BUSINESS

Mississippi Delta sharecropper shacks restored to rent lead to conversation about places with complex histories

Logan Williamson
Oxford Stories

In the famous farmlands of the Delta, where cultural history is as rich as the soil, there have been efforts to tear down the fabric of history it has come to represent. “Sharecropper shacks,” popularized during the post-Civil War agricultural system, were let by tenant farmers who would work the land.

In the postbellum era, these shacks (typically with a ‘shotgun’ architectural style) existed in clusters around the Delta, but have been reduced to a small few because of urban renewal projects demolishing the structures.

Advocates of historic preservation work to reverse the narrative by remodeling sharecropper shacks as tourist lodgings to give guests a glimpse into authentic plantation life, but not without assuaging some criticism.

Eustace Winn, 35, from Benoit, Mississippi manages a small enterprise of renovated sharecropper shacks for rent with his wife.

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Eustace Winn.

In 2005, Winn was transferred the property title, more 200 acres of farmland, a group of sharecropper shacks, and an endangered plantation home called the Baby Doll House. According to an obituary of the original owner John Crawford Burrus, construction of the antebellum home started in 1858, and his family moved into the residence on the evening before the Civil War in 1861.

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Baby Doll House

Winn had an interest in old buildings and history of the Civil War and the South, but also liked to farm. “It was the perfect fit,” he said. “I thought, ‘If I’m going to do this, this is my chance.’

Winn knew the previous owners and bought it from them. “They bought it as an abandoned property that was run down and gave it to me.”

After Winn graduated from Ole Miss, he began restoring the houses with his family. “We gutted them, and I got a loan to fix them up,” he said.

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Log Cabin.

Winn started off leasing the shacks to friends he accommodated during hunting season. “Once we got (the restoration) done, I said we should have hunters out here to stay,” he said. “Hunters came out, but it was mostly friends. I had some hunting spots that I sent them to.”

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Sharecropper Shacks.

When Winn set up an Airbnb profile for his shacks, it transformed his business strategy. “Airbnb came along, and ‘boom,’ I immediately started getting bookings,” he said.

He conducts some of his business dealings through his website and by word of mouth, but most of them come from Airbnb. “I’ll communicate with (customers), get them here, host them and send them on their way,” he said.

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Tractor on the Farmland.

In collaboration with his wife, Eustace promotes the Baby Doll House for events as well. “We’ll have ads that say, ‘Book the (Baby Doll House) for your next wedding,’ and on the side, we’ll say, ‘Check out the shotgun house for a weekend getaway.’ As far as booking the big house, Claire handles that side of the business. I just have my Airbnb app.”

Bill Talbot is the owner and representative of Shack-Up Inn in Clarksdale, Mississippi, a similar establishment imitating ‘postbellum glamour’ for guests wanting to rent a sharecropper shack.

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Bill Talbot.

In 1998, Talbot received proprietorship over the sharecropper shacks, and in 2004, he added a new dimension to the business by buying the cotton gin on the property and carving rooms out of it.

“We called it ‘Bins in the Gin at the Shack-Up Inn.'”

Talbot bought a four-bay tractor shed in 1996 and built his home out of it through recovered materials. He used his living room as a lobby, until he bought the gin. “We just outgrew it,” he said.

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Steel Compound.

In the early 1900s, the Hopson family directed a system of “day laborers” by renting out wood-frame structures to them. According to Talbot, after completion of a railroad track project through Sunflower County, the Hopsons emphasized the importance of being near transportation.

He abandoned the primary dwellings and started building the steel compound with corrugated tin-roofs in 1910 that remains largely intact today. Talbot now owns everything on the relocated property, including the gin, the commissary, the baby seed house and the shop.

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Railroad Tracks.

Talbot said the farm was historically significant for introducing the first mechanized cotton-picker in 1944.

“It was in a lot of older tour guide books for being a historically significant place to visit if you go to the Mississippi Delta,” he said.

Talbot said he saw a lucrative opportunity in allowing people to rent out a shack. “The farm oozes with history, and I was like, ‘Well, why not save some of these shacks?’”

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Front Porch of a Sharecropper Shack.

The region was devastated of sharecropper shacks starting in the 1950s by efforts to tear or burn them down.

“I think it’s because farmers in the off-season would go do coffee club,” Talbot said. “One of them realized they were paying structure taxes on these abandoned houses all over their farms, and he asked, ‘Well, why do we need those houses?'” Talbot said.

