Camera Rolls: 102:76-78
Sound Rolls: 102:43-44
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Joe Robinson , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on July 19, 1990, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
What was it like for you? What happened to you when the drought came?
When the drought came?
Well, I was looking for water to water my cotton. And I, about the best, about the only thing I could find was a inch and a quarter well, and it didn't put out enough water to hardly a row, to irrigate a row of cotton, much less a 40 acre patch. And I just stood there and watched it burn up. And it did burn up.
What did it feel like, watching your cotton burn up?
I felt like hell.
What did it feel like when the, when you, when you're watch, watching that cotton burn up?
if you imagine how a person can feel who sees that he's losing every damn thing he's got, all the money he's put into that cotton, and you could've just, just sat put and stood there, see it just go away, just blowing away with the sun, you could imagine how they feel. It feels like hell.
** There's no way to describe that feeling.
Can you tell me about your brother's farm?
Can you tell me, can you tell me about your brother's farm during that time?
Well he, he was farming with mules. And—
Start, can you start out again, "My brother"?
My, my brother? He was farming with mules. And, and Negro sharecroppers. And they did all the labor, and he furnished them the money to live on and a place to live. And, of course, they felt pretty bad to see their crops burn up, too, 'cause they didn't have any water. At that time, we didn't have any big wells. At the present time, I've got some six inch wells and some eight inch wells. And they can all irrigate my cotton crop, and also irrigate my ryes. So now we don't have to worry about whether the sun's shining every day at 106 or 110 degrees, because we know we can put the water to it and save them and make a good crop.
But back then?
Back then, we had no water. We had to depend upon nature, and nature wasn't very kind to us. In fact, it was very unkind.
Just how rough did times get?
I beg your—
How rough did times get?
[laughs] They got awful rough.
Can you sit back please?
Just how rough did times get?
Well, you just had no money. Money was a very, very scarce order. And if you had a dime or a quarter in your pocket, you were rich. And you borrowed your money from the bank to operate with.
—on your mules.
OK. Start out again. Tell me about those banks.
The banks, if you borrowed money from them, in return for the, for the money they gave you, they took a mortgage on your farm, if you had a farm, and they took a mortgage on your mule, if you had a mules. And they wouldn't lend you money unless you had some mules and a farm. And they took a mortgage on everything. And they gave, they loaned you the money. But they charged you an enormous amount of interest on it. And at the end of the year, if your cotton burned up, you couldn't pay your mortgage and they foreclosed on your farm. They'd put foreclosure on your mules. They took everything you had. And they couldn't help it, because the banking commission told them to do it.
Did you know anybody-
Hold it, hold it.
You ready to go? [laughs]
people lost their farms! I mean, good, rich farms. They lost it. My uncle was a banker.
** Jim Hicks was a banker, and he foreclosed on a lot of good farms. But he had to do it, because the banking commission told him to do it or he'd close the bank.
** There wasn't any way in the world around it. Course it's true that a lot of times the farmers spent more money than they should have. Nowadays it's different now from how it was then. Then, they, you didn't have pickups all everywhere. You had a riding horse, and you rode your horse around and watched the farm.
All right. Hold on a second. Let's keep it rolling. When did you hear about the bank closing? Can you tell me about that time in Los Angeles?
[laughs] Oh, lots of bank stories! I'm talking about the insurance! You mean the banks in Arkansas closing? I don't, I don't even remember the date. We were sitting down in the honky-tonk, Lawrence and I, Lawrence Banks, having a drink and, and carrying on with the girls, and one of his employees came down from the bank building where he owned it and where he, the business was, the insurance business, and told him, said, "Lawrence, every one of your banks is closed in Arkansas." Says, "You're broke. You haven't got any money." And he was a millionaire up to that time, before that time. He had an airplane [laughs] and we went riding in it all the time. We came in and landed one day at Santa Monica, on the concrete ramp they had there, and he was driving too fast. He was drunk. And I was about half-drunk. And he slammed the brakes on to keep from running into the hangar. And it turned the plane over on its nose, and my head drug on the concrete for about, oh, 30 feet before it stopped. And I unfastened my buckle on my belt, and I said, "Lawrence, that's the last time I'll ever take a ride with you, old boy!" [laughs]
Do you remember the England Riot incident?
There wasn't any riot in England [Arkansas]. Whoever put that stuff out there, tell them that's a lot of hokum. There never was any riot, food riot, in England. I don't know where you got that idea, but you keep asking me about it, and I still don't have any idea. There wasn't any food riot in England.
Well, people called it a riot. But I know there wasn't one. Why did they say it was a riot in the papers?
