Randolph County Agriculture: Wheat

Harvesting Wheat with a Cradle, Southeast Randolph County, circa 1900

Harvesting Wheat with a Cradle, Southeast Randolph County, circa 1900

I’ve promised various people for years that I’d write up some of the history of agriculture in Randolph County.  It’s one of my favorite topics, but like all of them, I find a bit and a piece here and there that add up over the course of time to something locally unique.  As each separate element is part of a larger whole, that adds richness and complexity to the individual part, sometimes it is hard to sit down and write about the pieces before the big picture takes shape.

Randolph County never followed the plantation agricultural system of the eastern part of the state and the Deep South.  The hilly, rocky terrain broken up by numerous small rivers and creeks precluded the assembly of large open flat fields, and the Quaker and German cultural heritage of the Piedmont did not support the ownership of the slave labor required to profitably grow cotton.

The last census of slavery in the United States in 1860 included 393,975 named persons holding 3,950,546 unnamed slaves, or an average of about 10 slaves per holder.  One American citizen out of 70 was a slaveholder, with an average of about 10 slaves per holder.  The year before the war that ended the practice, slaveholders of 200 or more slaves, (constituting less than 1 % of the total number of slaveholders, or 1 out of every 7,000 free persons), held 20-30% of the total number of slaves in the U.S.

One of the largest American slaveholders, Joshua Ward of Georgetown, SC, owned more than 1,100 enslaved African workers.  This was not the case in Piedmont North Carolina.  In Guilford County just 22 citizens owned more than 20 slaves, with only one owning more than one hundred (James T. Morehead- 107), and the next largest owning just 53.[i] In Randolph in 1860, just 11 persons owned 20 or more slaves, with the largest, General Alexander Gray of Trinity, owning 104.[ii]  Gray (1768-1864), a General in the War of 1812, was probably the largest slaveholder in both counties before he began distributing slave families among his children as they married and came of age.  In keeping with Randolph County’s contrarian nature, Gray was also a member in good standing of the Manumission and Colonization Society, a slave emancipation group, which met in his new barn in 1817.[iii]

Benjamin Swaim, writing in the local newspaper The Southern Citizen in 1839, noted that “our provisions are mostly of the domestic kind- plenty of cheese, Butter and Milk, from the cool recesses of the Dairy.”[iv]  Fred Burgess of Ramseur noted in 1920 that only 10% of the county’s agricultural production was from non-food crops. [v]  In 1933, County Farm Agent E.S. Millsaps reported that those non-food crops consisted of 3,086 acres of tobacco and 1,403 acres of cotton—just 6% (4,489 acres) of the 76,263 total acres cultivated in the county’s 4,000 farms.[vi]

Millsaps went on to say, “Randolph is one of twenty North Carolina counties that raise wheat on a commercial basis.  The crop in Randolph, however, is not primarily commercial, being raised chiefly for the making of flour and corn meal for family use.  In 1933 the county had 16,373 acres sown in the grain, each acre yielding an average of twelve bushels, bringing the total crop to 196.500 bushels.   Sold on the average for $1.03 per bushel the crop had a total value of $202,095.00, or a value of $12.36 per acre.”[vii]

Wheat and corn had been the region’s primary crops even before the county itself was formed in 1779.  Even as late as 1894, the county still had what apparently was the largest number of water-powered grist mills in the state- more than 90. [viii]  Wheat and corn production required grist mills to make the raw product into something more valuable- flour.  Without a mill, homemakers could grind some grain by hand for baking and cooking.  But the only commercial alternative without a mill was to ferment the grain and corn into mash in a distillery- and the county had an unusual number of those, as well.

Cutting Wheat with Cradles, Iredell Co. NC (NCSU Archives)

Cutting Wheat with Cradles, Iredell Co. NC (NCSU Archives)

Randolph County Varieties of Wheat

A snapshot of the farm economy of a local Quaker family on the eve of war is found in a letter written by  Nathan Barker [1805-1886] and wife Catharine Cox Barker [1806-1866] of Buffalo Ford, to their son Ezra [1838- 1929], a student at New Garden Boarding School.

