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The Judd Hill Plantation in Poinsett County has epitomized the evolution of agriculture in that portion of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain, or Delta, during the twentieth century. Changes there in the land, economy, and labor force have reflected those throughout the region.
The Judd Hill Plantation received its name from its founder, Orange Judd (O. J.) Hill, a wealthy Kansas City, Missouri, banker and businessman. Hill bought the 5,800-acre tract south of Trumann (Poinsett County) in 1925 as a source of wood for his barrel-making operation in Springfield, Missouri. Even after the purchase, Hill continued to spend most of his time in Kansas City with his wife, Lina, and their adopted daughter, Esther Jane.
In 1930, Hill persuaded Esther and her husband, Samuel Caryl Chapin, to leave their home in Illinois and manage the farm and timber business at Trumann. Sam Chapin, a civil engineer, soon put his professional expertise to use in clearing and draining the land and putting it under cultivation. In doing so, Hill and the Chapins joined thousands of other landowners during the early decades of the twentieth century in transforming wetland forest to cropland in order to exploit the rich soil of the Arkansas Delta.
In June 1933, Hill transferred title to the property to Esther and Sam Chapin jointly, apparently as a belated wedding gift. When the Chapins first took ownership of Judd Hill Plantation, as it would continue to be known, the tax debts were enormous. By 1940, though, the Chapins had succeeded in making the farm profitable, thanks to New Deal crop reduction payments and hands-on management. Profits mounted in the thriving economy of World War II and the postwar era. In about 1950, the Chapins sold the easternmost portion of their land. Even after the sale, the plantation consisted of 4,700 acres, with off-season timber-cutting putting more ground under cultivation each year. By the early 1960s, their accountants valued the enterprise at more than $1 million.
Although the Chapins raised cattle and grew a variety of grains, their wealth rested firmly on the cotton. As was typical in the Delta, African-American families tending plots of twenty acres or less grew the bulk of the fiber under the system of tenant farming and sharecropping. In return for their labor, workers received a very modest house and one-third of their crop proceeds, minus the amount of their bill at the plantation store. During the 1950s, more than seventy families worked Judd Hill soil each year.
Sharecroppers rarely rose from poverty. It was not surprising, then, that between 1940 and 1970, many Judd Hill tenants, especially young adults, joined the millions of black and white people who left the rural South to take better-paying, less arduous industrial jobs in all sections of the country. As a result, farming on Judd Hill became the highly mechanized operation that is typical of the Arkansas Delta today.
Sam Chapin died in 1976. For several years, Esther Chapin and a grandson (the Chapins’ only child, a son, had passed away years before) managed the plantation cooperatively until a dispute severed their relationship. Declining health during the late 1980s forced Chapin to turn production decisions over to court-appointed advisors. In accordance with her wishes, the land became the primary asset of the Judd Hill Foundation after Chapin’s death in 1991. The main beneficiary of the foundation is Arkansas State University (ASU) in Jonesboro (Craighead County), where it has endowed two professorships, funded scholarships, and helped to equip a new Health Sciences building. The foundation dedicated its headquarters building on campus in 2007.
While most of the plantation remains a commercial enterprise, part of it is an ASU research farm, where new farming techniques and crop varieties are demonstrated each summer at the Judd Hill Field Day. Former tenants and their families continue their relationship with Judd Hill today through the Judd Hill Memorial Fund. These contributions provide ASU scholarships for African-American students and pay for maintaining the two tenant cemeteries on the property. Recently, an archaeologist from the university surveyed the plantation and mapped the cemeteries. Other landmarks from the Chapin era are the plantation store building (now the farm office), the old cotton gin (which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places), O. J. Hill’s small house, and the elegant Chapin home, which is occupied by a granddaughter.
For additional information:
Hopson, Charisse Danielle. “More Than Just a Farm.” MS thesis, Arkansas State University, 2010.
Judd Hill Collection. Dean B. Ellis Library Archives and Special Collections. Arkansas State University, Jonesboro, Arkansas.
“Judd Hill Cotton Gin.” National Register of Historic Places nomination form. On file at Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, Little Rock, Arkansas. Online at http://www.arkansaspreservation.com/National-Register-Listings/PDF/PO0067.nr.pdf (accessed July 6, 2017).
Judd Hill Heritage Project. http://www.clt.astate.edu/jmorrow/judd_hill_heritage_project.htm (accessed July 6, 2017).
Morgan, Sam. “An Oral History of the Judd Hill Plantation.” Jonesboro: Office of Institutional Advancement, Arkansas State University, 1997.
Arkansas State University
Last Updated 7/6/2017
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