Early Farming

Most early settlers in the Burke area were farmers to some degree. Even those who raised cattle, raised at least some crops. Most farmers followed the farmer-stockman model--they ran hogs for meat and cows for milk and butter and raised corn to feed the cows and vegetables to feed themselves. This was a form of "subsistence farming" in which the farm raised only what was necessary to support the family. Farming for cash did not appear until arrival of the railroad, which provided the critical path to market for cotton, livestock, and vegetables. Before the railroad the only cash crop was cattle which provided their own transportation to market via cattle trails such as the Opelousas Trail.

King Cotton

Cotton was not raised in large quantities until the railroad arrived in the 1880s to provide a way to ship it to market. At one time there was one, and perhaps two, cotton gins in Burke. The ruined foundation of one was still visible during the 1950s just south of the Burke School across the road from the Hillary Thigpen farm.

The most recent new "crop" is housing. There is a housing development in a field of the former "Miss Ina McCall farm" nothwest of Burke on which the webmaster's father once raised cotton and corn.

Syrup Mills

Until the 1950s syrup mills were common in the Burke area. Most farmers grew sugar cane, and they each year in the fall they turned into syrup what wasn't chewed by the children for the sweet juice. Not only was the syrup used in the place of sugar for sweetening, but it was also used in its original form for breakfasts. The author recalls many breakfasts of hot, buttered biscuits covered with thick, strong flavored ribbon cane syrup.

The mill run by Grady Whitehead near Fairview was typical. The author visited the mill several times when his father took ribbon cane for processing. The cane was squeezed in a vertical press with a horizonatal pole rotated by a mule walking in a circle. Later and old car stripped of its body was used in place of the mule. A worker would put the can in an opening in the side of the press, and the cane juice would run through a pipe down the hill to cooking vat located near a pond. The pond water was used to cool the hot syrup. The vat had numerous baffles that required the juice to take a long, slowpath from one end to the other. The syrup maker used a long paddle to push the syrup from one channel to the next until it reached the far end of the vat. A hot wood fire under the vat evaporated excess water, thickening the cane juice into syrup. The syrup maker would let a bit of the syrup drip from his paddle to test its consistence, and when it dripped at the proper rate, he would draw the syrup off into metal syrup buckets with wire bails and press fit lids.

The syrup buckets also served as lunch pails when emptied of syrup. The author's father even used two syrup buckets with his arms through the bails as floats to learn to swim!

Hog Raising and Killing

The hog was at the center of early East Texas diet. It provided not only delicious meat in the form of ham, bacon, and sausage but also lard for flavoring and frying. Most farmers had a pen full of pigs that they fed houshold scraps mixed with a ground grain product called "shorts". In earlier days before fencing, farmers ran their hogs wild in the woods and rounded them up every ear. Stories abound about herds of hogs wandering into town and inhabiting the courthouse square. Ownership of open range hogs was identified with ear marks registerd with the County Clerk.

Every fall when the first cold snap arrived, the ritual known as hog killing began. The cool weather weather helped preserve the pork until it could be cured in the smokehouse for use throughout the winter and the next year. Often this was a community affair in which neighboring farmers helped complete the job as quickly as possible while the temperatures were cool.

The author remembers a hog killing done by his grandparents Frank and Florence Johnson.

After the hog was killed, it was hung by its hind legs from a large limb on a chinaberry tree in the back yard near the smokehouse. The carcass was carved up into it various parts - hams, bacon, etc. on tables made from boards placed on saw horses. Some parts were ground and mixed with a sage seasoning and stuffed into sausage casings with a hand cranked stuffer. The hams, bacon slabs, and sausage links were hung in the smokehouse and cured for several days over a smoldering hickory fire.

Excess fatty pieces of pork were placed in a black "washpot" and cooked over a wood fire until the grease was cooked out of the meat (rendered). The grease was cooled into lard and stored for cooking and seasoning through the year. The fried pork pieces were called "cracklings" (relatives of modern pork skins) and used to make delicious cracklin' cornbread.

Way out back near the cow lot, Great-grandma Emma Samford cleaned the hog's intestines. In the old days before synthetic sausage casings, these were used to stuff sausages. Some were also fried and served as "chittlins'" (chitterlings).

Here is a photograph of a hog killing in Panola County.

Hay Raising

As agriculture moved from cotton farming back to cattle raising, many of the former cotton fields were converted to raising hay to sustain the cattle during winter. Two who engaged in hay raising were Bo Lee and Hillary Thigpen. The webmaster remembers hauling hay from BUrke in his father's pickup truck. Sometimes we would pick up hay in the field as it way baled. Other times we would load it from old houses where it was stored. Hillary Thigpen stored hay in one of the large old houses adjacent the railroad track.

We would lay four bales lengthwise in the bed of the truck. Then we would stack four rows of bales crosswise from the pickup cab to the back. Then we would repeat the same above the first row. Finally we would stack two bales lengthwise down the middle of the two rows of four. That made for a load of 22 bales. When we got it home, the webmaster would throw the hay from the pickup to his father up in the barn loft.

Tenant Farming and Sharecropping

Farmers who did not own land of their own would often rent land from someone else. The author's father did this all during his farm career. This system is called "tenant farming."

Farmers who could not afford cash rent would farm someone else's land on shares. This was called "sharecropping." The farmer and landower would divide the crop in one of several ways. In "halvers", they would share the crop equally. In "thirders" the landowner received 1/3 of the crop. In "thirds and fourths" the landower would receive 1/3 of the corn and 1/4 of the cotton produced.


  1. M. Lee Murrah, Personal Recollections