TENNESSEE'S FIRST AGRICULTURAL BUREAU ORGANIZED UNDER GOV. ANDREW JOHNSON; FAIR HELD FOLLOWING YEAR
By Dallas Bogan
Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan. This article was published in the LaFollette Press.
Agriculture and commerce have been Tennessee's exceptional
background for cultural substance. During prehistoric times the region
supported an agricultural people, the Mound Builders. The culture of
these people, like the Mayas of Central America, was based upon the
staple crop, maize. Archaeologists have discovered and unearthed their
granaries and the baskets of corn, which they buried with their dead.
Many years later the Cherokee and Chickasaw populated
the old village sites of the Mound builders, and cultivated the same
cornfields in much the same manner.
The white hunters and trappers arrived in the region
in the early 18th century occasionally doing irrelevant farming during
the summer months. Small areas of ground were cleared in the makeshift
patches that the Indians had farmed before them. Seeds, which they had
bartered from the Indians, were planted and months later the pioneer
returned to harvest the crops and thus provided themselves with corn
and vegetables to go with their venison and bear meat.
About 1769 farmers from backwoods Virginia and
Carolina began crossing the mountains to settle the fertile lands described
by the hunters and trappers in present Tennessee. Their farms were at
first and almost entirely self-sufficient. Plows, hoes and crude homemade
implements were fashioned by the pioneer. Just about every necessity
was either grown on the site or made from materials from the surrounding
hills and forests. This self-sufficiency continued to be a characteristic
of small farmers in the State for generations and still continues to
From the beginning, corn was the chief crop because
it was easily cultivated and because its growth was encouraging to hog
raising. Subsequently, Tennessee's first agricultural exports were bacon,
lard, and corn whisky. All these products were shipped and marketed
to New Orleans, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Wheat and tobacco were
soon an addition to the list of money crops and were exported in small
quantities. Crops produced for home consumption included cotton, hemp,
flax, indigo, timothy hay, and vegetables.
East Tennessee is a high plateau area broken by
countless narrow valleys and steep ridges making the size of the farms
small. It was discovered that Tennessee wheat matured early enough to
be shipped to eastern markets ahead of the northern crop - and so -
farmers turned to wholesale wheat growing. Even East Tennessee joined
the crop market. However, through over-production, the wheat market
collapsed and never regained its early lead as a wheat growing region
Farmers in East Tennessee, except for the fertile
valley of the Tennessee River, returned to their pioneer type of small
subsistence farms. However, in Middle Tennessee, the farmers held on
to the system of deliberate farming and its large profits. Tobacco and
fruit crops were raised as cash crops. Others turned to stock raising
and dairying on the bluegrass pasture lands of the Central Basin where
the mild climate lessened feeding costs.
Arabian horses were imported as early as 1825 and
Middle Tennessee became well known for breeding them. There was also
an increasing demand for the brawny mule.
By 1810 improvements in the cotton gin and spinning
machinery had created a considerable demand for cotton. Though some
cotton was grown in East Tennessee, its quality was poor and the boom
affected the section very little. All three divisions were laid out
- small continued existence farms in the east; dairy cattle, livestock
raising, tobacco, and truck farming in the central basin; and large
scale cotton production in the west. Tennessee, with all its expertise,
crossed the threshold of an agricultural prosperity that continued until
the Civil War era.
The State's first agricultural bureau was organized with Governor Andrew
Johnson as president; the following year the first fair was opened.
Prior to this event, Tennessee farmers received international fame at
the Great Exhibition in London. The 1860 Tennessee census displayed
some 82,000 farms under cultivation, with nearly seven million acres,
valued at 340 million dollars.
Four years of civil war practically erased the
development of three-quarters of a century of expertise and toil. Not
until about 40 years later were the farm rates restored. The Reconstruction
period found the 'farm occupancy' having its beginnings in the State.
Farmers, who were forced to borrow to hold onto their farms, were found
delinquent in their payments to the bank. At this time no other means
of livelihood were created and so they became tenant on the farms they
once owned. Most of the slaves that had been freed also became tenants.
The sharp decline in the size of the farm was caused
by land sales simply to raise funds for operating expenses. The 1860
average of 251 acres declined by 1900 to 91. The great depression of
1929 caused additional reductions. The average farm size, according
to a 1935 census, diminished to 73 acres.
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