Mississippi – Jackson: Crop Dusters, Cotton and Country

Mississippi is such a rural state that it seems fitting that we started our tour of Jackson with a visit to the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum, which is just four miles from the Capitol Building.  Back in 1939 Jim Buck Ross, the Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce, “recognized a need for the preservation of our culture and heritage in a tangible way and began collecting artifacts, organizing scholars, and laying the ground work for a museum” (Museum Guide).    The result of that vision is a 39-acre complex that shares the history of farming and forestry in Mississippi. 

Within the huge museum building the story begins with clearing the land and processing the lumber for building homes, barns, fences and other necessary structures.  Wood was also the basic fuel used for heating and cooking.  Hand tools of all description show what early lumbermen used to cut the pine, cypress and hardwoods out of the local forests.  Elsewhere on the property, a sawmill with a large circular-blade saw shows how enormous logs were turned from logs into usable boards.   

Excellent displays and signage introduced us to the history of farming and crops in this area.  The earliest farming efforts had gone into tobacco until a crash in that market took out the demand.  After this farmers turned to cultivating indigo until a blight struck and decimated that crop.  In 1795, Eli Whitney’s introduction of the cotton gin suddenly made cotton a viable crop and farmers quickly embraced it for large-scale cultivation.

One of the first things we learned about cotton is that there are great challenges to growing this crop.  Different kinds of cotton have been grown in Mississippi since the early 1700s, but every variety had shortcomings and some of them were susceptible to rot.  After long years of experimentation, farmers in this region crossed several stains of cotton to produce a plant that has long fibers, is rot resistant and is easy to pick.  By the late 1830s this hybrid, known as Petit Gulf Cotton, made Mississippi the major breeder and supplier of this superior new plant.

The arrival of railroads gave farmers the ability to move their crops to market and to receive needed supplies.    An enormous and detailed model train exhibit and recreated loading dock of the “Crystal Springs Station” underscore the importance and impact railroads had on remote country communities. 

Scores of vehicles inside the museum and on the grounds give a clue as to the many styles of trucks farmers used to get their crops to market. 

No Mississippi farm story would be complete without mention of crop dusting aircraft, equipment and pilots.  A portion of the museum is dedicated to the National Agricultural Aviation Museum.  This unique museum tells the story of the pilots and the planes that pioneered crop dusting the 1920s and the evolution of their planes and practices over the years. 

After WWII the U.S. military sold off many of its planes.  This reconditioned Boeing-Stearman had canisters added under its wings and other necessary equipment installed to give the plane new life as a crop duster.  A modified red and white 1947 Piper Cub had its engine size increased so it could carry up to a thousand pound loads.  This petit workhorse put in over 6,000 flight hours in the course of its agricultural career. 

But the exhibit wasn’t just about the planes…we also learned about the brave and talented men and woman who took these planes into the sky.  Crop dusting is one of the most difficult forms of flying.  Pilots have to make even and low runs over the fields with steep descents and sudden ascents to avoid houses, barns, trees, power lines and an ever-growing number of  communication towers and wind turbines.   

After spending time inside the main museum building, we walked over to the rustic structure that houses the Fitzgerald Collection.   Frank Stanley and Erva Mae Fitzgerald were passionate collectors who roamed the state of Mississippi gathering an impressive collection of artifacts.  They amassed more than 17,500 Native American artifacts with most of them coming from the Mississippi Delta area.  

The Fitzgeralds also focused on regional Americana, so the building is full of farm tools, antique guns and other once-useful items for rural residents.  One of the displays could be considered pure kitsch…a collection of over 7,000 pencils.  How many people still use and value a wooden pencil or even understand the important role it has played?  It was exciting to see a representative sample of how many people, businesses and manufacturers had custom pencils created to help market their product or service.   

As a budding collector, I was particularly drawn to their pencil collection because I have a very modest collection of advertising pencil clips.  I’ll bet if I dug around in the Fitzgerald’s case I’d find a few of those tucked in as well.

Next we went off to wander the streets of the 1920s-era town the museum has created.  It is interesting to see what businesses and institutions were essential for rural people.  How different life was when a general store, print shop, blacksmith shop, doctor’s office, church, school house, Masonic lodge and filing station could satisfy most farm families’ needs. 

Just beyond town is the Fortenberry-Parkman Farm, and on the way we paused to look at sheds full of retired farm machinery and equipment.  One of my favorite pieces of equipment is this old grist mill that came from author William Faulkner’s family farm near Oxford, Mississippi.  The mill was used for grinding the family’s corn meal and grits.  

The Fortenberry-Parkman Farm, with its main house and eleven other buildings, is a story of hard work and survival.  The house started as a one-room cabin built by James Fortenberry in 1850, but he joined the Confederate Army and died on a march to Richmond in 1863, leaving behind a wife, Amelia, and Melvina, their only child.  In 1865 Amelia remarried and continued living on the farm with her new husband, Jasper Parkman.  Over the years the farm, the family and the house grew.  They added a kitchen and dining room to the original cabin and enclosed sections of the porch for additional bedrooms.  Before the buildings were moved to the museum grounds, these structures were in active use for well over one hundred years. 

My favorite part of the museum is the Bisland Cotton Gin that was built in 1892 near Nachez and was in operation until 1954.  The original two-story building was too badly deteriorated to be moved, but the replacement structure feels wonderfully authentic with its rustic, weathered boards and creaking floors.  The original equipment, built by the Gullett Gin Company, Amite, Louisiana, has been restored to working condition and my only regret is that we were not visiting on a day when we could have seen the gin in action. 

The museum, with its extensive and accessible collections, depicts such a vivid picture of life in rural Mississippi that we felt like we had spent a day visiting kin in the country, but now it was time for us to see the sights awaiting us in the capitol city of Jackson. 

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