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Economic Transition

The economy of Walker County, Texas following the Civil War matched much of the surrounding area. Agriculture ruled the day. It was not without events that hastened a transition from slavery/cash crops to share cropping to one of cattle ranching that we see today. Take some statistics, for example, from before the Civil War, showing that the county was doing well. In 1850, farms occupied 146,000 acres of land, producing 102,000 bushels of corn and 1,873 bales of cotton. [1] A decade later, in 1860, the farm acreage increased to 180,000 acres. The farms produced 12,000 bales of cotton and 315,000 bushels of corn. At the same time, the slave population, which plucked the majority of the crops, increased to 4,125. Outnumbering the white population of the county. The value of real estate in 1860 was $1,525,411 (Now $57,401,767.28 in 2024 USD). The Civil War itself did not touch Walker County physically. However, it was not spared from its effects. The value of real estate plummeted to $311,556. Though the county’s population increased to 9,766 by 1870 up from 8,191 the decade prior, Huntsville’s dropped close to twenty percent in the same decade. Disease usually follows every war and a Yellow Fever was no different. 130 people died in Huntsville in one year. Up to a tenth of the population perished, “Activity in the town came to a halt - schools and businesses closed, plantations quarantined, churches fell silent, and the mail was irregular. Many white Huntsvillians, including the mayor and postmaster, abandoned the town.” [2]

Even the Calhoun Plantation experienced a wave of change following the civil war. Not always through disease or insect invasion. The agricultural cache of the plantation consisted of 120 cattle, 8 ½ oxen, two mills, 180 bushels of corn, and created 1,400 pounds of butter. [3] That same year, the 1870 census indicates the Calhoun Plantation carried on the common practice of sharecroppers/tenant farmers to help work the land.

Despite being ravaged by plague, the economy of Walker county survived and started to diversify. Lumber became a lucrative commodity and the advent of the International and Great Southern Railroad coming through town put the county on the map. The railroad enabled commodities to reach bigger markets and as such, the agricultural economy started to revive. Despite the uptick, “Though cotton remained king, depleted soils and other problems dragged down production, which did not reach pre-Civil War levels until 1900. That year almost 27,000 acres were planted in cotton, and over 12,014 bales were ginned.” [4] Blight comes in many forms and it would arrive again in the 1890s, this time a plague of Boll Weevils.

Arriving first through Brownsville along the border with Mexico, the Boll Weevil spread throughout the entirety of the Southern United States at a rate of 40 to 160 miles a year. Arriving in Huntsville between 1895 at the earliest and 1902 at the latest. These insidious creatures would, “In the American South, boll weevils fed almost exclusively on the cotton plant. Cotton was planted in March and April and six to eight weeks later developed squares (flower buds). Early in the season, weevils fed on the leaves, before moving to the squares and bolls. The weevils continued to feed until the cotton plant was destroyed or killed by frost.” [5] The impact of the boll weevil was not felt in just Texas alone. Certain areas of the Cotton Belt experienced immense reduction in cotton crops. For example, the hilly regions of Mississippi experienced a 10.8% drop between 1934-1936. Up to a loss of 32.8% in eastern Oklahoma between 1928-1935. Overall, all regions that were impacted by the Boll Weevil experienced a 10.5% drop. [6] The effects were not unfelt in Walker country either. 1920 proved to be the second smallest crop ever at 2,639 bales, while in 1930 production was the largest at 8,793 bales. The Boll Weevil would come in waves effecting different regions at varying rates.

Metadata

Brennan Reynholds, “Economic Transition,” East Texas History, accessed May 26, 2024, https://easttexashistory.org/items/show/392.