When Mathis invested her inheritance in land, her life took a nontraditional turn. Against the advice of her husband and friends, she purchased “worn-out farms,” farms that had been operated by tenants who grew cotton year after year and exhausted the soil. Mathis found Alabama’s method of cotton production irrational and set about identifying better methods. She investigated the best ways to restore the land’s fertility and forced her tenants to sign contracts requiring them to follow her plans. In her first venture, she bought a farm of about a thousand acres for eight dollars an acre and sold it six years later for forty dollars an acre. She then repeated the process on other tracts.
While Mathis enjoyed earning profits from rehabilitating properties, she had larger concerns. Before the Civil War, small farmers commonly practiced safety-first farming, meeting their households’ basic food and feed needs before growing cash crops. A post-war cash shortage crippled southern farmers’ ability to continue this practice, and many farmers purchased goods from local merchants on credit. Merchants often accepted only cotton crops as collateral, which encouraged farmers to devote resources to cotton. is was bad for the South—more dollars left the region as it became dependent on northern and western states for food and feed—and for farmers—merchants charged higher prices and exorbitant interest rates to customers buying on credit. When cotton prices plummeted, farmers had no choice but to go deeper in debt, resulting in persistent rural poverty and an average income among Alabama farmers of around $325 per year. Mathis addressed these problems by requiring that her tenants practice safety-first farming, providing for family needs first and growing cotton only as a “surplus cash crop.” She also had them cultivate fall cover crops after the cotton harvest—legumes that would restore fertility to the land—and food crops that could be produced year-round in Alabama’s temperate climate. She proved that self-sufficiency was feasible and that diversified small farms could be profitable enterprises.
Ida Mathis used her knowledge of agriculture and the force of her personality to educate Alabama's poor farmers on the dangers of over-reliance on cotton farming.
Mathis played a key role in turning around the state economy even prior to the stimulus of war production, because she brought the people of Alabama a message of hope in a time of desperation. She convinced farmers that she genuinely cared and that her plan would work, and she was relentless in her efforts to convince townspeople that they should take an interest in the problems of the rural poor. She personally took her tenant farmers to local banks, using her influence as a prosperous property owner to get them loans on reasonable terms. One of her favorite stories was how she convinced a women’s club to take out a personal bank loan to purchase canning supplies for a girls’ tomato club, then pressured reluctant merchants to sell the canned tomatoes in their stores. The initial loan of several hundred dollars produced more than $6,000 worth of canned tomatoes, which put dollars in the hands of rural girls and their families to spend in local businesses. The obvious moral of the tale was that cooperation paid off—everyone benefited from rural prosperity.
Mathis herself was clearly changed by her experiences. Although her work on agriculture was prescient, her attitudes about other issues, including race and class, reflected the dominant beliefs of her era. In early speeches at bankers’ conventions, she spoke of her black and white tenant farmers in patronizing terms, depicting them as lazy drunkards in dire need of guidance. But as she toured the state day after day meeting with poverty-stricken farmers, she increasingly spoke of them in respectful terms, acknowledging their sincere desire for a better life. When the federal government assumed responsibility for agricultural production during the war, officials found that Alabama farmers had shifted to food crops much more quickly than farmers in other southern states due to Mathis’s leadership. Her solutions were not unique, but she explained everything in plain words with reassurance and concern. For that they loved her, and the state’s agriculture and economy benefitted from that affection.
This feature was previously published in Issue 115, Winter 2015.
Rebecca Montgomery is associate professor and director of graduate studies in the history department at Texas State University. Joshua D. Rothman, standing editor of the “Alabama Women” department of Alabama Heritage, is professor of history at the University of Alabama and director of the university’s Frances S. Summersell Center for the Study of the South, which sponsors this department.