tours begin in the former Steele-Dortch General Store, where exhibits show old-fashioned cotton growing “from field to gin.” Before mechanization took hold in the 1940s, the annual rhythm of plowing, planting, growing and picking required intensive human labor, much of it tedious and some of it exhausting.
On the grounds, two large buildings provide insight into cotton processing. The Dortch Gin building contains a restored ginning system as well as photographs showing how it all worked. Seed Warehouse No. 5, from which processed cotton was loaded for shipment, entered through the boxcars of the Cotton Belt Railway.
In prewar Arkansas, most plantation workers were owned by their owners, like mules and horses. A panel reports that the 1860 US census, on the eve of the Civil War, counted 111,115 slaves in Arkansas. This represented 26% of the state’s population, with slaves being the majority in some Delta counties.
Sharecropping mostly replaced slavery after 1865, but land conditions remained onerous. Pickers, in black and white, described their working hours as ‘can to can’t’ – from when they could see the sun for the first time at dawn to when they couldn’t at sunset. Cotton picking was particularly strenuous, with manual labor only being replaced by machines in the 1940s and 1950s.
Johnny Cash, born in 1932 to sharecroppers in Cleveland County, described the pain of picking cotton in his 2003 autobiography:
“The work exhausted you, hurt your back badly and cut your hands. That’s what I hated the most. The capsules were sharp, and unless you really concentrated when you grabbed them, they had you .After a week or two, your fingers were covered in small red sores, some of which were quite painful.”
Cotton became the main cash crop on Southern Plains farms after Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793. His device extracted unwanted seeds from picked cotton, a vital task that had previously been incredibly slow. The museum houses a small model gin that visitors can operate by turning a crank.
Women sometimes worked in the cotton fields, mostly picking. But exhibits in a second gallery in the museum show that their endless toil revolved around household chores.
“A Woman’s Work Is Never Done” focuses on the family’s laundry, which could take an entire day (often Mondays) before the electricity reached rural Arkansas. It features washboards, laundry tubs and wringers – necessities then, but now antique curios.
A few museum panels add a touch of whimsy. One lists the amount of products that can be made from a standard 500 pound bale of cotton. The most striking sum is the money: 313,600 $100 bills (containing 75% cotton and the rest linen). Other amounts include 215 pairs of jeans, 1,217 T-shirts, 8,347 handkerchiefs. That last item is a lot to sneeze at.
Museum of Plantation Agriculture
- Location: At the junction of US 165 and Arkansas 161 in Scott
- Hours: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.
- Admission: Free, paying for some guided tours and other activities.
- Information: ArkansasStateParks.com or call (501) 961-1409.