Doolittle Flat

by Harold Graham

Doolittle FlatPictured Left:
Thomas Irish Doolittle House, 2004

Just north of the intersection of Interstate 20 and Highway 15 at Newton is a large stretch of relatively level land, several hundred acres in size, and known historically as Doolittle Flat. Acquired in 1847 by Roger Williams Doolittle, it has served through most of the history of Newton County as a tract for large-scale farming and in the early days of the county was part of the Doolittle Plantation.

The annual cycle on the early plantation was predictable. Spring was for breaking the ground and planting the seeds. The mules would be hitched to the plows and would be sent to the fields. Once the cotton was two inches high, it was time for chopping and hoeingchopping to make sure the plants were spaced at equal intervals and hoeing to get rid of the grass. In the meantime, there was plowing to do in the middles to keep the grass from growing. When the cotton plants became too large to plow, then it was time for a breakwell, almost. The orchard and garden were full of fruits and vegetables, from apples to tomatoes, to be picked, and cleaned, peeled or shelled, and dried or canned.. No rest for the weary.

By mid-July the hay was ready to cut. After mowing, it was raked into windrows and allowed to dry. Once dry, a mule-driven wagon would head through the windrows. The older worker got to drive the team. The younger men gathered the hay with pitchforks and stacked it on the wagon until it was eight feet or higher. Then to the barn, where an assembly team pitched the hay into the barn loft. Under a tin roof, the temperature approached 120 degrees on this July day any shirts that remained on were soaking with sweat in minutes.

In later August the cotton bolls began to open. Through the white blanket that filled the terrain could be the moving bodies of many workers, blacks primarily before the end of slavery and both blacks and whites in the days that followed, all sent to pluck the fiber from the bolls. A cotton wagon stood at the end of the field awaiting weighing time. Once filled, the wagon headed to the nearest gin for the seed to be pulled from the fiber and the bale to be compressed.

With the cotton crop all in, now was the time to get ready for winter. Several oaks trees were cut down with a crosscut saw into lengths that would readily fit into the fireplace. Each length of the larger blocks was cut into four or more pieces to make the wood easier to burn., then stacked near the house to dry.

A chill in the air, followed by frost, told everyone it was time to pull the corn. The ears and kernels were now hardened and workers pulled the corn by holding the ear at its base with their left hand while snapping the ear down with their right hand. A wagon followed the pullers down the row. Once loaded, the wagon headed to the corncrib where the corn was stored for the winter.

It was hog-killing time. The best shooter on the place was chosen to neatly place a bullet between the eyes of the curious hog.. A good shot and it was over immediately. The hog was then hung upside down, using a single tree, was gutted, shaved, and quartered. A fire was started under a wash pot to render the fat into lard. Some courageous soul was chosen to wash the intestines that would be used as casings for the sausage. It was a days work involving several folk, and just before quitting time, you strung the hams over a smoldering fire in the smokehouse.

By the time the corn harvest was done and hog killing over, cold had set in. The wood that had been cut earlier was ready for use. As the days grew shorter and the nights longer you sat by the wood fire and figured how to keep warm on both sides at once or you walked through the woods with your rifle in search of game. The women folk were always back in the kitchen cooking soup or something else to warm your stomach.

On Sunday morning everyone dressed in their finest. You loaded the wagon and headed to church. On Sunday afternoon you went to the horse stables, got your best gelding, and headed to the racetrack that had been built on the Doolittle Plantation. You were joined by your neighbors who brought their favorite steeds. The race was on.

In the early days, there was also a post office on the property, authorized on November 24, 1860, by the United States Postal Service with John G. Blackwell as postmaster. Known as Doolittle Station, it was discontinued on January 21, 1867.

Cotton, corn, and wheat were crops of choice during the 1800s, but the invasion of the boll weevil dropped the production of cotton in Newton County from 20,000 bales annually to 7,000 bales by 1912. The Doolittle family, along with other local farmers, turned to truck farming as an alternative to cotton. Beans, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, and cabbage were planted to supplement cotton.

This conversion in crops was made possible due to several factors. First, Newton, a mile to the south, provided a local market. Secondly, a north-to-south railway systemthe New Orleans, Mobile, and Chicago-- was built through the Doolittle property in the early 1900s. This augmented an earlier east-to-west railroad line a mile south that had been in place since 1860. Finally, the invention of refrigerated boxcars made possible a national market for local produce. Cabbage became a best seller with crates of cabbage being sent to places like New Orleans, St. Louis and Chicago. In 1913 stockholders built the Magnolia Cannery in Newton. This cannery remained in operation until 1924, at which time it burned and was never rebuilt due to a depressed market.

The Thomas Irish Doolittle House, when built in 1891, was L-shaped with a separate well and kitchen in the back yard. After the kitchen was destroyed by a fire, the L-shape was modified to incorporate both the kitchen and well inside the interior of the house.

A remaining relic of the early days on the Doolittle Plantation is the Thomas Irish Doolittle estate.
Thomas Irish Doolittle was one member of a prominent Newton family whose members also included a brother, Newton Doolittle, the namesake of the town of Newton. His father, Roger Williams Doolittle, once owned the land on which the Town of Newton now stands. His mother was Permelia Ann Blalock, a member of a prominent family who also operated a plantation near Newton.

Not only was Thomas a successful farmer, but he was also an inventor, innovator, and a prime promoter of the trucking industry. Always civic-minded, Thomas served in the House of Representatives of the Mississippi Legislature from 1912 to 1916 and filled other prominent roles in the county and state. He served as a Director of The Patrons Union, and was a member of the Board of Directors of the Mississippi Cotton Cooperative Association. For his progressive methods in farming he was awarded the title of Master Farmer in 1928 by the Mississippi Extension Service. In the days with electrical power service was unavailable in rural areas, he built his own power generator.

Thomas married (1) Nancy Delaware (Della) Wyatt Gibbs and the marriage produced two children before her death in 1880 at the age of 21. His second wife was Mary Cornelia McMullan, whom he married in 1886. In 1891 he built a spacious house in the center of his farming operation to accommodate Cornelia and their growing family. After his death in 1936 and the death of Cornelia in 1940, the house became the property of their daughter Effie Thomas Doolittle and her husband Edgar Samuel Bentley. Purchased and partially restored in recent times by Robert Garvin of Newton, the house and a number of out-lying buildings retain much of the character of an earlier time and place.

Much has changed in at Doolittle Flat since the death of Thomas Irish Doolittle. With the paving of Highway 15 through the property and later the building of Interstate 20, most of the former agricultural land has been converted into commercial usage.

References

  1. Craft, Myrtis S., George Mason, and Melvin Tingle. Book of Original Entries, Land
    Records of Newton County, Mississippi, Pioneer Publishing Company, Carrolton, Mississippi, 1998.
  2. Morse, Bonnie. Newton County, Mississippi Census and Slave Schedule, Mobile,
    Alabama, 1984.
  3. Sledge, Broox. Post Offices of Newton County, manuscript, Macon, Mississippi, 1960
  4. Williams, Nancy K. The History of Newton, 1860-1988. The Newton Record,
    Newton, Mississippi, 1989.
  5. The Newton Record, various dates

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