Alton Brazell’s father and grandfather collaborated with two neighbors on a Central Texas cotton farming venture in 1928.
Their collective efforts were undermined by one of cotton’s worst nightmares: the boll weevil. The result of all their work was a one-bale harvest.
“That was the last year they farmed there,” Brazell said.
Brazell and his family found their way to Lubbock as migrant cotton workers from 1938 through 1940. It was then that his father rented a farm in the Broadview community northwest of Lubbock.
“Most of that area was quarter-section (160 acres) farms,” he said. “It was farm after farm every quarter section out there, the whole community. I think the smallest farm was 40 acres and the largest was a half-section. It was mostly tenant farmers. Now, if you went southeast of Lubbock County toward Wilson, those were mostly land owners, and they had farms that were a little larger.”
Brazell said he farmed from 1941-58 (with the exception of a two-year hitch in the U.S. Army) before becoming a Lubbock County commissioner for 36 years. Today, he is credited as a driving force behind the American Museum of Agriculture, located on Canyon Lake Drive in Lubbock.
Lubbock and the South Plains have deep ties to agriculture, which remains a critical economic driver throughout the region, said Dan Taylor, longtime owner and operator of Buster’s Gin in Ropesville.
“Originally, all of this area was rangeland,” he said, referring to large ranching operations such as the IOA and Spade ranches that dominated the area in the late 1800s. “Through promotions by the Spade Ranch and other ranches, farm families migrated here from other parts of Texas or other states.
“We have a good climate for cotton because of the arid conditions and soil types that require less water than is required in other areas. And we have few insects. Early on, when people started farming this area, it became apparent how good it was for cotton. That, and boll weevil damage in other areas, probably got people out here. At one time, the boll weevil just about wiped out cotton, and it played a big part in getting people west.”
Other factors were at work as well. Brazell said South Plains farming became mechanized more quickly than other areas. Also, a number of East and Central Texas farmers were pushed west by a confluence of factors: long neglected land, persistent boll weevil infestations and the opportunities of an area that would blossom into an agricultural mecca.
“In Lubbock County, nearly everyone had mechanized by the late 1930s, which was faster than other areas,” he said. “Farms were bigger here, and the flat land of the plains was adaptable to mechanization.”
Moving to become more efficient didn’t necessarily make working on a farm any easier, though, said Brazell.
“It was still a lot of hard work,” he said. “Even though we were mechanized, you still had to hoe in addition to plowing, planting and cultivating. You had to hoe the crops and harvest by hand. Changing equipment was hard.
When you got through plowing and wanted to plant, you had to convert the equipment, and that was physical work.”
Taylor, who was raised on a Central Texas farm, agreed that early farmers encountered plenty of challenges.
“I was heavily involved in it as a youngster in the late 1940s and early ’50s,” he said. “It was very intense labor. We hand-harvested. I had a real fast saying when people asked me what I planned to do later in life. My standard answer was I would not have anything to do with farming cotton, but that was during the hard times.”
It didn’t turn out that way, of course. Taylor studied agriculture at Texas Tech and became an ag teacher at Lubbock-Cooper. In 1968, he began farming a 10-acre tract at what is now an area near 78th Street and Elgin Avenue and eventually had about 100 acres of farmland until 1975, when he changed agricultural directions and moved into the cotton ginning business.
Before Taylor became synonymous with Buster’s Gin, though, Lubbock needed to secure its reputation as the world’s largest cotton patch. The area morphed from a farming community into an agricultural hub beginning in the late 1940s with an irrigation boom that lasted through a series of tough rain years from 1950-1957 and into the 1960s.
“It created several interlaced results on the South Plains,” said local historian Don Abbe. “The stability of cotton farming was enhanced. The volume of production went way up. The acreage devoted to cotton increased, and the per-acre production went up. That resulted in more income for farmers because it allowed the area to raise more cotton than it ever had before.”
The result was an area comprising 20 counties around Lubbock where more than 3.5 million acres of irrigated and dryland cotton are planted each year. “King Cotton” had officially assumed its place on the throne, and the South Plains became home to a burgeoning agribusiness complex.
“Cotton gin makers and irrigation pump makers didn’t come in until the demand was there, but that demand skyrocketed so quickly that they saw the potential of agriculture-related service industries,” Abbe said. “They either came into Lubbock or were already here and grew — companies that built and serviced gins, people building and servicing irrigation systems.”
Brazell said his family began as tenant farmers, a typical arrangement at the time, which continues to some extent today.
“Someone owned the farm and furnished the land,” he said. “We furnished the equipment and the labor to get the cotton to gin. We also paid the owner with one-quarter of the cotton and one-third of the grain, although we didn’t produce much grain then. That was a pretty normal tenant arrangement, and there’s still a lot of that going on.”
Brazell said farming is continuing to change and evolve. Today’s farms are larger than their forerunners, but the challenge remains the same: deliver more product for less cost.
“Agriculture could teach some of the major corporations about efficiency today,” Taylor said. “We’ve had tremendous change in the past 10 years in terms of genetic modifications of plants, and it’s really brought us to a new level of yields, insect control and weed control.”
“When we moved here, everyone was basically two-row farmers,” Brazell said. “During the 1950s, we got more land and switched to four-row farming. After I quit, my dad went to six-row. On a mechanized farm today, you’ll see eight- and 12-row rigs with GPS systems.”
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