Oh, you understand these newspapers do anything for publicity. And the Arkansas Gazette was the worst one of them. It's now a second rate paper, the Arkansas Gazette is, and the Arkansas Democrat's the leading newspaper in Arkansas now. But, they'll do anything to get publicity, or to make people get scared. I just finished telling you how they got food in England.
Well, what was your opinion about what happened in England that day?
Nothing happened, except some people would come into a store, they furnished them. You know, in those days, you got your furnishings from a store, and the store got their finance from, got their finance backing from a bank. And of course it all worked out where they, where somebody had to pay it all back. And when they didn't pay it back, they foreclosed on them, the banks did. There just wasn't any money [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] . Now, just for instance, I went into town just before dinner. As I stepped out of my car, walked in the bank, and got a pile of money. Back in those days, you couldn't even think about doing something like that. You walked in the bank, they said, "What do you want it for?" I know one, one of the girls asked me said, I went in, cashed a check for $25, they said, "What do you want it for, Joe?" I said, "That's none of your business, what I want it for." "Yes it is my business" she said. "Money you borrowed from the bank, we ought to know what you do with it." I said, "I'm going to buy whiskey with it!" [laughs] And they finally fired that girl. [laughs]
I wanted to ask you about the times before the drought. Arkansas, in this area, had some tough times before the drought. Can you describe that for me, please?
Well, I was in the, I think I was in the automobile business at Lonoke before the drought. And we almost went broke. We couldn't sell any automobiles. People didn't have any money. I remember on one occasion I was in the roofing business. And I put a roof on, on a man's house by the name of Shuttle, and he paid me the cash. And I went to send the money back to Pidgeon-Thomas in Memphis, Tennessee, and the fellow wouldn't take the money. He says, "No. I'll be held up between here and Memphis," and says, "They won't allow me to take the money." And so before, before I could make other arrangements, the bank that loaned us went broke, and I had to get out and borrow some money from friends to pay it. That's how tough times were. There just wasn't any money. Nobody had any money. And the ones that had it sat down on it and wouldn't turn it loose.
Okay. Now, the people here, during the drought, had a really rough time, especially the poor farmers and the sharecroppers and the tenants. Everybody was having a rough time. How did they get their help? Who helped them?
I guess you might just say that they, it just finally drifted away, drifted up, the whole thing just drifted up a little.
Well, but I mean, who, who came to the aid of these people when...?
The, the Red Cross, of course.
Can you tell me about the Red Cross, anything you know.
One thing I do know is
the Red Cross went into the furnishing stores here
** in England and told them, says, "You sell these people the groceries you've got in here, and we'll pay you for them. But we're not going to give them money, 'cause they'll throw it away or drink whiskey with it and everything."
** And that's the way they were fed. And at [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] [name of grocery store], all the poor, poor people that needed money, and they went ahead and sold them the groceries. And the Red Cross paid them. And [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] [name of grocery store] did the same thing, and the man across the street did the same thing. And, and that's the way the Red Cross fed them.
Now, why, did the, did it work, the way the, did the Red Cross do a good job?
I think they did, yeah. I'm sure they did, because I know this: at, at a store full of groceries before the, before they came along, and after it was over, they didn't have any groceries in the store, and they had the cash for the groceries.
So the, you thought the Red Cross did a good job?
Oh, hell, the Red Cross, we couldn't have made it without the Red Cross. There would've been a lot of people dying, committing suicide, things like that.
It was that close, huh?
As it was, as it was, I think a few of them did commit suicide for losing their homes in that drought, losing their homes and their farms, they worked all their lives for. The bank had foreclosed and taken it over and kicked them out. They had to go live with their relatives, most of them.
What happened to you during this time? Did you come out okay?
[laughs] I was just barely getting by. [laughs] I was doing a lot of things. I had a sheet metal shop, and I had a bicycle repair shop.
I'm sorry, you have to sit up. [inaudible]
People around here are pretty resourceful, aren't they? I mean, they, they fended for themselves pretty well during this time.
Oh, sure. We're an independent people here, very independent, and we don't like for people to be telling us what to do or not to do.
Now a lot of people didn't want to go, even they though they were starving, they didn't want to go get aid.
That's the truth.
Well, they didn't, they just were taught differently, to be independent of the federal government and the state government. They felt like the state didn't owe them anything and they didn't owe the state anything except taxes. You had to pay your taxes in those days or you lost your property. [laughs] You lost a lot of property that way. [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] pay your taxes. You didn't have the money to pay your taxes!
So, people were really squeezed, huh?
Yeah, we're squeezed.