“6th month the 21st, 1860….  [We] cut our winter oats yesterday, finished cutting wheat the day before; the wheat came on all in a few days.  We commenced on 6th day last and cut and put up what was about 17 acres that day, so thee [may] suppose we had help.  We also had one hand 7th day and two 2nd day.  The two fields of purple straw at home turned off well and we think is well-filled.  The fields of white grained wheat was thin on the ground; that away from home did not turn off very well tho I think the grain is good.  To day planting out potato slips; so busy in the corn field last week there was [no] spare time for potato planting.  No mowing done yet except some to give to the horses green.  The flax is not ripe enough to pull yet; some of ours looks pretty well, some not so well where the ground has been rather wet.”[ix]

Purplestraw

One of the interesting questions to modern historians is whether any of the agricultural products grown in the mid-19th century are still available today.  Even today, such information is glossed over in private conversation.  We say, “I planted begonias,” not “I planted Burpee’s hybrid Purple Zinger Begonias.”  The above passage is more than usually helpful, and actually includes a recognizable name: “Purple straw” wheat.  The genealogy of American wheat starts with a 1922 USDA publication, “Classification of American Wheat Varieties, by Jacob Allen Clark.  Clark surveyed wheat production across the entire United States, and collected 25 named varieties of wheat being grown in North Carolina in 1919.  One of those, “Purplestraw,” was being grown on 86,500 acres, 13.9% of the state’s total wheat production.  In his technical description Clark noted that Purplestraw was a spring-planted, early harvested midtall wheat, awnless, with red kernels and a purple stem.   Its origins were unknown, but it was first described by the Virginia agricultural writer Edmund Ruffin in 1822 as “Early Purplestraw,” and was also commonly called “Bluestem.”  “This variety is fairly hardy and has been grown from fall sowing in the southeastern states for many years.  Its principal advantage over other varieties in that section is its early maturity, which in part is due to its spring habit.”[x]

Purplestraw Wheat - Carpenter Farm, Gaston Co., NC (1929- NCSU Archives)

Purplestraw Wheat – Carpenter Farm, Gaston Co., NC (1929- NCSU Archives)

Clark’s 1919 collection of wheat varieties formed the basis of the US Department of Agriculture’s National Small Grains Collection, still grown and maintained at the Small Grains Germplasm Research Facility at Aberdeen, IdahoNot all of the 1919 grains survive, but 3 different strains of Purplestraw are still available. [xi]  In addition to the 25 varieties of which Clark collected, 21 more named varieties were reported where he was unable to obtain samples.  These 46 total named varieties reported from North Carolina were by far the most diverse collection in the Southeast.  South Carolina, in contrast, reported 10; Virginia 23.[xii]

Nathan Barker’s other wheat variety was describes only as “the white-grained wheat.”  What appears to be a poor description is actually quite specific and helpful in searching Clark’s lists, as most of the North Carolina-grown wheats have red or pink kernels.  Only three are listed as having white kernels: “Goldcoin,” “Greeson,” and “Kivett.”    The first can be immediately disregarded as post-1860– Goldcoin was first commercially distributed in 1900, a strain formerly known as “White Clawson” from Seneca, New York.[xiii]   Greeson and Kivett, however, are strong contenders, as one has a Guilford County origin, and the other evidently Randolph County roots.

Kivett.

