The Gulf, Mobile and Ohio
By James H. Lemly

 

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CHAPTER IV

Development Program, 1920-30

 

 

   

Docks at Mobile AlabamaThe new management of the GM&N was acutely aware of the fact that its timber tonnage would rapidly decline.  For this reason, as well as to be a good business citizen, the road tried eagerly to assist in building more permanent sources of traffic.

Much of the GM&N’s territory in 1920 was not occupied by large groups of people, nor did it seem to provide the bases for strong, permanent economic activity.  Population in Mississippi actually showed a decline for 1920 from 1910, and the timber which had been responsible for the opening up of South Mississippi was fast being shipped out.  There were no visible signs of mineral wealth in Mississippi, nor did the long-run prospects of cotton culture look promising.  The older farm lands of Mississippi had been opened for the growth of cotton, and the state’s early prosperity had depended entirely on that commodity.  By 1920, however, the cotton economy of the South seemed to be facing many difficulties.  Overproduction at home, growing competition abroad, and the boll weevil had all joined to bring 30 years of decline to the profits of cotton growers.

Another “answer” which was not a workable solution to the problems of 1920 was reforestation.  True, the land was ideally suited to the growth of timber, but there were two basic obstacles to this course.  First, in the early years after 1920 the growing of marketable pine timber was assumed to take 50-100 years.  Long before these new trees would be ready for the logging crews, the people in the territory would have moved away or starved to death.  Even the railroad would have salvaged its steel rails and closed out its operations.

The second big obstacle to the reforesting of large areas was the type of tax law which Mississippi used in 1920.  Her basic levy was the ad valorem tax on real property, which by its structure produced larger amounts of revenue as real property increased in assessable value.  Hence, few people were willing to face 50 years of taxpaying at an ever-increasing rate before reaping any benefit from the planting of young pine forests.

 

Agriculture in Mississippi

The only immediately apparent answer to development problems in 1920 was diversified agriculture.  The territory seemed to have all the requisites for easy production of many of the “small” crops of the country.  Because it seemed to be the only answer, and a relatively good one, many community development groups turned eagerly to its promotion.  The GM&N joined forces with the state extension services, the banks, utilities, and other institutions in advocating this innovative agriculture, especially in Alabama and South Mississippi.  The road provided space along its right of way for vegetable and fruit-packing sheds.  In some instances where a large production seemed imminent, the road itself built the sheds as a public service.  The Company joined with the extension people in offering prizes for poultry and egg production at the many county fairs held throughout the region.  

To improve the sandy soil special low rates were set for the hauling of manure from the stockyards at St. Louis.  Limestone was considered of so much value as a conditioner for the crop lands along the GM&N that the road announced in 1922 that it would refund its entire freight charges to any farmer who bought limestone for the purpose of enriching his land.

The road employed a full-time agricultural development expert who worked with any community along the line willing to use his services.  If a town or section decided it wanted to go into a specific activity, such as syrup production, this agent of the road would procure all available information about types of cane, methods of planting and harvesting, as well as types of processing plant needed.  This was a valuable service, especially in the rural sections of Mississippi, because few local citizens had access to such information.

In partnership with a banking house in North Mississippi, the GM&N sponsored a series of local showings of educational films on more efficient rural life.  Matters of health and diet, as well as homemaking hints, were stressed along with better farming practices.  It was so enthusiastically received that the road helped carry the program throughout its territory.

Most of the land suitable for agricultural purposes in the North Mississippi counties was already under some form of development.  Hence, in these areas the land development program had to be one of more intelligent or more intensive use of existing farm acreage.  In South Mississippi and parts of Mobile County, Alabama, there were large areas of cut-over lands lying idle.  These acres were covered with fire-blackened stumps, some blackjack oaks, and weeds or heavy grasses of low nutritive value.  In the main, this land was owned by lumber companies, though in some instances it had reverted to state ownership through tax default.

In 1922 the GM&N took the lead in organizing a program to locate farmers on much of this land.  In the early months of 1923 the Alabama-Mississippi Improvement Association was formed, with headquarters at Laurel, Mississippi.  This was a co-operative effort on the part of landowners, banks, and the GM&N to settle farmers on the cut-over lands between Mobile, Alabama, and New Houlka, Mississippi, 300 miles to the north.   J. G. Haman, of the GM&N, was named managing director, and the road was to bear a heavy part of the expense of this organization.  The plan was to allow a prospective purchaser five years’ use of the land without payment while he established his “homestead.” If necessary to get a farmer started, the GM&N was willing to lend him money enough to buy five dairy cows and a pair of mules.  In addition, for the free use of these newcomers and others in the community, the railroad promised to provide registered dairy bulls to build up and improve local milk herds.

This ambitious program for farm development was not very successful in achieving its ends.  It did some good, but if the future of the road had depended entirely on new settlers on farms in the cut-over areas, it is probable that the GM&N would not have grown significantly.  Other programs sponsored by the Company also had a beneficial effect on the basic agricultural practices of the area but did not produce heavy tonnage for the road.

Alabama’s Port

The other major development effort for the early GM&N was at the port of Mobile.  The Company owned docks at Choctaw Point but facilities were not adequate for all ships the GM&N hoped to serve.  For this reason, the GM&N, along with the Louisville and Nashville, arranged to pay cost differentials for ships using Turner-Hartwell Dock Company facilities.  The Company also spent a large amount of money on its own dock facilities at Choctaw Point.   More important, however, was the effort by the GM&N and the people of Mobile to induce the state of Alabama to build a system of state-owned docks at Mobile.  The GM&N hired a highly qualified development engineer to work with the people of Mobile and various Alabama legislative committees in studying and planning this great project.  Undoubtedly, the resurgence of Mobile as a port dates from the decision by the state to spend $10,000,000 on the modern facilities which began to serve the needs of the city and harbor in 1928.

 

Other Efforts

The News of April 2,1926, carried a long story about an important meeting of the Southern Industrial Conference of the American Mining Congress.  The GM&N was represented in the sessions, and as a result of these meetings the road employed a full time consulting geologist who was to make a careful study of the mineral wealth in Mississippi adjacent to the railroad.  Some interesting if not valuable evidence was uncovered in the course of these studies.  T.T.Martin, who assisted in the survey, later said: “They worked hard and thoroughly, and turned up a great amount of information which was scientifically interesting but commercially almost valueless.  We had iron ore, but in strata too thin.  We had lignite, but not in sufficient quantity.  We had limestone, too soft to use as building material or aggregate.  We had vast quantities of bauxite but of the wrong composition.  We had commercially usable clays but not enough to balance the loss of one saw mill.”  In spite of this fact the GM&N assisted in opening up some mineral deposits along the line and in early 1928 conducted a tour of these resources in conjunction with a meeting of the Southern Division of the American Mining Congress.               

The Road continued its program of farm development throughout the period but shifted emphasis in the later years to improvement of existing farms.  It developed its own farm experiment station in the cut-over lands of South Mississippi to show what could be done with careful management.  S. A. Robert, for years director of the West Tennessee Experiment Station at Jackson, Tennessee, was borrowed for promotional work over a number of years, and finally in August, 1929, The GM&N employed him to devote full time to the GM&N program.

In 1930 the GM&N was hard at work trying by every available means to counteract the creeping effects of the depression which grew out of the financial and industrial East and North but was rapidly engulfing the other sections of the country.  It cannot be said that the road had been spectacularly successful in its development efforts, but certainly the people along the line of the road knew that the GM&N was interested in their joint welfare.

 

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