OLD NEWS: The great sweet potato crisis of 1919 - Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

OLD NEWS: The great sweet potato crisis of 1919 - Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
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With very little effort, we can harvest a bushel of stories about sweet potatoes from the August 1919 issues of the Arkansas Gazette. Sweet potatoes were on many minds.

I yam a citygirl, and so these things at first made me chuckle. But farmers will know at once there was nothing funny about them.

Here are a few sweet-potato-involved clippings from August 1919:

Classified ad: Someone was selling a big property at 3401 Hayes St. in Little Rock’s “Park View” Addition. (Hayes Street became University Avenue in 1959.) The site’s amenities included 1,500 sweet potato plants.

Item: A synopsis of weather and crop conditions in Arkansas by the U.S. Weather Bureau for the week ending Aug. 12 showed light rains in many places but no rain in other parts that had been desiccating in a drought for five to six weeks. Temperatures had ranged up to 105 degrees. Only cotton was doing well because boll weevils didn’t like such weather.

Meadows, pastures, sweet potatoes, melons, peanuts and sorghum suffered for the lack of moisture, and are practically dried up in some places.

As the month went along, the weather for sweet potatoes and the other crops worsened. But as it turned out, plenty of sweet potatoes still were feeling fine across the South. In fact, the special doom that hovers above successful farming was lofting in the thermals high above the sweet potato acreage, drifting in lazy circles as it waited to descend.

Ad: The Winston-Wilson Realty Co. had 2 ½-acre tracts of land for sale along “the winding Maumelle with its cool crystal water flashing with bass and perch,” and every tract came with five free shares of oil stock worth $50. This business was raising money for its oil speculation in Oklahoma, a wildly popular pastime.

Besides the “pleasure in alluring jollity” awaiting the overworked city man who bought this land, wealth awaited the man with the hoe, the hen, the pig or the cow. The sellers estimated it would bring in, for instance, $100 to $250 per acre a year in sweet potatoes.

Item: The 12th annual Tri-State Fair at Memphis would include a new section about the value of sweet potatoes as a food and the possibilities of making the sweet potato a still more important cash crop.

Ad (for the fair): “Display of Sweet Potatoes. A mammoth sweet potato display will call attention to the food value of this important Southern product and set forth the importance of same.”

Item: Sweet potatoes were selling for $3 a bushel in Little Rock. That was a good price.

Item: H.M. Cottrell, agriculturist for the Arkansas Profitable Farming Bureau of the Little Rock Board of Commerce, had some worrisome news:

“More than a million acres were planted to sweet potatoes in the United States last spring, a large increase over the previous year,” says Mr. Cottrell. “The crop is in good condition, and if nothing unusual occurs, there will be around 75,000,000 bushels thrown on the market at one time, when the potatoes are dug.”

And right about the time this massive bumper crop of yams was arriving by the train carload on Northern loading docks, Idaho potato farmers and the government would be making an unusual push to sell Irish potatoes there. The spuds would compete with the yams while the yams were competing among themselves. There was no way the North would buy sweet potatoes for the price farmers usually could command.

Farmers had dealt with glut summers before, and so they had storage houses in which to hold back a season’s crop until spring when sweet potatoes weren’t in season and thus commanded a better price. But Cottrell didn’t think waiting would be enough this time.

“There have been many storage houses for sweet potatoes built this season, but all the old and new storage houses together cannot store enough sweet potatoes to make even a dent in the big crop that we are likely to have.”

He recommended advertising sweet potatoes to a new market — the Rocky Mountain states. Place ads and write letters at once. If, for instance, farmers in southeast Arkansas each chipped in 5 cents per bushel of their crops, they would have $20,000, “and $20,000 spent judiciously in Rocky Mountain newspapers would sell every sweet potato in the state and home folks would have to go without.”

Letter to the Editor:

I have read with a great deal of interest Mr. Cottrell’s timely warning and advice on the marketing and disposition of Arkansas’ coming large sweet potato crop, and I would like to place more emphasis on the necessity for an extensive advertising campaign in order that the crop may be disposed of to advantage.

This writer had recently visited the West and there bought a small number of sweet potatoes for table use. He was sorely disappointed. A Maryland product, they were “so tasteless as to hardly be distinguished from the spud or Irish potato.” And these cardboard potatoes retailed in the West for $3 and $3.50 per bushel.

It is a fact that the Rocky Mountain and other Midwestern states could take Arkansas’ entire crop of sweet potatoes at a price that would be wholly satisfactory to the growers if the trade in those states could at once be acquainted with the superior flavor of our Nancy Halls.

He had served some Nancy Hall sweet potatoes from home to his Wyoming acquaintances. They were astonished by the flavor. Besides an ad campaign, he suggested that Nancy Halls be shipped gratis directly to western hotels and better restaurants in 5- and 10-pound lots by parcel post.

Just send them. Orders for more would follow.

Item: From Fordyce, the first bushel of this year’s crop of sweet potatoes had sold there for $4.50 a bushel.

Item, Page 1: The federal government Aug. 20 reported Alabama had the largest crop of sweet potatoes for the year with almost 20 million bushels — 5 million bushels more than 1918. All told, the crop would be 14 million bushels larger than 1918. Arkansas ranked sixth among the yam producers, with a crop of 4.15 million bushels.

Item: On Aug. 21, sweet potatoes were selling for $2.50 to $2.75 a bushel at Little Rock.

Skip ahead to October.

Oct. 15: $1 a bushel.

Oct. 30: 90 cents a bushel.

MR. HOG RAISER

So we close on a lighter note, here is part of an ad from the Aug. 17, 1919, Gazette. Read it and then study the art that ran with it (scroll to the top of this story, or scroll down to find the whole ad).

Bill: Cholera has got my hogs.

Progressive Sam: Look at my hogs — fat and slick; haven’t had a sick hog this year.

Bill: What’s your secret.

Sam: No secret at all. I feed them TOM’s HOG MAKER HOG INSURANCE every other day.

Bill: Where can I get it?

Sam: Write TOM’S REMEDY CO., 620 Goodwin Inst. They are accommodating people and will fill your order for TOM’S HOG MAKER right now.

Excerpt of an ad in the Aug. 17, 1919, Arkansas Gazette, touting a "miracle cure" for hog cholera. Note the dead hogs around Farmer Bill.

Excerpt of an ad in the Aug. 17, 1919, Arkansas Gazette, touting a “miracle cure” for hog cholera. Note the dead hogs around Farmer Bill.

I like this part best:

“We are not trying to put an untried worthless medicine on hog raisers, but are positively convinced that it will bring immunity and safety to those who feed it.”

You could buy it by mail or, if you were in Memphis, you could buy it where you bought your Poultry Mustard, Spratt’s Dog Cakes, Cow Ease and Conkey’s Fly Knocker.

Email:

cstorey@arkansasonline.com

Style on 08/19/2019