Clark notes simply that “Kivet is a white-kerneled wheat which has been grown in NC for many years.  It was obtained by Blount (47) and reported in 1892 in his New Mexico experiments.  It is possibly the same wheat as White Wonder, as both are grown in the same localities.”[xiv]  Samples of Kivett were not found by Clark in 1919, but White Wonder was obtained is still available at the Aberdeen test station.  Franklinville native Robert A. Craven, when I interviewed him in 1997, said that Kivett was similar to Greeson (which he called “Greensboro Wheat”), but that Kivett “wasn’t quite as big a grain” [see below].[xv]

Ag Extension Agent with Wheat (NCSU Archives)

Ag Extension Agent with Wheat (NCSU Archives)

Greeson, or Greensboro.

Of “Greeson,” Clark reports a veritable mountain of information.  His technical description Is a model of how much information can be noted by a close inspection of one stem of wheat: “Plant winter habit, midseason, midtall; stem glaucus, white, midstrong to strong; spike awnless, oblong-fusiform, middense, erect to inclined; glumes aglarous, white, midlong, wide; shoulders wide, square to elevated; beaks wide, obtuse, 1mm long; apical awns few, 2 to 20 mm. long, somewhat incurved; kernels white, midlong, soft, ovate, acute; germ midsized; crease midwide, deep; cheeks rounded; brush small, midlong.”[xvi]

Distribution: grown in Chatham, Randolph and Guilford Counties, NC.

History—According to W.H. McLean of Whitsett, NC, ‘this variety originated by a man whose name was Greeson, and has been grown in this country for a number of years and is very popular.’ He reported that it constituted 40 percent of the wheat grown near Whitsett, Guilford County, NC, in 1919.”  [The seed now maintained in the Idaho germplasm bank under the name ‘Greeson’ was evidently obtained, “date unknown,” from H. P. Moffitt, of Ramseur, NC.]

Synonym– ‘Greensboro.’  Because the seed was obtained at a fair held at Greensboro, NC, this name is used for the variety in Randolph County, NC, where the wheat is most widely grown.”

Clark’s notation of possible synonyms for each variety recognizes that, in an age where each farmer or local miller saved the seed of his personal favorite variety, the seed saver often felt entitled to name the variety as he saw fit.  My cousin Danny Whatley, whose mother was a Bonkemeyer, records another such synonym as part of that Randolph County family’s history.  The immigrant ancestor Frederic Gerhard Bonkemeyer left Germany in 1853 and arrived in Randolph County in 1855, supposedly bringing from German a pocket full of seeds- what came to be known as the “Bonkemeyer Strain” of wheat. [xvii]

However, Robert Craven in his 1997 interview, without even being asked about either variety, shared an alternative history:

“They had a kind of wheat in this country they called ‘Greensboro Wheat.’  The way it got its name, an old man Bonkemeyer, I knowed him, went to Greensboro one time, to the Guilford County Fair.  I never did get to go.  He went one time, and he was looking over the grain, and he seen a pretty nice stack of wheat there that he liked the looks of, and he stuck him a handful in his pocket.  And he come home, and come wheat-sowing time, he fixed him a row out there somewhere and sprinkled that handful of wheat in that row.  Well, the way I got it, that handful growed enough wheat, after the ground it out by hand, that he had about a half a gallon the next year.  Well, he sowed that, and from then on, that’s the way Greensboro Wheat got in this country and got its name.  I’ve growed its since I’ve been a’living here.  It was a good wheat.  It made good flour.  I reckon it would be counted a hard wheat. It didn’t have no beards on it.  I always dreaded that.  They had a bearded wheat, but it didn’t go over so big.  You never did work out in that none.  If you’d ever got some of them beards in your shirt, you’d a’ quit raising it too.  I never did raise no rye to thrash on that account.  You know that rye’s got beards on it, and about the only way to get rid of them is to burn your britches and shirt.  It would irritate the life out of you.

