Terrell land yields seeds of the past

Pictures from the Terrell family album


Eagle Staff Writer

Eagle photo/Dave McDermand

Bill Terrell Sr., 79, and son Bill Terrell Jr., 41, share a laugh at Senior's house in Navasota. Junior took over operations of his father’s farm in the late 1980s. Senior had farmed the area since 1954, and his father and grandfather had farmed in and around there since 1854.

Eagle photo/Dave McDermand

Junior (center) stands with farm foreman James Willie Mable in the farm shop and discusses daily work assignments prior to the morning work meeting at Terrell Farms. Mable, who's been working at Terrell Farms all his life, has ancestors who labored there in the early 1900s.

Eagle photo/Dave McDermand

A farm worker makes his way to the morning meeting for his work assignment at Terrell Farms.

Eagle photo/Dave McDermand

Bill Terrell Jr. stands in front of the old Terrell Brothers general store, which closed in the 1940s. It was built in the 1880s and supplied provisions for the Allen Farm Community.

Eagle photo/Dave McDermand

In another era, this old barn was where the plow mules were fed and kept. Now, it’s used for storage. Mules pulled plows around the Allen Farm Community until the 1960s.

Eagle photo/Dave McDermand

Johnny Lee Washington’s life is the farm and he has no intention of retiring.

A drive along F.M. 159 as it parallels the meandering Brazos River in southwestern Brazos County is a trip back in time.

The road sweeps past miles of cropland and century-old buildings that serve as silent reminders of a once-thriving community of men, women and children whose numbers have been reduced by the industrialization of farm life and whose voices have been stilled by the demands of time.

At a sharp curve, where the road breaks from the river’s outline, travelers enter the heart of historic Terrell Farms, an area locals call the Allen Farm Community.

It’s on this rich river bottom soil that descendants of the Terrell family and their sharecroppers worked side-by-side cultivating their hopes and dreams as they faced the hardships and joys of farming. Today the land serves as the anchor for this generation of Terrells, but there is a sense of uncertainty about the future that surfaces in conversations with the family patriarchs.

“It’s my life. I guess I don’t know what else I’d do,” said Bill Terrell Jr. during an interview at the farm’s headquarters house. It was constructed in 1880 for use as his grandparents’ home. He is the fourth-generation Terrell to farm the land purchased by his great-grandfather in 1907.

At the zenith of its sharecropping days, the land sustained a self-sufficient community of more than 64 sharecropping families that lived on tracts of land ranging from 10 to 20 acres. The land was rented for a share of the crops’ income.

Terrell Jr. took over day-to-day operations after his father, Bill Sr., 79, suffered a second stroke.

Today, the elder Terrell moves about in a motorized scooter and spends much of his time at home with his wife, Jane.

“We’re so lucky to have the land. Years ago we never thought anything about it,” the elder Terrell said at his home in Navasota.

Over the years the farm has grown to an operation that covers about 3,500 acres. Cotton, grain sorghum, soybeans and corn are among the cash crops, and the farm also has a commercial cow-calf operation.

“Cotton seems to always pay the bills. It’s the staple cash crop,” Terrell Jr. said.

The family

The elder Terrell was in the class of 1946 at Texas A&M University. After graduation he left the farm to work in Port Arthur. That’s where he met Jane. But the soil beckoned, and Terrell returned to the farm in 1953 where he and his wife reared their children — Bill Jr., Kathleen Terrell and Janet Davis. Kathleen, is a lawyer in Navasota and Janet is a teacher for the Navasota Independent School District.

Bill Jr. oversees farm operations today. He and his wife, Margie, have three children — two boys, Alex, 13, and Morgan, 11 and a daughter, Allison, 9.

The elder Terrell spoke fondly about sharecroppers and employees who lived on the farm. “Snipe,” for example, was deathly afraid of snakes. “Edna,” the wife of a sharecropper, would go to the community mailbox each day and “read it all.”

“When I first came it was a paternal situation. My dad would take (sharecroppers) to the doctor and when the bill came we might get paid and we might not,” he said.

Frank Green, the farm’s blacksmith, was a recipient of the Terrells’ generosity.

When he was 16 he suffered a serious leg injury that required part of his leg to be amputated. When he returned to the farm “we made him blacksmith because he couldn’t get around,” said Terrell Sr.

Green did more than just shape horseshoes. He repaired equipment, made tools and furniture.

He made the chair that served as the receiving end for conversation on the barbershop porch. Green died in the mid-1070s, Terrell Sr. said.

Early days

(click here to see these photos)

Black and white photos line the interior walls of the headquarters house. There’s a photo of Edna sitting on the front porch of a house. Tom Spearman, a cigarette entrenched in his lips, stares at the photographer.

A photo taken at the barbershop captures smiling men enjoying a moment on the porch. In another picture, sharecroppers’ families dressed in their Sunday best gather around a pond for a baptism.

