In the first decades of the twentieth century, the Hopson Plantation, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, spearheaded the adoption of mechanization for large-scale commercial agriculture in the Delta, becoming the first plantation to use a mechanical cotton picker.
The Hopson family purchased the tract of land that would become the plantation from the State of Mississippi in 1852. As in much of the Mississippi Delta, the level, well-drained alluvial soil on the Hopsons’ land was ideally suited for cotton production. During the late nineteenth century the plantation grew to four thousand acres, with approximately thirty-one hundred under cultivation.
The Hopson family subsequently became interested in utilizing new technology to improve crop yield and reduce labor costs. In 1914 the plantation became one of the first in the region to use a tractor and soon followed that innovation with the use of pickup trucks. During the 1930s the plantation halved its cotton acreage as a result of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration’s cotton program. To help increase the yield on the reduced acreage and to decrease costs, the family permitted the International Harvester Company to use the plantation as a developmental station for a mechanical cotton picker beginning in 1935.
The first public demonstration of the device took place at the Hopson Plantation on 2 October 1944 in front of three hundred onlookers. This picker was capable of harvesting six acres per day—far more than even a skilled worker could harvest by hand. The family estimated that the machine reduced the cost of production from $39.41 per bale to $5.26. Shortly thereafter, the plantation became the testing ground for a flame cultivator, which mechanized the process of clearing weeds.
These advances coincided with and helped further the decline of the sharecropping system in southern commercial agriculture. The Great Migration to northern cities had dramatically reduced the supply of agricultural laborers throughout the South. By the 1920s the Hopson Plantation was one of many that had come to rely largely on day workers and seasonal migrant laborers. For this reason, most cotton plantation owners eagerly anticipated the perfection of a mechanical picker and other devices that would minimize the need for human labor.
By 1950 the Hopson Plantation had become fully automated, and all elements of premechanized production had been eliminated. As a state-of-the-art operation, the plantation became a model for other plantations, and it remained a testing ground for agricultural machinery. It operated as an independent commercial cotton farm until 1972.
In the 1970s Clarksdale’s role in the development of blues music became more widely appreciated, and the Hopson Plantation began a second life as a tourist destination. During the 1990s local businessmen purchased the core of the plantation and converted the buildings into a hotel, a concert hall, and a meeting venue. The plantation now serves as a hot spot for those seeking to better understand the history and culture of the Mississippi Delta.
- Donald Holley, The Second Great Emancipation: The Mechanical Cotton Picker, Black Migration, and How They Shaped the Modern South (2000)
- Howell Hopson, Mechanization of a Delta Cotton Plantation as Applied to Hopson Planting Company (1944)
- Hopson Plantation Commissary website, www.hopsonplantation.com
- Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (1992)
- Bill Tipton, “Mechanical Cultivation and Picking of Cotton, Dream of Industry, Comes True,” ACCO Press 22 (November 1944)
- Bill Talbot and James Butler, interviews by Trevor A. Smith (September 2007)