“Greensboro Wheat was smooth wheat.    Then they had a kind they called ‘Double-Head’”  You part your hair in the middle… and that Double-Head wheat had a crease on each side, like you’d laid it off, just like you’ve parted your hair.  And then there was a kind they called ‘Kivett Wheat.’ It wasn’t much different than the other.  Wasn’t quite as big a grain.”[xviii]

For the record, I note that the USDA also has a variety named “Gleason,” collected in 1929 in Statesville, NC.  Clark listed Gleason with the “unidentified” varieties of wheat of which he had been unable to trace samples.  The similarity between the names “Greeson” and “Gleason” has me wonder if the latter is the same as the former, but the name became confused the further it travelled away from Guilford County.  Only some future comparison of the two plants and seeds could tell if they are identical.


[i] 1860 U.S. Census of Guilford County, Slave Schedule:  James T. Morehead- 107;  Jno. A.Gilmer-53; C.P. Mendenhall- 48; Miss Mary Staples- 43; Letitia Walker- 41; Strudwick Summers- 40; Isaac Thacker- 40; A.H. Lindsay- 38; Arch Powell-34; J.M. Donnell- 30; David Scott-29; Jno. A. Mebane- 27; Delphinia Mendenhall- 27; J.A. Hughes- 25; Eli Smith- 25; Alex Robbins- 25; Wm. Barringer- 24; Emsley Donnell- 23; Ralph Gorrell; C.P. Jones-23; Peter Adams- 23; Elizabeth Troxler- 22.

[ii] 1860 U.S. Census of Randolph County, Slave Schedule:  Alexander Gray, 104 slaves; son RH Gray owned 22; son in law (md. Letitia Gray) AG Foster owned 30; Josiah Cheek- 39; Lewis Lutterlough-33; O.A. Palmer- 33; Noah Smitherman- 33; Thomas Marley- 21; Thomas A. Finch- 20; Abner Coltrane- 20; Allen Skeen-20.  Among many other prominent county leaders, Clerk of Court Hugh McCain owned 16 slaves; Dempsey Brown of Trinity, 15; AS Horney of Franklinville, 10; Dr. JM Worth of Asheboro, 9.

 [iii] Randolph County (1979), p. 72.

 [iv] Quoted in Zuber, Jonathan Worth, p. 42.

 [v] RC, Economic and Social, 1924, p.55.

 [vi] “Randolph Is Great Agricultural County,” The Courier, 1 Nov. 1934, p.C-3

[vii] Id.  The article also noted that “The Farm Forecaster reports the acreage in rye for the county in 1933 at 1,853, yielding on average of 9 bushels per acre.  The total yield of 16,677 bushels, selling for an average price of $1.06 per bushel, brought $17,678.00, a little better than $9.50 per acre.”

[viii] 1894 Business Directory of Randolph County, “Branson’s Directory.”  Eli Branson, a Randolph County native, meticulously listed each individual county property owner, with the acreage owned and its tax value.  It is the best source for raw farm figures outside of the decennial census.

[ix] Original letter in the possession of Leanna Barker Roberts of Westfield, Indiana.

[x] Jacob Allen Clark, “Classification of American Wheat Varieties,” USDA Bulletin No. 1074 (Washington, DC, Nov. 8, 1922), p. 212.

[xi] The collection holdings are searchable at http://www.ars.usda.gov/main/docs.htm?docid=2884 .

 [xii] Id.

 [xiii] Id.

 [xiv] Clark, p. 206.

 [xv] Robert A.  Craven (1909- 2000)— interviewed 8-8-1997 at his home on Iron Mountain Road south of Franklinville.

[xvi] Clark, p. 60.

[xvii] Daniel J. Whatley, “Bonkemeyer Family,” Randolph County Heritage Book #1 (1993), p. 148.

 [xviii] It is an interesting question whether Craven, when he describes Greensboro wheat as “smooth,” meant that it had a shallow crease, or no crease.  Clark’s description, of course, says the Greeson kernel had a “deep” crease.  Craven goes on to contrast Greeson with another variety he calls “Double-Head,” because the crease was even deeper.   Perhaps some day if the variety is grown again, some of these questions can be answered.

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