The Age: Remembering the pioneers of the rice industry in SE Texas

By Marie Hughes, Chambers County Museum at Wallisville

After the building of the canal systems in Chambers County, rice production grew by leaps and bounds. A major contributor to the rice industry’s success was the introduction of 300-pounds of seed rice from the Emperor of Japan. 

In 1903, Seito Saibara arrived in Texas, at the request of the city of Houston, to evaluate the Texas rice industry. He introduced Shinriki rice to Texas, a Japanese rice, which was proven to be much more resilient than the seed they were using, and rice yields for Texas farmers almost doubled. 

Although their yields increased, the quality of the Japanese rice was inferior to what Texas farmers had been planting. The rice industry scientists worked diligently to produce a seed with a good balance between quality and resilience, and continue improving the seed to this day.  

Saibara found Texas to be an ideal location for his rice industry and purchased 1,000 acres in Webster, Texas, to begin his rice farm.  He brought workers in from Japan to work the fields until the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 barred new Japanese immigrants from entering the country.  Seito Saibara left Texas shortly thereafter. 

In 1953, after the close of World War II, Saibara’s son, Kiyoaki, who served in the U S Army, was the first Japanese citizen in Texas to receive his United States Citizenship.  He did much to heal the Japanese-American relationship after World War II. 

The Gulf Coast storms of the early 1900s, especially the 1915 storm, dealt a heavy blow to the rice industry in Chambers County with the encroachment of saltwater into the canals and rice lands.  The saltwater had been purged from the water and soil by 1917 just as World War I began. 

Rice skyrocketed to $16 a barrel, causing many non-farmers to enter the rice farming business, but the rice boom was short-lived, and the bottom fell out in 1920 as the Great Depression brought devastation nationwide. 

Black oil, white rice and green fields

The Depression was tough on most Americans, but along the Texas Gulf Coast, the saving grace for many landowners was the discovery of oil.  The black gold of the Texas Gulf Coast was flowing abundantly, and because much of the land was owned by farmers and ranchers, it allowed them to prosper in the midst of the depression. 

A 1936 Rayne, La., article stated, “In addition to their main cash crop, which is rice, Texas and Louisiana rice growers during the past five years have had increasing incomes from leases on oil lands, oil royalties, and sales of portions of oil royalties. During the past three years, conditions in the rice industry have steadily improved and cash returns from rice crops have increased to an extent that on the whole rice farmers generally in these two states are now in a very good position financially.”

Lloyd Maxwell said his Grandpa Boyt lost a lot of money during the Great Depression but was able to recoup his losses when he struck oil on his land near Cottonwood in the Hankamer Oil Field.  The oil enabled him to keep his cattle fat and his fields green.

Not everyone was blessed enough to have an oil well on their property, but the oil of human kindness rose to the surface; the benevolence of those who prospered helped others stay afloat. 

During my interview with Lloyd Maxwell, he said, “Mr. Eli Rich farmed rice at Moss Bluff.  He was about the same age as Grandpa Boyt.  His brother, J. M. Rich was in partnership with Grandpa for a while.  They started the Liberty State Bank and also the Devers Canal Company together.”

Eventually they came to an agreement where J. M. took over the bank and Boyt took over the Canal Company. 

“Eli told me several times in years past, ‘Lloyd, we would have starved to death during the depression times if it hadn’t been for Mr. Elmer.  He had the implement company in Devers, and he came out to the house one day and said, ‘Eli, I want you to do some farming.’  I told him, Mr. Elmer, I don’t have the money to buy a piece of equipment.  He told me, ‘I tell you what I’m going to do, I’m going to get you a tractor and I’ll give you a plow and whatever equipment you need, and you pay me whenever you make a crop.  I’ll give you a sack of seed for every field and you give me two sacks back whenever you harvest your crop.’ He gave me a Case tractor and it took me between 5-7 years to pay him back, but your grandpa never rushed me about it.’  Grandpa did that on several occasions that I heard about,” said Lloyd, close to tears as he recalled his grandfather’s character,” Lloyd said.

J.I. Case farm machinery purchased by Devers Implement Co. (1936)

It was during these years, before the end of the Great Depression, that Elmer Boyt needed more machinery.  Elmer founded the Devers Implement Co. in 1930 and hired Joe McMullan to supervise the operation.  The company was an official J. I. Case dealership.  His office personnel consisted of Hugh Keeling, Nina Gregory, Nora Lee Ladd, and of course, Elmer Boyt.  Nora Lee worked for Elmer for 46 years. 

“Grandpa needed more threshing machines in the mid-30s. Case had just come out with this new model that was so popular and worked so well.  I think Grandpa ordered about a dozen or more from J. I. Case in Wisconsin,” declared Lloyd. 

That must have been a well-received order for the Case Company during those lean years. The Great Depression was still in full swing, and their bare brown fields stood in stark contrast to the lush green of the Southern rice fields. Neighbors in the north were suffering. The J. I. Case Co. of Racine reached out to the southern rice farmers to try and secure them as customers and introduce this new food product to the starving masses in the north.    

