I was really looking forward to our visit to Frogmore Cotton Plantation in the nearby hamlet of Ferriday, Louisiana. Frogmore is a working, modern cotton ginning operation whose owners are dedicated to preserving local history. They have rescued many old buildings and antique machinery from surrounding areas and used them to reconstruct a model of a pre-Civil War plantation that is open for tours.
We paid for our tickets in the wonderful old-timey general store, with rows of shelves and tables covered with souvenirs, history books about the area, and local products like pecan oil.
Some of the merchandise made me spontaneously raise an eyebrow.
Another surprising item was this sign by the register. When I asked about it, the lady clerk told me that they've had a problem with parents in the area selling their own children into sex-slavery to pay off drug debts! Yowza. So slavery persists.
While we had been browsing, about eight of us had gathered for the tour. We started off with a short video about the history of Frogmore. Then our tour guide took us around some small buildings that once were used by slaves over 150 years ago.
The first ramshackle building we entered was set up as a workroom for sewing and washing, with a spinning wheel, an antique single-color loom, and an ironing board with old flat-irons sitting atop the wood stove. The one anachronism in a corner was a strange-looking wooden contraption with rollers labeled "First of its kind: 1880's Washing Machine".
Outside the workroom were a couple of washpots that would have sat over an open fire; a water well; and several mysterious free-standing sections of post-and-rail fencing.
Another building was divided in half, representing two different types of slave quarters. As we'd heard in our other plantation tour, slaves' quality of life varied substantially depending on their master. One side of the building was a bare-bones room containing a roughly-hewn bedframe and a mattress stuffed with the scratchy, coarse Spanish moss. There was also a mannequin wearing typical female slave apparel.
The other side of the building represented more "luxurious" slave quarters: walls covered with newsprint wallpaper, a softer mattress on a nice frame with a chenille bedspread, and some modest pieces of furniture.
The privy was probably about the same for everyone.
The next building had a breezeway through the middle and was representative of an overseer's quarters.
It was also where we would get our cotton-pickin' lesson. First we picked up one of the huge sacks that a slave would drag along the ground, filling it as they worked through the rows.
For us, however, the sack was just a photo-op. Afterward we went out into the remnants of a cotton field to experience the real thing. This cotton is from last season and will soon be plowed under to ready the field for the spring crop.
I wasn't exactly a stranger to cotton-picking. I recall going out in my grandfather's fields once, dragging a burlap bag under the hot Texas sun, cutting my hands on the sharp bolls. My grandfather didn't own slaves in the 1950's, of course, but he did employ migrant workers who worked just as hard. I remember one older lady laughing good-naturedly at my five-year-old attempt to keep up with her. I lasted about five minutes.
Our guide explained that the field would have been different in the 1800's; in those days, the cotton was planted in rows much farther apart to allow the pickers and their sacks to move between. Today's plantings can be very close together since the cotton is harvested solely by machine.
There was an African-American couple with us on the tour and I kept wondering what they must think. The woman was game, though, and happily put on the cotton sack for a photo.
At this point our tour guide handed us off to another woman who took us through the ginning process. We climbed the stairs to an old barn-like building which contained lots of ancient-looking and mysterious equipment. We first looked at a replica of the original Eli Whitney cotton gin, which removed seeds from cotton and was operated by a hand-crank. One machine and operator could de-seed about 40 pounds of cotton per day.
But the star of this building was the aforementioned mystery, which turned out to be a steam-powered cotton gin capable of turning out almost 4,000 pounds of clean cotton per day! The steam engine is actually underneath this second story; the equipment we were seeing is operated by the engine. Somehow the cotton is sucked up into the machinery, where something called a "gin stand" (a roller with sharp picks on it) picks out the cotton seeds. The seeds drop to the floor, and the cotton continues into a baling box where a "steam tramper" compresses the cotton into a bale.
We learned a lot about products that come from cotton. While only the clean fibers were saved and used in the nineteenth century, today nothing is wasted. Cotton seeds, once discarded after ginning, are now used in a variety of ways. Did you know that Crisco was originally made in 1914 from solidified cottonseed oil? The name "Crisco" was shortened from "Crystallized Cottonseed Oil"!
At the end of our tour, the guide informed us that it's a tradition for someone in the group to ring the big bell out front, which would once have been used to summon the slaves into the fields and back. Guess who volunteered.
We grabbed lunch at a local burger joint near the plantation, then decided to return to downtown Natchez for one more stop. The William Johnson House is managed by the National Park Service and is the one-time Natchez home of a man born into slavery but emancipated in 1820 by his owner. The downstairs of the house is a museum which describes Johnson's life in Natchez, how he owned his own barbering business and himself owned slaves. Johnson was supposedly "an esteemed citizen" but of course was not allowed to fully participate in the town society. The upstairs is the Johnson family's former living quarters and has some of the original furnishings.