University of Texas at Austin wordmarkUniversity of Texas at AustinCollege of Liberal Arts wordmarkCollege of Liberal Arts
Texas Beyond History
TBH Home

World of the Tenant Farmer

picking cotton
Entire families worked the fields in the backbreaking task of picking cotton before mechanized equipment simplified the task. In this early photo at the Pavliska farm near Granger, children pick and fill bags along with adults. Photo courtesy Nancie Pavliska Roddy and the Institute of Texan Cultures, University of Texas at San Antonio.

We pick cotton like we did a hundred years ago and we chop cotton like we did a hundred years ago, with the exception that we put it into a sack now where we used to put it in a basket.
-Fred Roberts, president, South Texas Cotton Growers Association, 1920.

cotton wagons
Cotton wagons on their way from the gin to the cotton yard in Elgin. Photo courtesy of Leo Foehner, Institute of Texan Cultures, University of Texas at San Antonio. (Click to enlarge photo.)
Hoe found during excavations at the Osborn tenant house.
one of four Osborn farm houses
Tenant families lived in one of four houses on the Osborn farm during the heyday of cotton farming there in the early to mid-twentieth century. This house, shown shortly before its demolition in 1987, was excavated by TxDOT archeologists. (Click to enlarge.)
cotton field
Rows and rows of cotton stretch far into the distance. Tenant farmers on the Osborn farm planted in "halves": five rows for their family, and five for the owner. Between 90 and 100 acres of the total 327 acres on the farm typically were planted in crops.

So at the end of the year, you pay the boss man and you pay anybody else you owe… And my daddy would say that money left his hands sore. He said, "So much money went through my hands, that that's all I have left, sore hands."
- Pete Martínez, Jr.

Samples of ca. 1930-1940s bottles recovered during excavations at the tenant house. a, "Vicks-Va-Tro-Nol 24" nose drops; b, "Bayer" aspirin; c, "Gebhardt Eagle" chili powder.
Buttons for every occasion were recovered from the tenant house and yard. Most date to the early part of the twentieth century. a-c are celluloid buttons; d-g, plastic (probably dating to 1945; h-l, glass; m, collar stud. (Click to enlarge.)
area of the Osborn house today
Today, nothing remains of the Osborn tenant house. In this present-day view, the approximate "footprint" of the house has been drawn over a photo of the new road, Lovers Lane.

Cotton farming was vital to the industrial development of Texas, and in Bastrop County it was one of the more lucrative industries. But before the advent of mechanized harvesting, it required hard, grinding labor to bring in a cotton crop. Between 1840 and 1865, the work fell on the available pool of African-American slaves. But after Emancipation and the abolishment of slavery in 1865, cotton growers turned to tenant farming as a means of securing the needed labor. The tenant system was popular throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century and into the first-half of the twentieth century. In many instances, as was the case with T. C. Osborn, the owner lived in town and allowed the tenant farmers to live on and work the farm with little or no supervision.

During the late-nineteenth century, many of the tenant farmers were former slaves, but in time many of these workers left for better jobs in the developing cities. This migration of farm workers and the growing demands of the cotton industry caused a labor shortage that had to be replenished.

At the turn-of-the-century, a reserve of low-paid Mexican labor existed across the border and was an important factor in the development of large-scale agriculture in south and central Texas. Mexicans came by the thousands to work on farms at wages of about $1.00 per day. In most cases, the economic advantages afforded by employment in the U.S. pulled Mexicans across the border, just as the violence and economic disorder caused by the Mexican Revolution pushed them out of Mexico.

Throughout the 1920s and well into the post-World War II years, this large pool of agricultural workers made cotton the premiere industry Texas, and the Mexican workers the laborers of choice. Their labor was critical, because modernization was slow in coming to the cotton fields. As noted in 1920 by Fred Roberts, cotton farmer and president of the South Texas Cotton Growers Association:

Modern machinery…has made it possible for one man to cultivate a great deal of land, but there has been no development along the line of picking and chopping cotton. We pick cotton like we did a hundred years ago and we chop cotton like we did a hundred years ago, with the exception that we put it into a sack now where we used to put it in a basket.

By 1920, 55% of all Bastrop County farms were tended by tenant farmers, many of them Mexican Americans, and the remainder by owner-operators. Within this system, there were two types of tenant farmers: share tenants and sharecroppers. The share tenant rented land and a house from farm owners, and then cultivated with his own seed, equipment, horses or mules, and made use of his family's labor. In contrast, sharecroppers were resident laborers who were given a house by the owner and received monthly cash advances to tide the family over until the end of the season. Most sharecropper agreements were for either halves or quarters. In Bastrop County, most sharecroppers worked for halves.

