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1920s Drought


The drought of the mid-1920s tipped the already precarious agricultural system in the Carolinas into disaster well before the Depression.

Eleven-cent cotton and forty-cent meat
How in the world can a poor man eat?
Flour up high, cotton down low.
How in the world can we raise the dough?

Written by Bob Miller and Emma Dermer; recorded by Bob Ferguson, Columbia Records,1928.
Climate Context

In the Carolinas, more than 40 inches of rain a year is normal.

average annual precipitation in the Carolinas
Average annual precipitation in the Carolinas. Go to the maps of average precipitation for the Carolinas to explore seasonal variation in average rainfall.

An annual total of less than 30 inches probably means a massive drought and economic disruption [NCpedia, "Climate and Weather: Droughts and Floods in North Carolina" http://www.ncpedia.org/climate-and-weather-part-3-droughts].The mid-1920s brought a series of such years. The August 1925 Monthly Weather Review was already noting the effects of this lack of rain: "July had been comparatively dry, and remarkably so in western North Carolina. As a result the most serious drought within the memory of old people prevailed widely as August ended, many deep wells having failed, small streams being dry where never so known before, rivers being at extremely low stages, and hydroelectric service greatly restricted" [1].

MWR map of departure from normal precipitation
Most of the Carolinas received at least 12 inches less precipitation than normal, with parts of the western mountains receiving 20 inches less than expected. Source: "The Weather of 1925 in the United States" Monthly Weather Review, December 1925

David R. Coker, an agricultural reformer who developed and marketed a highly productive variety of upland cotton through his Pedigreed Seed Company, tracked precipitation during the 1925 growing season [2].

Departure from Averaged Statewide Rainfall (inches)
1925 NC SC
May -1.27 -1.46
June -1.99 -1.71
July -3.18 -2.70
August -2.80 -4.52
September -1.85 -2.19

In fact, the SC Department of Agriculture called 1925 "the severest drought experienced in forty years" [3].

While 1925 may have been the worst year, rainfall remained below normal for the next couple of years. A map of the 24-month standardized precipitation index (a common drought measure) for January 1927 shows how extensive the drought was in the Carolinas.

24-month SPI map, January 1927
The drought of the mid-1920s extended throughout the Carolinas. Examine other historical SPI maps for the Carolinas.
Agriculture and the Drought

As can be imagined, such a severe drought affected agriculture in the Carolinas.

Between July 1925 and September 1927, three consecutive growing seasons were almost completely wiped out by drought.

NCpedia, “ Climate and Weather: Droughts and Floods in North Carolina
24-month SPI for January 1927
The 1925 corn yields in North Carolina show the effects of the drought.

Corn certainly wasn't the only crop affected. The Monthly Weather Report noted, "In the eastern portion of the [cotton] belt, moisture was insufficient in most districts, and considerable deterioration to cotton occurred with, extensive premature opening and shedding, particularly in northern Georgia, much of South Carolina, and in the western cotton districts of North Carolina" [4].

The failure of the cotton crop hit South Carolina hard: over half of the state’s workers worked in agriculture, and they worked almost exclusively in cotton [5]. Many were tenant farmers or sharecroppers.

Sharecropper's son at work in a cotton field
Source: Lange, Dorothea, photographer. Oldest son of sharecropper family working in the cotton. Chesnee, South Carolina. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-DIG-fsa-8b32095.
Complicating Factors

But weather wasn't the sole source of farmers' woes: the lack of rain only exacerbated an already bad situation.

The First World War had brought boom times to many farmers. With much of Europe a battlefield, demand for their products grew. Not only did prices increase with demand, but the government instituted price supports as well. Farmers in the Carolinas increasingly moved to cash crops — cotton and tobacco in particular — and borrowed money to increase their holdings and their production.

The end of the war meant the end of price supports, however, and that, combined with increased production and the re-entry of European farmers into the markets, meant that agricultural prices plummeted. Cotton, which had brought up to 38 cents a pound in 1919, fell to 17 cents a pound in 1920 and was fetching less than 5 cents a pound in 1932 [6]. Tobacco, which supplanted cotton as North Carolina's major cash crop during the 1920s, fell from 86 cents a pound in 1919 to 9 cents a pound by 1931 [7].

Cotton farmers faced yet another threat. By 1920 the boll weevil had arrived in the Carolinas. According to the South Carolina Cotton Museum, the boll weevil, cotton's only natural enemy, destroyed 70% of the state's cotton crop in two years [8].

Advertisement showing a farmer with a boll weevil trap
Advertisement for a weevil trap that appeared in The State (Columbia, SC) February 8, 1920.

The cost of pesticides and weevil traps added to production costs at a time when prices and yields were already low.

Effects

This concatenation of events was devastating for farmers. Farm foreclosures skyrocketed, and even those with no loans found it difficult to make ends meet. Of the 188,000 farms in South Carolina, 30,000 were abandoned in the 1920s [9].

One consequence of so many farms being abandoned was the explosion in the white-tailed deer population. As former fields reverted to scrub forest, a habitat favorable to the deer, their numbers soared in the late 1920s [10].

When owners lost their farms, tenant farmers (who had rented land and living quarters from the owners) and sharecroppers (who had worked the land for a share of the crop) also lost their homes and livelihoods. Many gave up farming altogether. They moved to towns and cities to seek other jobs with more dependable wages. By 1929, a quarter of a million South Carolinians, three-fourths of them black, had moved out of the state looking for job opportunities [11].

Black farm workers often looked to cities in the North, where they found better opportunities. In 1920 the number of black Carolinians living in New York City was 13,000; a decade later the number was 41,000 [12].

