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Hall, South begged for a ‘bale-out’ before World War I

POSTED: April 26, 2009 1:00 a.m.

Federal "bailouts" of financial institutions, carmakers or others generate considerable heat across the country, but especially in the South.

Not so in the years leading up to World War I. Southerners pleaded passionately for a "bailout," or "bale-out," for cotton farmers. There were similarities to today's economic crisis: a little greed mixed with some poor decisions, leading to overproduction.

otton farming had been profitable, Southern farmers were prodded to plant more acreage, and the market became flooded. Additionally, the impending war and the actions of some European nations cut into American exports.

Southern congressmen, led by Sen. Hoke Smith of Georgia, pushed President Woodrow Wilson for federal assistance, hoping the government would bail out the distressed farmers of the region. Cotton prices had fallen to as low as 6 cents a pound.

Though the president was opposed to a complete bailout, he and Congress did throw out some lifelines. Hall and other North Georgia counties at the time were big cotton producers. They were major players in the "Buy a Bale" movement, which sought ordinary citizens to pay 10 cents a pound for a bale of cotton to get farmers out of their hole. The idea was if they bought a bale for, say, $30, and held it, they could later sell it for $50.

Wilson personally helped the campaign by buying some bales himself. New York hotels displayed bales of cotton in their lobbies to promote the drive, which also was called "Save the South."

The crisis even inspired a Brenau College alumna, Eloise Ivey Davidson, to write a script for the movie, "Buy a Bale." Mrs. Davidson, who had written several movies, played a leading role in the film, which showed in Gainesville's Alamo Theater and other theaters across the country.

Georgia Gov. John Slaton's answer to the crisis was reducing cotton acreage in half to force the price of cotton up. Meetings were held in Hall County to discuss the proposal, which asked farmers to plant crops other than cotton. Some Hall Countians wanted the governor to call a special session of the legislature to make the plan mandatory. But H.H. Perry was among those opposed to such a law.

In supporting Gov. Slaton's idea to reduce cotton acreage, E.S. Edge of Hall County pointed to one farmer's 90 bushels of peas that sold in Gainesville for more than $2 a bushel, a profit of more than $1.25 per bushel.

Likewise, J.W. Brown quit raising cotton altogether and planted instead beans, corn, wheat and oats and raised hogs and cattle. "Cotton was so tricky I quit fooling with it," he told the Gainesville News.

Others turned to poultry farming, and watermelons became a profitable crop in Hall County. Groups formed to urge farmers to raise more livestock. Even the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce got into the act by paying for thoroughbred bulls to be placed in different sections of the county. The chamber also sponsored meetings for farmers to hear talks by experts on cattle-raising and the breeds that would adapt to Hall and surrounding counties.

One college professor suggested livestock would never replace cotton as a major player in the county's agriculture, but would be only a stop-gap measure. Another speaker at a rally in Gainesville compared the area around Hall County to the hills of Scotland and England, where livestock thrived.

A side benefit, said one, would be enriching the county's soil as "no fertilizer being equal to that of the stable."

Hall County did turn to other crops and livestock to diversify its agriculture. But when World War I began, demand improved for cotton products, therefore raw cotton, and prices rose again. Perhaps the partial federal "bailout" helped, as did the Buy-a-Bale campaign for the short term.

But cotton continued to be a major crop for most North Georgia farms. Snow-white fields filled with the fluffy bolls were as much a part of the picturesque countryside in fall as the colorful hardwood forests. After crops came in, bales of cotton would line the streets of the area's communities.

The boll weevil infestation in the 1920s was followed by the Great Depression, which set cotton back again. Poultry took over in a big way in the 1940s and '50s, cotton production dwindled as demand decreased, and farmers never looked back.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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