As explained by Pete Martínez, Jr., a former resident of the T. C. Osborn farm:

The way my daddy did it—all the time I knew him, from the time I was born until the time he quit—the landlord provided the land, the seed, and the mules and plows. He furnished everything. The only thing you furnished was your work. You and your family got out there and worked for him.... When you go to harvesting the crop, you pick a bale of cotton, you put it in the wagon, you bring it to the gin, they'll gin it for you, they'll tell you how much it brought you, you take that check to the landlord, you get half of it.

See, you have to come up with quite a few bales before you can get anything out of it, because all during the year the landlord, he's advancing you money. They had a deal where, depending on the size of the family, they'd give you so much per month. And on the first of the month you'd go up there and get your money.

Martínez recalled that the amount of the monthly allowance was about $20. "Of course money was different then," he said. "It was hard to get, but it went a long way." Today, he continued, it's easy to get, but it but it doesn't go very far.

His father-in-law, José Barrón, sharecropped land near the Osborn farm. Barrón recalled that his entire family, including his three brothers and three sisters, pitched in to help on the farm whenever they could. Their father was the planter, or sembrador, and the children provided the labor during the harvest—piscaban la cosecha.

In most families, children were taught to do chores and hold small jobs early on out of necessity. Mrs. Louise Rodríguez García recalls that she and her four sisters helped in the fields from the time they were five years old. She and her husband, David García, and their children lived in the small Osborn tenant house from about 1932 to 1941.

According to her daughter, Emma García Rockwell, few sharecroppers could afford to hire people. Most had to use the immediate family. People would get paid depending on the amount, or weight, of the cotton picked.

If you had a bountiful crop, you might hire people then, she said, but she couldn't recall her father ever having hired outside help. "We, the families, had to do it in order to keep the money within." She remembers going into the fields by the time she was around seven or eight years old, and she also took small jobs to help the family make ends meet.

I went to school, but then I had to come and help after school. Mother, like my grandmother, made the clothes for us. My dresses cost 25 cents—2 ½ yards at 10 cents a yard. But 25 cents were not easily available. I recall that canned milk was a must for my brother, Homer, a baby in 1942. So I found a job washing dishes for a lady who paid me 50 cents a week. I did this work en route to school. It only involved about 30 minutes. The pay covered the cost of the milk: 12 cans at 4 cents each.

The family had a milk cow and chickens and also grew corn to supplement their needs. Mrs. Rockwell continued helping in the fields for as long as her father had the farm (ca. 1941). She was the first Latina to attend what had previously been an all-Anglo high school and, after graduation, she worked at nearby Camp Swift to earn enough money to attend Southwest Texas State University. She eventually went into the U.S. Foreign Service and worked in various embassies in Europe and Central America.

The older generation, however, often found themselves bound by the system, according to Pete Martínez, Jr.:

You see that's all the Mexican people did. That's all they knew. You just got by. And you bought things—it was just on a handshake back then. So at the end of the year you pay the boss man and you pay anybody else you owe.... And my daddy would say that money left his hands sore. He said so much money went through his hands, that's all they have left, sore hands.

In spite of the hardships and hand-to-mouth nature of the system, most sharecropper families showed a strong work ethic, pride, and optimism. Martínez recalled that his father's uncle, another farmer, was always a happy man. He would say, 'Well, I don't have anything left, but I've got my doors open.'"

See, what he's saying is that he paid everybody, so he can go back and start charging from them tomorrow if he wants to, because you see, his name was good. He made good on that money he owed. See, that was the deal, when my crop comes in, I will pay you. And they did.

Martínez's father moved off the Osborn farm in 1954 after his son went to Korea. His uncles, the Domínguez brothers, were the last persons in Bastrop to sharecrop, finally quitting the system in the late-1950s or early-1960s.

cotton plants
Cotton plants, shown in bloom in late summer, typically are ready for harvest in fall.

Click images to enlarge  

weeding rows of cotton
Weeding rows of cotton near El Paso along U.S. 80. Photo courtesy of TxDOT and the Institute of Texan Cultures, University of Texas at San Antonio.
mule drawn plow
Farms were worked mostly by hand and with mule-drawn plows until the later half of the twentieth century when mechanized equipment became widely used. Photo courtesy Institute of Texan Cultures, University of Texas at San Antonio.
metal buckles
Metal suspender clasps and buttons found in the tenant house excavations are reminders of the heavy field clothing worn by the cotton farmers. (Click to enlarge.)
inside view of Osborn cabin
In a state of dismal disarray, the Osborn tenant house awaits demolition. (Click to enlarge.)
children's toys and decorative beads
Children's toys and decorative beads, recovered in the tenant house, are poignant symbols of the pleasant family life recalled by several former residents.
cotton bolls
Cotton bolls, ready to harvest. Photo by Mary G. Ramos, courtesy Texas Almanac.
Alta Vista cemetery
Alta Vista cemetery in Bastrop, where many of the Osborn tenants were buried.
grazing cattle
Cows graze where cotton once grew. After tenant farming operations ceased in the 1950s, much of the Osborn land was leased as pasturage for cattle. Photo courtesy Ann Fellows Murphy.