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Shacks with Mechanical Reaper.

Talbot bought his first house, the Cadillac Shack and advertised it as a place to “sit on the porch, drink beer and listen to music,” he said. “We’re the world’s first ‘Bed and Beer.’

Through an online booking system, he controls most of the business transactions. “I went from a small book to a computer,” he said. “It’s still a learning process.”

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Texaco Gas Station.

Talbot mainly concentrates marketing efforts on Europeans and Australians. “They’re appreciative,” he said. “They think this is what Americana is, or supposed to be. We put them in a shack, and they can get a taste of the South.”

The Europeans (and Australians) also see the compound as satiating to their interest in the Delta blues. “Most of them were blues nuts anyways, and this was the pre-‘blues highway,’ (referring to U.S. Route 61),” he said.

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Trash Pile.

Although most of these modest structures would’ve been cut down if someone hadn’t come in to fix them up, but not everyone errs on the side of preserving them.

Jennifer Baughn, the chief architectural historian at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, said she has friends on both sides who question whether preserving sites of poverty and violence is a good thing or bad thing.

“I generally fall on the side of preservation, regardless, since once the building or shack is lost, the memory of what happened there and the people who built it also fades,” she said.

Baughn said historic places tell complex stories because human history is a complex story.

“Sometimes they tell more complex stories than we want them to tell, but once the place is lost, the story starts to lose its complexities, and people can’t go straight to the source to see if the story they read in a (history) book is accurate or not.”

Jim Woodrick, director of the Historic Preservation Division at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, said once a historic resource is gone, it precludes the opportunity to tell the story of what happened there.

“There are always ways to both use a resource commercially and honor the memory of those who lived and toiled there.”

Woodrick said he doesn’t think converting the shacks as commercial properties is necessarily insensitive, but it depends on how it’s interpreted.

“I think it would be best to interpret those places as artifacts,” he said.

Thomas Rosell, a contributing author for the online blog Preservation in Mississippi, said the context for historical places does not exist in a vacuum.

“Plantation houses do not exist without slave buildings,” he said. “Sharecropper buildings do not exist without other places more complex than slavery. Gas stations do not exist without roadways, ad infinitum.”

Kelly Choi, the public affairs program assistant for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said it’s important to have challenging conversations about places in communities wrought with difficult history.

“There are no easy answers, and we hope that communities that move forward would do so with care, thoughtfulness, and respect for the complexity of our history.”

Winn and Talbot recognize the opportunity for interpretation of a dark, storied past behind the walls of their sharecropper shacks, but they don’t see them as pressure points for political controversy.

“Some of (the history) is dark,” said Winn, “but it’s our past, and we’re all still here. Progress is ever-changing, and I think it’s a positive thing to preserve old historic buildings.”

Winn said if he had assembled some old cabins with no historical value, people wouldn’t come out and rent them. “What draws them out here is the historical ambience of the shotgun houses and the (Baby Doll) house.”

Talbot said his sharecropper farm had a wonderful history. “Mr. and Ms. Hopson were extremely fair,” he said. “They were the exception to the rule.”

According to Talbot, Mr. Hopson would pay the health insurance and a retirement fund for workers who lived in their shacks. He would also show films for the children and give out hotdogs and watermelon.

“We had people come back who grew up here and talk about what a wonderful life they had,” Talbot said. “They had a family life, and they didn’t go hungry. It was a pretty charmed life for poverty.”

He said it’s ridiculous to take down the buildings because it eradicates a piece of history. “Where does it stop, you know?” he asked. “Destroying all the history books?”

Woodrick said roadblocks facing preservation of these sites are matters of economic reality and a declining population. “(The shacks) are not just places that should be preserved, but resources that can provide economic benefits through tourism and downtown revitalization.”

Lolly Barnes, executive director for Mississippi Heritage Trust, said the biggest challenge facing preservation is finding an advocate, or a person in the community who cares if a building is saved.

“You could say its money because you’re going to have to have the resources to restore it, but if you don’t have boots on the ground, whether it’s an organization or an individual that’s going to fight for something, all the money in the world’s not going to make a difference.”

MHT, a nonprofit preservation organization, works statewide to help partners like Winn and Talbot – succeed in efforts to preserve these places. “We want to help communities find preservation solutions rather than demolition,” said Barnes. “Some of the stories are hard to tell, but it gives us a specific reminder of the past to tell a more complete story about our history.”

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I’m a journalism major.
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