“The representative from Case came down and talked to Grandpa and Uncle Pat,” continued Lloyd.  “They told them they wanted the farmers to come up to Racine and see how they built not only the threshers, but the combines and tractors and everything else.  He said they would load a train up with however many farmers they could get from Texas and Southwest Louisiana and put them up when they got there.  They gathered a delegation of farmers from Devers, China, Nome, Winnie, Stowell, Anahuac, the whole area including some of the Beaumont farmers.  Some boarded the train in Devers but most of them loaded up in Beaumont.”

Texas rice farmers checking out threshing machines in Racine, Wis.

The Racine Journal Times reported on July 13, 1936:

“Seventeen rice emissaries from Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas arrived here this afternoon for a two-day stay.  Included in the group are prominent growers, representing the rice Growers’ association and the Southern Rice industries.  They are bringing to Racine a message in which the use of rice as a food is stressed.  Rice, being an irrigated product, is not affected by the drouth and is said to be an excellent substitute for potatoes.”

“The party is made up of notables in the rice industry and includes such well known men as Capt. A. H. Boyt, Beaumont, Texas president of the American Rice Growers Association and Elmer Boyt, Devers, Texas owner of Devers Implement Co., and the Devers Warehouse Co.”

“C. E. Stone, Houston, Texas, another member of the party is a representative of the Southern Rice Industry, of New Orleans, and publisher of the Breeder-Feeder magazine.  C. B. Davis, of Dallas, Texas, is the division freight agent of the Chicago, Rock Island and Gulf Railway.  Others in the group are Roy Holder, Crowley, La.; Paul O. Trahan, Gueydan, La.; Raymond Abeff, Welsh, La.; W. O. Compton, Kinder, La.; W. B. Smith, Lake Charles, La.; Sam LeBlanc, Vinton, La.; and E. T. Fuller, Jr., of the American Rice Growers’ Association.  George Maxwell, retail salesman of the Devers Implement Co.; Will T. Elder, Houston and Eagle Lake, Texas, of the Rice Belt Implement Co.; Fred Fields, Rosharon, Texas; Blockman, Woolson, Thomas and F. W. Richardson, assistant branch managers.”

During their stay, they were guests of the J. I. Case company of Racine.  They toured all of the Case facilities including the tractor plant where they witnessed the building of tractors on large scale production and watched the building of the threshers and how the loading of machines was carried out.  The J. I. Case Co. representatives were extraordinary hosts to the southern rice farmers, treating them to exceptional dining at various local restaurants and entertaining them at a theater production.  The Boyt brothers handed out 5,000 sample bags of rice to the Case employees and Mr. Elmer Boyt bought twice as many threshers as anyone else. 

On July 15, five box cars, 39 flat cars, three passenger cars and a caboose were loaded with Case rice threshers, tractors, and harvesting machinery to make the trip back South. Two-way signs stating “Case Rice Machinery” were supplied for the train of machinery and there were four large signs reading “Rice Growers’ Special.” 

Thirty-nine flat cars of J.I. Case Company farm machinery traveling on the Rock Island Lines. (July 18, 1936)

During their return trip, the “Rice Growers Special” made various 30-minute stops en route home for the purpose of educating the public on the value of rice as a food.  Rice exhibits were set up inside the train and around 3,000 sample bags of rice were distributed by Texas and Louisiana farmers to those visiting the exhibit. 

Around the time the trains were returning from the north in 1936, there was also a vast migration of northern farmers leaving the drought-ridden northern dust bowl for the lush southern rice fields, bringing with them their tractors and wheat harvesting equipment, which was soon revised for rice harvesting. Though tractors had been used before World War I, horses and mules were still used predominately in Texas.  That changed with the introduction of the tractors brought by the Texas “Rice Growers Special” delegation as well as those of the northern migrants.  The Gulf Coast Rice Industry became the first in the world to be mechanized.  

When the United States entered World War II in 1941, the nation was pulled out of its economic depression with the creation of new jobs.  The war also caused a boon in the rice industry with the demand for more food products.  

“In the 40s, after World War II was over and there was not as much need for rice,” said Lloyd Maxwell.  “The market became flooded, and prices dropped.  That’s when the government started getting their toe in the water concerning the rice industry. They started the allotment program.  We would have to report all the land we were farming for rice and the acreage we had in production.  The government would take an average of a period of three to five years of how much rice we were farming.  From that average they would figure how much they would allot you to farm, and you would not necessarily get the full amount.”

According to Lloyd, “They would cut as much of 15 percent off some farmers and that is all the land they would be allowed to farm.  The government got so tight on it they would go out and measure your fields to make sure you were farming your correct acreage allotted to you.  If you missed it by a few acres, they would make you plow it under, and they would stand and watch to make sure you did it.  It would cost you a pretty penny to plow it under and we had to do it at times.”

Lester Hankamer reportedly told Lloyd that there was a field near Liberty County where it was miscalculated by two acres one time. 

“The government inspectors from the Liberty office waited until we harvested our fields,” said Lester, “then rode with us as we harvested that last two acres separately.  Then they made us dump all the harvested grain back into the field.  They even watched us clean out the augers to make sure we cleaned every grain of rice out.”

