Bob Mitchell: Rocky hillsides no longer cultivated for produce

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Digging in Barry County, at least in years before mechanized equipment, was once a serious task due to the rocky soil conditions.

There was gravel, pebbles, “number three throwing rocks,” and sometimes boulders to contend with to make the project more difficult. For instance, when the basement of the Cassville Post Office was dug, contractors used horsepower and sleds to get the job done. The location, for those who might have been around at that time, was the location of the Smith family residence. The Ray Dingler home next door, simply was not for sale to facilitate the project.

To get back to the primary subject — rocks in the soil — their existence could well have been the enhancement of some crops that provided early income for this area. The produce, tomatoes and strawberries, in later years proved to be too labor intensive for workers.

Canning factories

Rocky soil, usually on hillsides, provided an ideal location for growing tomatoes to supply a number of canning facilities in this general area. Rush Canning in Cassville, managed in later years by Bill Ash, was a typical example of these facilities that provided employment. Tomatoes were handpicked and trucked to factories where the veggie was steamed, pealed and then canned, usually in number ten tins. Workers didn’t make much, usually only cents per hour, but in those days the jingle in pockets meant more than nothing.

Factories were located virtually at where sources of good water were available. Exeter, Corsicana and Leann were in the immediate area, often in pretty good competition for the raw product and for employees to complete the canning process.

One of the Cassville Democrat’s accomplishments in those days was a revelation in the news columns that about three of the area factories were paying more for the raw product and hourly wage than was another. The end result was that an equalization of payment quickly occurred and more people were happy as a result.

Lasted several years

While the planting and maintenance of tomato fields also gave some employment features, one farmer related recently that most of the early cultivation of the produce was usually provided by the landowner and his family members.

A question was poised to Barry County native Ted Matthews recently regarding rainfall in the era to ensure a crop. His response was, “Just make sure you planted plenty of acres.”

The coming of war years provided a natural market for the canned tomatoes, when the businesses probably flourished at their highest. Those times also provided better paying jobs that resulted in the people intensively picking and factory work even more difficult. This factor, plus modernization of methods put an end to rural processing of the crop and rocky hillsides were no longer cultivated for tomatoes.

Strawberries in demand

Once a crop on rocky soil in Barry County were Aroma and Blakemore strawberries, a crop that was shipped as far away as possible going out of Cassville, Butterfield, Purdy, Monett and Washburn. These locations, all on the Frisco Railroad, had reefer cars that would be iced to full capacity to make sure the freshness was maintained at the farthest point possible.

Strawberry popularity was high enough in this area that a festival was designed to give the crop full recognition and provide a high market for some of the best-judged crates. Usually held in the high school gym, the festival would include some entertainment, which was not the main reason for the widespread interest.

Berry fanciers from Joplin and Springfield were the prime interests of the event as some individuals and several businesses would be on hand to cast their bids on premium crates of Barry County grown products. Usually, the master-of-ceremonies job would be filled by the weatherman of the region, C.C. Willaford. His reputation on the radio in that era and his wit at gatherings such as the strawberry festival, made him an annual favorite.

Labor shortages

Lack of sufficient numbers of pickers at the peak ripening of strawberries made for an opportunity for youths to be excused for a half day of classes to assist growers. Although the pay was small, a few cents a quart, there were takers for no other reason than to miss a class. The one problem with this arrangement was, some pickers confided that they could have eaten more of the product than they turned in for picking tickets that were redeemed for cash at the end of the day.

During the final days of flourishing strawberry fields, there were hundreds of acres of berries grown in Barry County.

In this immediate area, brokers or buyers included the Barry County Association in Cassville, John Dunlap at Washburn and the Akin family of Purdy.

Cassville and Exeter Railroad did a flourishing business during the season. Railway Ice of Monett moved a facility here to serve the shipping procedures.

Bob Mitchell is the former editor and publisher of the Cassville Democrat. He is a 2017 inductee to both the Missouri Press Association Hall of Fame and Missouri Southern State University’s Regional Media Hall of Fame.