Displaced white workers often turned to cotton mills for employment. According to historian Walter Edgar, thirty thousand white South Carolinians found textile jobs and, although the state had the lowest wages in the industry, their new lives were materially better than their old [13].

The cotton textile industry dominated South Carolina's industrial landscape in the 1920s — cotton textiles constituted 70% of the value of the state's manufactured products — nevertheless these were not ideal times to be looking for work in the mills either. Increased competition from other factories, the emergence of synthetic fabrics like rayon, and the failure of the state's cotton crop made mills less profitable. Mill owners found themselves forced to cut either hours or workforce while increasing production quotas [14].

Hydroelectric Power
Lancaster cotton mill
Source: Hine, Lewis Wickes, photographer. Spinner in Lancaster Cotton Mills, S.C. Lancaster, South Carolina. November 1908. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, National Child Labor Committee Collection, LC-DIG-nclc-05377

The drought had another effect on mill life. As many of the mills were powered by water — either directly by waterwheels or indirectly by hydroelectricity — the drought jeopardized their source of power. The Monthly Weather Review of August 1925 reported that "low-water records had been broken in a number of streams, [and] the generation of hydroelectric power was considerably reduced" [15]. Newspapers during this period frequently reported on mill closings or slow downs.

The Warrenville cotton mill [in Aiken County] resumed operation Monday after a suspension of several weeks due to the lack of power. The recent drought cut down power generated at Stevens creek, which supplies several mills in Horse Creek valley.

"Warrenville Mill Resumes Operation," The State (Columbia, SC), July 12, 1925

"Water is the scarcest thing we have over there," said James P. Gossett, in speaking of the Williamston mill [in Anderson County]. The supply of water for the mill is furnished from a very deep well and stand pipe. . . . The busiest people hereabouts are the well diggers and cleansers. Many wells are dry and the owners are having them dug deeper or cleaned out in order to try for more water.

“Williamston Water Very Scarce Article,” The State (Columbia, SC), August 28, 1925

Although South Carolina's capital boasted the world's first textile mill powered by alternating current electricity generated offsite (in 1894) [16], the drought was proving that water power alone could not be depended on to fuel the industrializing and electrifying South. At the height of the 1925 drought, the Columbia public utilities company, which also ran the city's electric trolley lines, was forced to suspend streetcar service in the capital city to provide the mills with power.

Streetcars in Columbia's main street
Streetcars ran down Columbia's Main Street. Source: WikimediaCommons, ca. 1920

"Even with the curtailment of street car service," the manager of the public utilities company noted, "the mills were not able to operate at full capacity. Due to a lack of power, many people employed in the mills have been at work for only part time for about three months, and in order to give them an opportunity to work as much as possible even though the street car service had to be suspended for a time" [17].

Practically every mill is to comply with the request for curtailment by the Southern Power company. Only Arcade mill here will not be affected, owing to the fact that it has its own steam generating plant.

“York Feels First Thirst Through Drouth” The State (Columbia, SC), August 27, 1925

North Carolina-based Duke Power depleted reservoir supplies in order to maintain power generation in 1925. The power companies learned that they should not place “too much reliance on nature’s staying ‘normal’ over an extensive period” and hastened their move to coal-powered steam plants [18].

steam turbines at the Parr Shoals plant
The turbine room at the Broad River Company's Parr Shoals plant. Source: Annual Report of Broad River Power Company, Columbia, SC, 1928.

The Broad River Power Company began operating its first steam turbine, supplementing the power produced by its Parr Shoals hydroelectric station, at the end of August 1925. Two months later, they had broken ground for a second steam turbine. "With this primary power supply from one of the most modern steam stations in the country the central South Carolina territory served by the Broad River Power company is not likely to ever again experience a curtailment of industry for lack of power," the company proclaimed[[18].

Notes

1. P. C. Day,"The Weather Elements," Monthly Weather Review, August 1925, p. 369.

2. David R. Coker, David R. Coker Papers. South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina, Columbia.

3. "Agriculture in South Carolina," in Year Book of the Department of Agriculture, Commerce and Industries of the State of South Carolina, 1926 (Columbia: SC Department of Agriculture) p. 9.

4. J. B. Kincer, "Effect of Weather on Crops and Outdoor Operations, August, 1925," Monthly Weather Report, August 1925, p. 373.

5. Tara Mitchell Mielnik, New Deal, New Landscape (Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 2011), p. 2.

6. Mielnik,New Deal, New Landscape, 2.

7. RoAnn Bishop, "Agriculture in North Carolina during the Great Depression," NC Pedia.

8. "Boll Weevils," South Carolina Cotton Museum.

9. Walter Edgar, South Carolina in the Modern Age (Columbia: USC Press, 1992), p. 48.

10. Charles Ruth Jr., South Carolina Deer Antler Records 2014 (Columbia: South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, 2014), p. 4.

11. Walter Edgar, South Carolina: A History (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998), p. 486.

12. William B. Scott and Peter M. Rutkoff, "Great Migration," in South Carolina Encyclopedia.

13. Edgar, SC: A History, p. 487.

14. Mielnik, New Deal, New Landscape, pp. 1-2.

15. R. E. Spencer, "Rivers and Floods," Monthly Weather Review,August 1925, p. 372.

16. SCANA: History, https://web.archive.org/web/20061103191244/http://www.scana.com/en/company-profile/history/ [archived page].

17. "Street Cars Stop for Lack of Power," The State (Columbia, SC), August 29, 1925.

18. Henry Savage, River of the Carolinas: The Santee (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press), p. 351.

19. "Lets Contract for New Unit," The State (Columbia, SC), October 25, 1925.