Other pictures are kept in an old photo album. The pages yield families working and playing side by side. Terrell Jr. can be seen as a youngster playing in the irrigation ditches that watered the crops, or standing knee-high to sharecroppers as cotton was weighed at the Terrell Gin.

Stroll through the headquarters and you’ll find the dinner bell that was used to summon workers from the fields for meals. Terrell Jr. said that watches were a luxury for most sharecroppers so the bell served as a timepiece. Now it stands quiet.

The farm community had its own mercantile store where credit for food, seed and supplies was available. There was also a post office, church, school, barbershop, blacksmith barn and cotton gin. Some of these buildings are still on the farm. A look inside the mercantile store — it closed in the 1990s — reveals handheld bellows, handmade tools created by Green, an old soldering iron, ice tongs, cotton scales and weights.

The oldest building is the blacksmith’s barn. At one time more than 100 mules were used to plow the fields, and they kept Green busy. Terrell Jr. said mules were used into the late 1960s.

“This was the heart of the operation. This was the meeting place,” he said as he pointed to the outline of a concrete pit where everybody gathered in the morning to get their work orders for the day.

Until recently workers still gathered at the barn; now they meet under a shade tree beside the blacksmith shop, he said.

Life on the farm was slow to change — “very slow,” said Terrell Jr. For example, electricity wasn’t available there until 1942.

“My dad drilled the first [electric-powered water] well in this bottom around 1957 or 1958,” he said. “Most land was flood irrigated up to five years ago. Now we use pivot irrigation systems. It’s a lot more efficient and uses a lot less labor.”

Terrell Sr. agreed that irrigation technology is one of the biggest changes he’s witnessed on the farm.

“We’ve gone from plastic pipe tubing to aluminum to ditches to pivot irrigation,” he said.

One man’s life

The Terrells and the sharecroppers of 1907 would be awed by today’s farming practices: high-tech irrigation, powerful implements and equipment, specially developed seeds, pest controls, computerized accounting and crop rotation.

Still, the land provides the continuity that connects the present with the past. And as much as life changes, some things stay the same.

Johnny Lee Washington, 79, has worked on the farm for about 40 years and has no intention of retiring. He and his wife, Ruby Mae, met there and raised six kids there.

“I ain’t kept up with the years, but I’ve been here quite awhile,” Washington said softly as he whittled on a stick behind the blacksmith shop.

Washington is a man of few words, but the lines etched into his face speak volumes about a life of hard work. He lives “up the hill” in Cawthon, which is within eyesight of the blacksmith shop.

“When I first come here, a bunch of people lived on the land,” he said.

Washington talked about the days of chopping and picking cotton. He also recalled “the old black tractors” that he began driving when mule-power was being eliminated from the farm.

“Now they got them with the cabs,” he said of the elaborate tractors.

He recalled times when the weather was bad and the crops didn’t come in and there would be no money. That’s when he’d go to the mercantile and get food for his children on credit.

The farm “means a whole lot to me,” he said.

The good times

James Willie Mabel, 46, is the foreman of farming operations. His parents lived and worked on the farm, and this is where James met his bride, Mary Doris Harvey. They’ve been married 28 years and raised four children.

He admits that he often struggled to provide for his family, but through hard work “it came to pass. The door opened up and I saw modernization of the farm and an increase in pay.”

Like Washington, he talked about how weather can play havoc on farm life.

“Water determines your profits. We live and die by the weather. Good rains at the right time produces good crops. This is your money. This is your profit. This is your Christmas bonus,” he said.

Farming showed Mabel early in life what he called the true meaning of reaping what you sow. It’s these lessons that he carries to his pulpit at Missionary Camp Baptist Church in Navasota.

“We are a young church. We’re about planting seeds for the growth in the lives of men and women and preparing those kids for the future that will be the light in the Navasota area,” he said. “With the help of good bosses and Christian people, I’ve been able to do it.”

It’s all these events and more that give him pause.

“I sit here and look at this place and it’s my life,” he said. “I think about my birthplace on the hill here, all the good times.”

The future

Terrell Jr. said he plans on farming the land for years to come and “that’s as far as I can think anymore.”

Playing and working on the farm when he was young, he never gave much thought to whether he’d carry on the Terrell farming legacy. But as he grew and finished college, he realized the farm was where he belonged.

“I didn’t have many thoughts of doing anything else,” said Terrell Jr.

And will any of his children follow in his footsteps?

They do make trips out to the farm, he said, but none has expressed an interest in farming.

“I would like to see one of them farm,” he said. “I don’t think the farm will support more than one of them. We don’t really own this land. We’re just the tenants of it until it goes on to somebody else. I try to take care of it the best I can for the next generation.”

• Beverly Moseley’s e-mail is bmoseley@theeagle.com.

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