Now why was it—well, on this line, people would, would hunt for things for things, right? They'd [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] . Tell me how people got food for themselves during this period of time, during the drought.
Well, I just finished telling you, the Red Cross.
But they also foraged for themselves. They would shoot rabbits—
Oh, sure, they'd kill rabbits and squirrels and coons and possums, and, but mostly rabbits, 'cause rabbit's good to eat. But that's, that's the meat they got. And you could, you could buy a slab of fat meat [gestures] [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] for a nickel. Things were cheap, all right, cheap, but you couldn't buy them, because you didn't have the money.
Do you remember the flood of '27?
The what of '27?
Oh, sure. I was in the National Guard, and did flood duty in that, in that flood.
How hard did it hit the state of Arkansas? What kind of impact did the flood have on, on this place?
Well, it had a terrible impact. I did duty at Wynne, Arkansas, that's a little town between here and Memphis. And it had about 3,000 people in it, and it was 30,000 people came in there. They came in for food and for help. They had been run away from their farms. And I think I told you this the other night. I was in the National Guard and had a forty-five stripped on, strapped on my right hip. And I walked the streets at night. And there wasn't a single crime committed by those 30,000 people, not a single crime committed. Boy, I'd hate to see something like that happen in Boston. Oh. They'd tear the town apart.
What kind of relationship did your uncle have with President Hoover?
Tell me why. Why did they have a good relationship?
Well, because the respected each other, because Senator Robinson knew that Hoover was a good man and a smart man. And in fact he happened to be on the, on the same party didn't make any difference. Hoover was a very intelligent man, and a very smart one, much smarter than Roosevelt.
Now, when, did they, did Senator Robinson believe, how did he think he could help the people here during the drought? What was his idea about helping people here?
There wasn't any way to help people here. They said, "Go to the Treasury and get the money out of the Treasury." And, of course, I remember on one occasion there was a bunch of school teachers down here came up there and said, "Senator Robinson, we need some money for our schools down here. Can you get us some money?" He said, "I can get you all the money you want. But only one thing is certain: They'll tell you how to run your schools. Do you want that?" They said, "No, we don't want it. We'll do without the money."
So the idea of the federal government being involved was something that, that Senator Robinson felt scared about.
Yeah, well, the thing about it was they'd tell you what to do, don't you understand? If the government puts you, puts the money down here, they'll tell you how to spend it, what to do with it. And I guess they got a right to do it, because they're furnishing the money. But he, he told his school teachers that we don't want that down there. We want them to leave our schools alone.
That's great, great. Why was it the poorest people that suffered most during the drought?
Actually, the people who suffered most were the ones who lost their homes and farms. The rest of the people got by on 50 cents a day, thirty-five cents an hour. In fact, in fact, as late as 1939, when I came down here, I hired a bunch of hands out there to clear up the roots—
—and stumps out of my farm. I was paying them thirty-five cents a day, a day, now mark that, thirty-five cents a day to work all day long from [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] to [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] . That means "from sunup to sundown." But I changed the hours from six o'clock to six o'clock. And the banker there called me in and said, "Now you can't do that. You're ruining labor."
Seems like, boy, you'd die if you worked all day.
Thirty-five cents an hour, I mean, a day.
—people came to town [inaudible] food?
George Morris had plenty of money.
Are you ready? Oh, we're rolling. If I were to go back to England [Arkansas] in a time machine now, and you went with me, could, what would it look like?
Not much different from what it looks like today. Very little change has been made since 1930. The streets are paved now. All the streets are paved in town. And—
What did it [England, Arkansas] look like then?
Oh, the bank was in the same place. Both banks were in the same place. It didn't look any different.
Was it an interesting town?
Was it an interesting town?
How did the system work? Did the, the planters, the sharecroppers, and the tenants, and the store, how were they all related to each other? How did it work?
