A Family Farm in Antebellum Alabama

September 28, 1814

What a beautiful time of plenty and prosperity are we experiencing here in Alabama! Every year brings about new opportunities for us. The joyous melody of the sweet word expansion is in the fresh air. Perhaps your neighbor or your brother has recently expanded or perhaps you and your family are enjoying a new life with newly found affluence. Be it for sugar, corn, rice, potatoes, or our beloved cotton, every day families are taking their hard-earned savings, buying a few new hands for labor, buying a few more acres of land, and earning for themselves a new life of comfort. (2)

In the spirit of investigating this mysteriously beautiful thing of expansion, I traveled to Birmingham to visit the Baker family farm. The train ride upstate was a pleasant one, and it was also quite pleasant to be greeted by a small black child when I stepped off the train in the town just up the road from the Baker farm (4). We walked briskly down the dusty dirt road along the endless fields. The bright green of the sugar fields was at my left and the light brown spotted with creamy white fluffs of the cotton fields was to my right (1). The little negro boy was holding a brown paper bag tightly in one hand and did not say anything to me except for a “Yes, sir,” when I asked if it was he who was to show me to the Baker residence.

“Is it much farther?” I asked. The boy shook his head side to side. “Have you been running errands all morning?” The boy nodded his head up and down. “Marvelous,” I responded.

Soon we turned off the road and the Baker’s farmhouse came into view from behind the great oak trees. It was a sizeable, wood-framed house with a long porch, all painted white. The negro boy led me up the front steps to the door and then stepped back. I knocked on the door and waited for Mrs. Baker to answer. Suddenly the door swung open and she appeared in the doorway in a flurry.

“Welcome! Welcome, Miss Bradshaw! How delightful of you to visit our family!” she exclaimed. Mrs. Baker wore a prim long white dress and her blonde hair was pulled back into a tight bun at the base of her neck.  “Journalism! What a delightful pastime for a young lady such as you!” she continued.

When we were comfortably seated at the dining room table with tea and cornbread, Mrs. Baker told me about her family and their farm. Mrs. and Mr. Baker have been running their farm for just over twenty years and now have four children.  In the last few years, they have expanded their farm and found great success.

“Ten years ago, we had just one black farm-hand and we produced maybe three bales of cotton a year among other crops,” she recounted. “Today we have bought four more farm-hands and we produce several times what we used to (5). My husband is at the Davidson plantation a few miles up north today, using the cotton gins with the farm-hands, otherwise he would have been happy to speak with you.” (2)

As we were talking a black servant came into the adjoining kitchen and began scrubbing away at the dishes in the sink.

“Margarett, come here and refill our teacups,” Mrs. Baker directed. Margarett hustled over and began to pour the tea.

“How many slaves do you and your husband own, Mrs. Baker?” I asked.

“Five farm-hands and Margarett. That’s all.” she replied.  “Margarett is a great help. She cooks and cleans and cares for the children. And she is very happy living with us.” (4) Mrs. Baker has two sons and two daughters. Both sons attend secondary school but neither daughter attended school past primary (2).

“My husband and I did not believe it was important for our girls to attend secondary,
Mrs. Baker told me. “I would prefer to have them here in the house with me, anyway. But last year, we were able to send our eldest daughter who is 17 to finishing school in New York City (3). We would not have been able to do that before we expanded.” As Mrs. Baker spoke of the luxuries her new life encompassed, I heard the voice of a child in the kitchen with Margarett.

“Is that your younger daughter, Mrs. Baker?” I asked.

“No, no. Emeline, my daughter is upstairs in her bedroom. Those are Margarett’s children.” Soon the five young children stepped into view.

“Is Margaret married?” I asked.

“No,” Mrs. Baker replied curtly through pursed lips. I looked over at the children. Three of their faces were black like that of Margarett but the others had lighter, creamy chocolate-colored skin (4). Mrs. Baker started tapping her fingers on the table, impatiently, and I decided to spare her from what was obviously a sensitive matter.

“How do you fill your spare time, Mrs. Baker?” I asked.

“I keep order in the household,” she replied. “I make sure that the children and the help come together for family prayer in the morning and in the evening, and I make sure that Margarett is keeping the house clean and the children happy.” Mrs. Baker also fills her time with spinning and weaving, and teaching those tasks to her daughter, as is typical of a Southern Lady (2).

The one difficult aspect of the life of a family such as the Bakers is the isolation (2). Living in rural Alabama like virtually all people in Alabama do, Mrs. Baker does not have much interaction with the outside world. She very seldom leaves her estate as her role confines her to the household, her help runs errands for her, and the farms in the vicinity are located so far apart.  But nevertheless, Mrs. Baker enjoys a life of comfort and prosperity that she is grateful for.

“Would you like to see around the estate before you leave?” she asked me.

“Very much so, thank you,” I replied.

“I’ll have Emerson take you.” Emerson, the small negro boy who escorted me from the town to the Baker farm earlier in the day, led me outside of the Baker’s farmhouse and around the Baker estate. The kitchen and smoke house were behind the farm house and were stocked full of meat, lard, and barrels of flour, sugar, and coffee. Several barns were located on the edge of the cotton and sugar fields for storing the harvests and from a distance I could make out the slave quarters behind the farthest barn. On the other side of the farmhouse was the orchard (5).

“Orchard. Apple, pear, peach, plum, apricot,” Emerson said quietly with a nod as he listed each type of fruit. I stepped onto the soft, dark soil of the orchard, under the shade of the branches of an apple tree. The air was pleasant with the sweetness of ripe fruit. The trees stretched for a great distance on both sides of me. Although the Bakers’ expansion had led them to a very isolated and sometimes difficult life, it was a life of plenty. I plucked an apple off a branch, biting into the sweet fruit and as I did another bright red apple fell to the ground. I did not offer it to Emerson; I knew he couldn’t accept it. As I walked away and back to the dirt road I thought of the little black boy running back to the orchard in the darkness and sneaking a bite of the sweet apple, eager to share in the prosperity too.

— Miss Hattie Bradshaw

Works Referenced

  1. “Alabama.” Britannica SchoolBrittanica School. Web. 8 Nov. 2013.
  2. Brinkley , Alan. The Unfinished Nation: a Concise History of the American People. 3d ed. New York : McGraw-Hill, 2013. Print.
  3. Durr, Virginia F. . “Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr.” Documenting the American South. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2013. <http://docsouth.unc.edu/sohp/biblio.html?base_file=G-0023-1&duration=00:00:01&gt;.
  4. Jones, Friday. “Days of Bondage.” Documenting the American South. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2013. <http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/fjones/jones.html&gt;.
  5. Lowery, Irving E.. “Life on the Old Plantation in Ante-bellum Days.” Documenting the American South. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2013. <http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/lowery/lowery.html&gt;.
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One thought on “A Family Farm in Antebellum Alabama

  1. Hi Mira!
    This was awesome! I love the setting that you created for the characters and interview during this story. You were able to show more then tell which always rocks. Instead of saying like “this is how things were” you used the interview really well to actually make the reader care about the interview and learn about the farm life at the time. GREAT JOB!

    Bradley

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