Rice Culture on the Ogeechee

January 5, 1867, page 8

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Near Savannah, Georgia

The planters of the South have always fostered an idea that there was an unusual risk to the unacclimated in Southern farming, and particularly has this been claimed to be the case in rice culture, although it is very doubtful if the rice country is much if any worse than the river bottoms of the West, so attractive to emigration. 

The operations of the rice plantation commence with ditching the fields to facilitate flooding, the water being distributed by a system of canals and flood-gates. The ground is then prepared either by the hoe or plow -- the latter being decidedly the best, although considered an innovation by the bigoted old planters; the weeds and wild rice, or volunteer crop, as it is called, is killed, and the ground trenched for planting.

The rice is sown rapidly, as the negroes generally take a trotting gait as they drop it in the furrows, which are cut very straight. The sprout-water is now let on, and the fields remain flooded for eight or nine days, after which it is drawn off, and the rice allowed to put out leaf; and when it has reached two or three inches in height it is again flooded with what is technically called stretch-water, care being taken not to drown the rice, which must be perceptible above the water.

The rice having advanced to the proper height the water is slowly drawn off that the rice, which it supports, may not fall to the ground, and, after an interval of a week or ten days, the ground is pronounced dry enough for first hoeing, which is immediately followed by the second. The water is then put on again, and performs the double duty of nourishing and bearing up the rice and keeping down the growth of weeds. It is at this time that malaria is apt to arise, the water, which is only changed at intervals of two weeks, getting sour and stagnant.  This flooding is kept up with the changes of the tide -- being careful not to stretch the rice too much -- till the time arrives for harvest-water, which is the last flooding, and is kept on longer than the previous ones. The rice being ripe and the water finally drawn off, when the fields are dry enough the reapers enter, and cut the crop, which is at once carried to the threshing-mill, as it is necessary that it should be threshed as fast as it is cut, 500 to 1000 bushels daily being the usual amount made.

In rice culture the aim of the planter is to get his crop in in time to flood with the spring-tides. If he does this the rice will advance so rapidly that it will be harvested before the arrival of those pests to the rice-grower -- the rice-birds. These collect about the rice plantations in immense flocks before migrating to the West Indies and Central America for the winter.

The bobolink, or rice-bird, eats immense quantities of insects and grubs, and is thus of considerable use to the farmer of the North; but woe to the planter if this bird finds the rice upon the ground!  Rats and ducks are also among the enemies of the rice, and the hands kill and eat them -- the rats as well as the ducks. The negroes of the rice plantations hold themselves much above other hands, and their tasks are much lighter, usually being finished by the middle of the day, when they eat a good meal. To eat early makes them sick, and they often put it off till they have done their work, after which they go to the woods and rivers, and add game and fish to their rations of pork, corn, and rice -- the latter they must have. In their gardens they cultivate cabbage, potatoes, etc., and altogether lead a tolerably pleasant existence. The drawings, which were made on the plantation of Colonel Wardell, on the Ogeechee, near Savannah, represent, in the centre, the rice fields with the hands at work, and around it the threshing-mill, the main flood-gate, one of the smaller gates, or trunks, a flooded field, ditching, reaping, etc.

A. R. W.

As Alfred Waud’s illustrations of both the rice and the cotton plantations suggest, the labor opportunities and patterns for Southern blacks did not change greatly after the Civil War, especially with the retreat from Reconstruction policies in the late 1860s and early 1870s. Most freedpeople had agricultural skills and little or no money to buy their own land or to invest in a business. Consequently, they continued to work on the plantations of their former masters. Some freedpeople were eventually able to rent land from white landowners (tenancy) or to share the crop costs and profits with the white landowners (sharecropping).

The South had been economically devastated by the Civil War and it took a long time to recover. The general privation of the South combined with the legal and social restrictions based on race, the lack of economic resources available to blacks, and the economic arrangements of tenancy and sharecropping to keep most Southern blacks in a state of economic dependence and poverty.


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