Photos of the Spencer sons and daughters were provided by Dewitt Spencer,
the Four Generations photo was provided by Mitchell Johnson
Mr. Spencer's photo was made by Jim Young at an Ellzey Memorial
Growing Up With Sweet Potatoes
By Dewitt Spencer
The Spencer family of Vardaman and sweet potatoes went together hand in hand in my growing up years. There were four brothers and five sisters in the family of Thomas Dewitt and Ethel Cox Spencer. They along with Ethel’s two brothers and their families and their mother and daddy Ann Rich and Charlie Wayne Cox migrated from Gibson County Tennessee to Mississippi in 1917. They brought their own seed sweet potatoes and found the sandy loam of the Ellzey Community north of Vardaman to be particularly well suited to the crop.
Pictured are the four sons and five daughters of Thomas Dewitt and Ethel Cox Spencer in their mature years. The sons are (L-R) Raymond, Thomas, Paul, and Bill. The daughters are (L-R) Edith, Beatrice (Bea), Mildred, Opal, and Nellie. Ethel was born in Illinois; Thomas Dewitt and all the children except Opal and Nellie were born in Tennessee.
All four brothers raised, stored over the winter, and sold sweet potatoes on a route. Two of the brothers, Paul and my dad Thomas, lived on farms side by side on highway 341 north of Vardaman and worked together in a partnership, the conditions of which only they knew but it worked just fine. The other two brothers, Raymond and Bill, had the same arrangement on their adjoining farms on the Penick Road east and north of Vardaman. In addition to the two partnerships all the brothers would occasionally pool their resources when one of the brothers needed help. Of course I’m not an impartial witness but it’s my feeling that the Spencer brothers were recognized among their fellow farmers as being especially gifted in the sweet potato business.
At least they came by their interest in the business honest as their maternal grandparents were early growers and shippers of sweet potatoes in the old home place in Southern Illinois. From there my great grandmother must have kept the idea alive in the move from Illinois to Tennessee and later to Mississippi.
In the 1940’s and 50’s when I was on the farm there were several sweet potato farmers around Vardaman but most people still held to the traditional southern staple, cotton. I viewed cotton farms as exotic and thrilling and begged daddy to let me go across the road to Mr. Brooks Winter’s place and pick cotton (for money!) Some of the sweet potato farmers then included Robert Freely, Edward Bailey, Richmond Alexander, Bayless Ashby, J.R. Penick Sr., James Lewis Williams, and one young man just starting out in the business, James Boyd Parker. There were others of course but these spring to my mind after all these years.
The crops back then were relatively small, 10-15 acres, and most of the work was done by hand. Seed potatoes stored and saved from the year before were laid side by side in a “bed,” a plank form usually placed on a hillside and fired by wood heat from a 50 gallon drum or other oven device located at the end of the bed. Four trenches were dug up the length of the bed, tiles were placed in these for the heat to circulate up to funnels, usually plank boxes, at the upper end. Sawdust was shoveled onto the seed potatoes and when the plants, called slips, emerged and the fields were ready the plants were pulled in bunches of 100 and carried to the fields and set out or carried on the sweet potato routes and sold to seed stores and other merchants for gardeners.
The fields were prepared in high rows onto which the plants were dropped midway of the row at specified intervals by the younger children of the family, usually. Then the more experienced workers came along with a stick tapered at one end (but not sharp) and punched the slips into the ground, stepping on each side of the plant to firm the ground around. How I envied the setter outers in my young days and wished to graduate to their ranks!
In those days before chemical weed killers farmers would hoe the sweet potato fields to remove the weeds and, in the case of daddy and his brothers, to “loosen the soil” even if there was no grass to hoe out. Sometimes fields would be hoed several times. We’d hear the quitting time whistle from the Pyland mill and wish we had a factory job since they could go home but we still had several hours more to work!
Harvest time too was mostly manual labor. The potatoes were turned over with a turning plow, pulled from the vine by straddling the row and working in a crouch, and the potatoes from three rows were placed, carefully, in a pile row in heaps a few feet apart. Behind this came the workers hampering up or placing the potatoes in tall baskets tapering to a small end or flat round baskets and then later square crates, all holding a bushel measure. At the end of the day the hampers were placed in a wagon and carried to the potato house where they were emptied into floor to ceiling bins for storage.
Over the course of the winter the potatoes were again hampered out, washed, sometimes waxed, and sold on the weekly potato route.
While there is still much manual labor in growing sweet potatoes most of the practices have changed and improved and become mechanized. Now 200 acres of potatoes are common place, and mechanical setters, cutters, and harvesters have replaced our old methods and potatoes are stored in cooling houses and sold year round all over the country. Computers and lasers are used in at least one Vardaman sweet potato shed to sort the potatoes for sale!
Now all the Spencer brothers as well as the five sisters are gone. Aunt Opal (Spencer) Anderson, of the Thorn Community in Chickasaw County, was the last of the children, and of the spouses of the children Uncle Bill’s wife, Aunt Clara (Hawkins) Spencer of Vardaman was the last and died in 2012. However the sweet potato business is still carried on by two of the children of the original family. Uncle Raymond’s son Keith and his son Brad own and operate Spencer and Son, growers and shippers, and Aunt Beatrice (Spencer) Johnson Chandler’s son Wayne Johnson and his son Mitchell own and operate Johnsons’ Farm.
This picture shows four generations of Aunt Beatrice's family in the sweet potato business. (L-R) Her son Wayne Johnson; her great granddaughter Diedre Johnson; her grandson Mitchell Johnson holding Diedre's son Braden Johnson, Aunt Bea's great-great-grandson.
Further, the grandson of Raymond Spencer, Stacy Pettit; and the grandson-in-law of Bill Spencer, Leslie Huffman, are engaged in the business in their generation.
The Spencer name and family tradition live on today in the sweet potato business and in fond memories of the old farms and farmers and the way it was back then. Music roots, music roots, we sang in my youth, and never imagined that we’d have an actual annual Sweet Potato Festival honoring the humble ‘tater!
The Penick Family
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