Tuesday, October 16

New Oral History Project: Dockery Farms

"All of us grew up on Dockery, our whole family, all twelve of the children...My dad and mama was already grown, but they grew up on Dockery. 
~Ruth Blaylock Foster

The son of farmers, Will Dockery was born in Mississippi in 1865. At the age of twenty, he graduated from the University of Mississippi. Ten years later, in 1895, he purchased hundreds of acres of Delta swamps and cane break just outside of Cleveland, the seat of government for Bolivar County. There he established Dockery Plantation. Dockery started out in the lumber business but soon moved to cotton, a decision that required manual labor and set forth a system of sharecropping. At its peak, Dockery covered 40 square miles and was home to more than 400 families.

As Dockery Plantation grew, it became a self-sufficient town of sorts, with two churches and two schools, a dedicated physician, a post office—even its own currency, which was honored in the nearby towns of Ruleville and Cleveland. To feed the families that now called his farm home, Will Dockery established the Pea Vine Railroad, a 12-mile spur from the town of Boyle, to bring food staples and dry goods to the commissary. But the Pea Vine carried something else with it, too: the blues.

In 1900, Bill and Annie Patton, along with their young son Charley, moved to Dockery. Charley Patton quickly made a name for himself with his signature style of guitar playing. Other bluesman such as Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, and Son House visited and played music on Dockery, inspiring the place to be widely considered as the birthplace of the blues.

With so many thousands of people living and working on Dockery, the plantation gave rise to an enormous community of self-sufficient farmers who raised and grew and cooked nearly everything they ate. Families had their own cows, hogs, and chickens. They hunted for squirrels and rabbits. Large gardens grew beans, tomatoes, corn, okra, and squash. Sugar- and sorghum cane were harvested and processed. Corn raised on the plantation was milled down the road in Boyle. Some families, including Ruth Foster Blaylock’s, made hot tamales using cornhusks from the fields, selling them in downtown Ruleville on Saturday nights.

When machinery started replacing manual labor in the early 1940s, the sharecroppers left Dockery. Ruth Blaylock Foster and her family moved to Ruleville. More families moved to Cleveland. Some moved to Memphis or took the train up to Chicago. Today, cotton and soybeans are still grown on Dockery land, but the acreage is leased out to other farmers in the area. The Dockery service station, cotton gin, Methodist church, and True Light cemetery still stand as a testaments to this place and the people who worked the land and called it home. To acknowledge this history, the Dockery Farms Foundation was established in 1986 to “preserve the historic property and heritage of Dockery Farms and to develop these for educational purposes and the public interest in music, agriculture, and the history of the Mississippi Delta.”

In the words of Ruth Blaylock Foster, “Black people made Dockery.” The interviews we collected begin to tell that story. 

Visit our Dockery Farms oral history project to learn more. 

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Dockery Farms is one of our stops on this year's Delta Divertissement. We'll have a harvest dinner on the grounds that includes a whole hog from Rodney Scott, tamales made by Gentle Lee Rainey, stories from Ruth Blaylock Foster, and a Charley Patton tribute performed by Jimbo Mathus