The South is losing a part of its past. Tenant homes: those stately little shacks that provide a glimpse of a vanquished culture. I used to see them everywhere. Elegant little houses resting on rock piles watching over fields like sentinels. Now they are rare, although a backroads drive into farm country still turns one up now and then.
Called saltbox houses, catslides, and pole cabins, they long stood with grace and character in pastures and fields. In their heyday, a sea of cotton surrounded tenant homes come summer. And then change arrived. The mules, plows, and hoes gave way to tractors, and the homes were abandoned. Today, nothing but wasps, mice, and birds make their homes in them. Weather, vandalism, and sheer neglect have long been destroying them and all that’s left of many are chimneys and a pile of bricks and fieldstones.
For generations, the plain folk of the South lived in tenant homes. Many sprang up during Reconstruction, an era of upheaval when being a tenant farmer foretold a step up the social ladder … maybe. Sharecroppers exchanged a crop for a house and a share of the yield. Still, a tenant farmer often had nothing to show for his efforts at year’s end.
A picturesque-yet-anguished part of Americana, it’s not surprising that the tenant lifestyle has long provided fertile ground for writers. Many writers portrayed life in the little homes as an insufferable existence. Rita Turner Wall, author of The Vanishing Tenant Homes of Rural Georgia, wrote that “life in the old houses was what the occupants made of it: a vegetable garden and a flock of chickens or hard fare, a yard full of flower beds or blank emptiness, a tablecloth or bare boards, a good life or a bad life.”
Tenant homes had no plumbing, no built-in sinks, no cabinets, no closets. Generally, only functional furniture such as pie safes, beds, and chairs graced these old homes. Jars and simple containers on crude shelves held the staples: cornmeal, flour, and grits. Kerosene lamps broke the darkness. Buckets hauled water up from wells. Life was hard except the tenants didn’t know it. They gathered in the evening to swap stories and sing. There was no TV, no radio, and maybe that was a blessing in a way. “Survivor” was not a TV show but a way of life and everyone pulled together.
And then Southern farm tenancy ended abruptly after World War II. Government programs, farm mechanization, and tenants’ own inefficiency drove them from the land as the seductive call of prosperity lured them to the city. After decades of painting them, patching them, and sealing cracks in the walls with newspapers, people left tenant homes alone and that sealed their fate.
A blind man could see more beauty in a weathered tenant home than some sparkling vinyl-sided house as did Wall who wrote that “there is in the pitch of the roof, the shape of chimney, the whole mass, an orderly disposition pleasing to the eye. No wonder so many artists and photographers find them fascinating.
This column, such as it is, first ran in the Lincoln Journal, back in Lincolnton, Georgia. I suggested that the good folks back home find a tenant home in the county that stands intact and place it in the Lincoln County Historical Park where a cotton gin, sawmill, smokehouse, and the Groves-May House remind us of earlier times. “Protect this survivor,” I wrote. “Its roof may sag, the windows may be broken out, and the doors may hang ajar, but save it anyway. Don’t let them all become victims of progress.”