One hot, dusty spring morning more than 80 years ago, a man grappled with a mule and a plow in a tough, buckshot cotton field in Coahoma County, Miss. At times, the plowman was able to synchronize the animal’s muscle with his own and tussle up a straight row.
It was impossible to keep the mule in line for very long.
But that particular year, it really didn’t matter. Spring brought one of the most destructive river floods in U.S. history. By the end of April 1927, the Mississippi River covered over a million acres of land. Five-hundred people died and thousands upon thousands of people were displaced.
When the waters finally receded, the cotton field was covered by a thick layer of sediment. The handiwork of the unknown plowman was lost forever.
Or so it seemed.
Fast forward to this past spring when floodwaters from the Great Flood of 2011 swept away the 5 feet of topsoil that the 1927 flood had deposited on the field. Like washing away a layer of mud from the bottom of an old pair of boots, the floodwaters revealed once again the treads of the old field, perfectly preserved sets of ancient mule tracks and old cotton rows.
Bowen Flowers and Pete Hunter, two Coahoma County cotton producers, were lucky enough to have seen the field while hunting this spring. Flowers took a few pictures on his iPhone. “You can actually see where the mule tracks were when they were rowing it up,” said Flowers, who is serving as the president of the Delta Council this year. “It was like they were petrified.”
“The rows were extremely crooked like they are when they’re put up by mules,” Hunter said.
Hunter believes the old cotton field was likely flooded in 1927. So does Charles Camillo, a historian with the Mississippi River Commission.
“In the 1930s, we did a large channel improvement on the river from Memphis to around Natchez,” Camillo said. “There was a floodway planned for the west bank of the Mississippi River similar to the one at Birds-Point, New Madrid (south of Cairo, Ill.), only much larger.
“There was bitter resistance and political pressure against getting the easements. So the Corps of Engineers essentially did a channel rectification. There were a lot of cutoffs and channel realignments which necessitated moving levees around.”
Those improvements in the 1930s helped confine the 1937 flood to a smaller area than the 1927 flood, according to Camillo. “We had to operate Birds Point that year (1937), but once you got down to the mouth of the Arkansas River, the flood kind of petered out because of the channel realignment, which had lowered flood stages by 10 to 12 feet. Most of the damage from the 1937 flood was limited to between Cairo, Ill., and Memphis.”
There have been other examples of floods becoming accidental archeologists, noted Hunter. Like when the 1973 flood revealed the site of the old town of Chritton, Miss., which had also been covered in the 1927 flood. “You could see where the houses were, old rows from cotton fields and old stumps from trees taken down by an ax.”
On another more recent occasion, about a mile from the cotton field that was exposed in 2011, “there was a place where water boiled over the road and a levee and dug a deep hole about the size of two pickup trucks. There were old cotton rows down in the bottom of that hole,” Hunter said.
A set of graves Hunter has seen on high ground around old Chritton indicate just how long ago the area was settled. “The graves were Sarah and Robert Robson, who were the parents of George Robson who farmed some of that land and sold firewood to boats on the river,” Hunter said. “Sarah and Robert were born before the American Revolution and died before the Civil War.”
A point on the Mississippi River called Robson Towhead, was named for the family, who probably moved into the area in the early 1800s.
These pieces of history are fleeting, however. Hunter says what’s left of Chritton, which had a population of around 250 in its heyday, disappeared forever during construction of a levee between 1973 and 1975. “They used dirt from the community to build the levee,” he said. “You probably couldn’t find any artifacts from that old community anymore.”
Hunter, who manages Stovall Farms in Coahoma County, has a keen interest in the history of the river and the region, and notes that much of it is packed away in old books, newspapers and people’s memories, including his own. Stovall Farms itself is well-known because of its association with blues musician Muddy Waters, who lived on the property for a while.
“We can’t take the history of the Delta way back like they can in Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C.,” Hunter said. “But it’s good history. Most of our ancestors who settled in the farming community were doing one of two things. They had either left home seeking their fortune, or they were running from somebody.”
Back then, “the law of farming was to plant the food to feed people first,” Hunter said. “The second thing you did was to plant the food to feed your animals. The last thing you did was to plant your cash crop.”
So who was the farmer whose cotton field was revealed by this spring’s floodwaters? Historical documents from the early 1900s indicate that a sawmill, Fair-Chritton Lumber Co., operated near a river landing in Chritton, and had a lease on R. N. McWilliams Plantation.
That falls in line with Hunter’s memory of Gary McWilliams, Sr., a farmer in the area who passed away in Hunter’s lifetime. “He had his headquarters there in Chritton. I assume the field uncovered this spring may be some of the land that he was farming.”
Was Gary McWilliams behind the plow that day in 1927, the year New York Yankee slugger Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs? Who knows? But within weeks of when the old cotton field emerged from the past, it was gone again, this time for good, said Flowers. “The levee had broken right where the field was. So between the rains and having to rework to ground to build a new levee, it’s gone, washed away.”