Well, I just finished telling you. I'll tell you again. The sharecropper did all the work. I explained you had mules. My brother can tell you that, 'cause he had a bunch of mules and a bunch of sharecroppers. I came down here, I bought tractors. I never had any sharecroppers, except for my tractor driver. I gave him a sharecrop. And you gave him a sharecrop. On March the 15th, they went in and got their furnishings. And furnishings included a bunch of boots, rubber boots, that they had to plant buckshot, and planting buckshot in those days, you planted it when it was wet, 'cause the mules couldn't pull it when it was dry. And you went out one row and came back on the other side. And it was pretty tough going. And they made them put these boots on, and they went out in the field where it was wet and raining. In fact, in fact, it [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] when it was raining, because the buckshot would turn, the dirt would turn. But they got their furnishing on the 15th of the month. And the furnishing depended on what size sharecrop they got. If they got a 10 acre sharecrop, they got so much for that, see. And if they got a 15 acre sharecrop, they got more. If you had a big family, they could work it and hoe it up, they still got more. And, but the landlord was the one who borrowed the money from the bank. And the bank loaned him the money on account of how many acres he was working, and so much an acre. Times were tough, I'll tell you what's right. [laughs] But the Negroes were just as happy as they could be, all day long. They worked hard, it's true. They worked hard. But they got plenty of food, they had a garden, the had a, had a pig, had chickens, and they had eggs and all that of their own, because they gave them all the garden and all of them a house to live in. And that was a part of the sharecropping deal they made. And they worked hard, it's true. They worked hard. And they were all good workers. In fact of business the lazy one never got a sharecrop. He just had to do some odd jobs around town. But that was the system we had in those days, before the tractors came in. I was the first one in this whole section that had a tractor. And I worked my crops with the tractor, and the rest of them worked them with mules and sharecroppers. And from then on out, while they all started, finally went and sold the mules, and finally went on over to tractors. And now it's all tractor work.
When did you get your tractor? Was it the 1930s or so?
1939 is when I got the tractor.
How did people help each out [sic], help each other out during the drought? Did people help each other out?
No, there wasn't any way to help each other. Of course, if a person got sick, they'd help take him to the hospital. And the doctors had to work on credit for, or for a chicken, or for some groceries, for some vegetables out of the garden. The doctors were all very poor in those days. They didn't make any money. [laughs] In fact, they charged a dollar a treatment. You went, you went in, you went into a doctor, and he charged you a dollar for a treatment. Now they charge you $20 for at treatment, and they don't give a damn whether you come in now or not.
Can you tell, can you say that your, your uncle Senator Robinson, could you name him and say that he was a very powerful man and then tell me why? Can you say, "My uncle, Senator Robinson, was a really powerful man"?
He sure was.
Can you mention his name?
Senator Joe T. Robinson, he was the most powerful man in Washington, not even excepting the president.
During this period of time, he was the most powerful man in Washington?
I just finished telling you about how, how much power he had with the Veterans Administration. All I had to do was get on the phone and call—
—couldn't get any help.
Can you start out by saying, "My uncle, Senator Robinson, asked for money to help the Arkansas people, but he didn't any, and this is why"?
And why was because—
Just start out by saying, "My uncle, Senator Robinson—"
My uncle, Senator Joseph T. Robinson, asked Congress for some help for the people in Arkansas. He didn't get it, because the people in New York and Chicago and Boston and places like that said, "If you help them, you got to help us, too." And, of course, they couldn't do it. They couldn't help everybody. Didn't have the money.
**[laughs] And these days you don't have to have money. You have paper. We have people out in foreign countries without the money.
Oh, that's great. That was a great statement.
Can you tell, can you tell me about George Morris?
What kind of a man he was? He was a good man, except that he was an alcoholic, and that finally killed him.
Thirties? That was the drought.
What was the price of cotton? Tell me about that.
Oh, cotton was selling for five cents a pound. And the gins, the gins made you pay for the ginning, because the seed wouldn't pay for it. It usually the custom in those days for the seed to pay for the ginning. They charged you so much to gin a bale of cotton. And when the seed wouldn't pay for it, you had to pay in cash, make some arrangement for it. But, of course, having stock in a gin was a great thing. In fact, the business by stocking a gin made me more money than anything I ever did have. But, actually, in 1930, you couldn't even give away your cotton, couldn't give away your seed, '31. That was the year we made cotton, cotton'd run out of your ears, we made so much, following the drought, 1930. And it just turned to cotton. And you couldn't sell it. Nobody would buy it. Five cents a pound was all they'd pay you for it. Now that's pitiful. Five cents a pound wouldn't even pay for the expense of hoeing it.
The price of cotton was really high during World War I, wasn't it? How come it fell so much? You know, the price of cotton was up there at a dollar.
Well, it was scarce, was the reason.
How come it fell?
Wait a minute, this is back in 1930 we're talking about. World War I [World War II] was considerably later.
Earlier. Cotton was way up here back in World War I, the Great War.
Yeah, it fell down to nothing. Why?
I just finished telling you. The demand for it wasn't there. They didn't have any demand for it. Supply and demand. They had too much supply.
Now, in the 1920s, it was already hard, right? What, was the, was the drought like a knock-out punch?
Yeah, that really knocked it out.
Is there anything I haven't asked you that you'd like to talk about?
I'd hate to live through it again, I'll tell you that. And I, and I can think of the many, many of the good families, really good people, who lost their farms.