200 Years of Laurens County Agriculture

From its inception as a county and for every day of the last two hundred years
and for two thousand years before, Laurens County has been home to the farmer.
A love of the land and its bounty coupled with a desire to just survive made farming
the main occupation of Laurens Countians for most of our two hundred years.
Nearly every one of us descend from a dirt farmer, which is a good thing.  Farming,
often seen by non-farmers as  somewhat mundane lifestyle, is quite the opposite.  It
is occupation that involves faith, in yourself and nature, good agricultural skills,
unabated determination and a whole lot of pure old fashioned luck.

Just a few more centuries than two thousand years ago, the Native Americans
who lived in this area, abandoned their hunting and gathering methods of acquiring
foodstuffs and established a more sedentary lifestyle.  They established somewhat
permanent villages under the governance of a chief.  New methods of planting and
nurturing native plants supplemented the wild game and randomly gathered fruits
in their diets.

When the first white settlers came to our area in the mid 1780s, the most
highly sought after lands were located on the eastern banks of the Oconee River and
its major tributaries.    Once Laurens County was created and more lands were added
to the western side of the river, large plantations began to prosper among the smaller
farms.  These plantations were officially run by the owners, often given the title of
“planter,” a moniker  which designated that their economic status more than their
agrarian skills.  Most of the actual plowing, planting, weeding and harvesting was
done by slave labor or by middle and lower economic class whites.

The plantations and farms primarily produced enough products to become
self sufficient.  When less common items were needed, farmers would trade with the
neighbors  or visit a nearby general store.

Actual farm production figures were revealed for the first time with
compilation of the 1850 Agricultural Census.  Though Laurens County was third
among Georgia counties  in land area, only 18 percent of her lands were improved
with farms and buildings.  A substantial portion of the southern half of the county
and many creek side lands were covered with trees.

The livestock population was composed of  twenty thousand cows, eight
thousand sheep and twenty four thousand pigs and hogs.  While milk cows, working
oxen and sheep were maintained to produce replenishable products, much of the
other cows and swine were slaughtered for food.  Chickens were not counted and
obviously there was a vast consumption of wild fowl and game.    On average, each
sheep produced less than two pounds of wool a year.   The main produce crops were
Indian corn (32.76 bushels per capita less what was feed to livestock,) about eight
thousand bushels of both wheat and oats and surprisingly  nearly nine thousand
pounds of rice.   Potatoes, in particular sweet potatoes, were the staple of the average
Laurens countian’s diet, with each person consuming an average of twenty four
bushels a year.  Very little tobacco was harvested.  With a relatively large slave
population of 45%, ginned cotton bales numbered less than 4000 bales, a small
fraction of the amount produced during the cotton boom at the turn of the 20th

The third quarter of the Twentieth Century saw many radical changes in the
ways farms and plantations were operated.   Before the war began, cotton and wool
production was rapidly increasing.  The coming of the Civil War caused a virtual halt
in  farming, except of course for growing enough food to keep the people alive.  With
nearly all of the available young farm hands off at war and very little cash available
to operate with, farmers had to curtail their acreage.   The end of the war saw a slow
but moderate recovery.  Those had been slaves before the war, then became tenant
farmers.  By the 1870s, a few former slaves became property owners and operated
their own farms.  Cotton production plummeted in 1869, though the wool industry
continued to surge.

The period after the war the first organizations composed of farmers.   James
Chappel, John M. Stubbs and C.S.  Guyton led Laurens County farmers in the
Georgia Agricultural Society and Farmer’s Granges.    The revitalization of river boat
traffic allowed the transportation of farm products outside of the county to become
more economical.  Likewise, the importation of fertilizers and implements led to
more increases in farm production.    The coming of the railroads in the 1880s and
1890s was the final impetus which would begin to propel Laurens County to the
forefront of cotton and field crop production in the state.  In 1870, there were 520
farms in Laurens County.  Forty years later, Laurens County farms totaled 4,923, the
second highest number in the state.  The total number of farms peaked at more than
5,500 in the early 1920s.

In the  1880s, a new and more powerful farmer’s organization began to spread
across the South and the farm belts of the Mid-West.  The Farmer’s Alliance, locally
led by John W. Green, never really caught on.  The Georgia Alliance actually
disbanded after it’s annual meeting in Dublin in 1891.

Over the next several decades farmers organized under various names.  The
Farmer’s Union was the main organization for most of the first two decades of the
20th Century.   Capt. W.B. Rice of Dublin was one of founding board members of the
Georgia Farm Bureau in 1920.

Laurens County has been home to two commissioners of the Georgia
Department of Agriculture.  James J. Connor, a former Mayor of Dublin, served as
Georgia’s Agricultural Commissioner  from 1912 to 1913   As a member of the
Georgia Legislature, Connor sponsored the bill to establish the agricultural
education department at the University of Georgia.   Thomas “Tom” Linder led the
Department of Agriculture from 1935 to 1937.  Re-elected in 1941 and serving three
four-year  terms, Linder is the second longest head of the Agriculture Department
and the only person ever elected to statewide office who lost a statewide election and
then was re-elected.  

The explosion of cotton production in the last quarter of the 19th Century and
the first  sixteen years of the 20th Century was fueled by the clearing of the virgin
timberlands across the southern part of the county to make room for massive fields,
fertilized by guano fertilizer and the coming of six railroads to the county, which
allowed cotton farmers to ship their “white gold” to all parts of the world.

Agra-businesses flourished.  A cotton compress was built in Dublin in 1895.
The compress allowed a farmer to deliver his cotton on Monday morning and have
it on an ocean bound cargo ship the following afternoon.  By 1911, Laurens County
produced more than three million pounds of cotton, compressed into more than
sixty thousand bales.  That state record stood for nearly ninety years until it was
eclipsed in the late 1990s by large counties in South Georgia where more modern
and technological methods of agriculture
were used.

The villainous boll weevil invaded the county in the years before World War
I. By the end of the 1910s, cotton production plummeted.  Tenant farmers gave up
farming or moved away.  Throughout the 20th Century, farming and farms have
practically disappeared.  Unable to compete with corporate farmers and endless
assets, cheap labor and hefty government programs, the traditional farmer as we
know him as virtually disappeared.  When all of the results of the 2007 Agricultural
Census are tabulated, it is estimated that there will be no more than six hundred
farms left in Laurens County.

Sandy fields which once yielded some of the most bountiful crops of cotton,
corn and sweet potatoes are now planted in trees or covered by new homes.  The
profound impact of agriculture is still present and will always remain so for centuries
to come.  Everything we are as a county - our heritage of who we are and who we will
be - we owe to the men and women, who plant the seeds, gather the crops, feed the
livestock, sweat in the sun, break their backs and take the risks many of us could
never take.  Progress is fine, but  let us take heed of the words of the great Populist
orator William Jennings Bryan, “if you destroy your cities, they will grow back, but
it you destroy your farms, then the grass will grow in every city street in the country.”