Lloyd said, “The government put a price on the allotments and as time went on the allotments got more valuable, they were actually a commodity.  If you sold your land the allotment did not go with the land, you could sell it to the land buyer, or you could sell it to another farmer, but it was sold separately.  We’ve bought some allotments that might have originally been worth $50 an acre, but we paid $200 an acre for them.  The allotment program continued into the 80s.” 

“When they were ready to harvest the rice, they cut inside the levees, which were tall, you know,” explained Lloyd trying to help me understand the harvesting process.  “They used a steel wheel LA Case tractor to pull the binder.  They would follow around the levee clockwise and the tractor would be up on the side of the levee.  The cutter bar was on the right and when the rice was cut it would be dropped off on the right side where they would just miss it when they made the next pass.”

He remembers riding on an old binder cutting rice, once again drawing on his childhood memories.

“Purvis Douglas was driving an LA Case tractor pulling this old binder and Will Thomas was sitting on the seat on the back of the binder and I was sitting in his lap.  Those old binders were wheel driven, the tractor would pull the binder and the wheels would turn a chain, which worked the sickle.  They had a catcher on the end that was a canvas mat with wood strips on it.  The rice would land on it and the canvas would roll over to the right where there was a catcher with a metal lever,” Lloyd said. “You would pull the lever and it would throw a wrap of twine around the rice and tie it once and that would be a bundle.  The bundle would roll off to the side and the crew would come by and pick the bundles up and tie about 15 bundles together standing up.”

According to Lloyd, then they would tie five or six bundles across the top of them and they would act like a watershed.  If it rained, those bundles on top would force the rain to fall off on the sides and protect the shock. The bundles tied together were called a shock. They let the shocks of ripe grain dry in the field. When they got to about 12-14 percent moisture content, they used pitchforks and threw the shocks on the bundle wagon. A man on the wagon lined the bundles up.  The bundle wagon, which was pulled by mules, took them over to the threshing machine. They would place the bundles on the chain-driven conveyor belt or elevator that would take them up to the cylinder on the threshing machine. 

“You didn’t dare cross the bundle because you might choke the machine down.  Grandpa said there was one farmer who would take a five-dollar bill and attach it to a pitchfork he stuck in the ground.  Five dollars was about two to three days’ wages back then.  He’d say, ‘Anyone who can throw those bundles fast enough and not cross them and choke it down, I’ll give him that five dollars.’  He said those guys were throwing those bundles like crazy!  Before the invention of the threshing machine, they would have to thresh the rice by hand like you’ve seen them do in the Middle East,” noted Lloyd.

The next improvement after the binders for harvesting was the Case L A Model Combine.

“It had a Wisconsin AC (air-cooled) engine on it and it had an 8-10 foot cutter bar.  They’d pull it with an LA Case tractor, just like they pulled the binder.  The first ones that came out didn’t have a hopper on them, they had the clean grain auger that went up there and forked down and they’d hook sacks up to the elevator.  So, when the combine was running, they were thrashing the grain which came down the elevator to the sacks,” said Lloyd. “They had a platform there and a sack sewer would stand on it and catch the rice, loading up two sacks at a time, he’d sew them up and hang them on the side.  There was a little chute facing the rear where he would slide the sacks off.  The sacks would land in the field and the crew would come by and load them on the sack wagon.  They always had plenty of labor in the field at that time.  They eventually took the sack platform off and added a tank with an auger, just like the regular combines have now.”

Jett Hankamer sits in front of Hankamer Implement Shop

About 1946, Jett Hankamer opened the Hankamer Implement Co., which was also an official J. I. Case dealership. 

Lester Hankamer said, “Uncle Adolph and Daddy went up in the wheat country during the depression and bought 2 or 3 combines.  They brought them down here and transferred them over for rice harvesting and that’s what they used after they got rid of the old threshing machine.  I remember the old combines because I was what you called the ‘hopper boy.’  I rode the hopper for them because the hopper stood behind the driver and it was above his head, so he couldn’t see if it was full or not.  So, you had to have a ‘hopper boy’ on the combine to spread the rice out and tell the driver when it was full so he could stop and auger it into the cart.  I never worked in the Implement shop too much because we always had something outside to do, baling hay, working cattle or something like that.  Daddy had a pretty good mechanic in the shop that did all the mechanic work on those old tractors.  He was a Frenchman from Louisiana, but I don’t remember his name.  In fact, he had two mechanics who worked there, one was an old tall boy and was short and stocky.”

Arlette Hankamer Williams told me she heard from many folks how her grandpa, Jett, had a soft spot for a man who was working hard to take care of his family.  If he saw them struggling, he would take them a tractor and tell them they didn’t have to pay until they were making a good living. Heinke Gilfillian, Sr. confirmed this when I chatted with him. 

“My dad was having a lot of trouble with his tractor,” said Heinke, son of Henry Gilfillian.  “Daddy kept going to the Hankamer Implement Company to get parts.  One day Jett showed up at my Daddy’s house with a tractor for him.  Whether or not Jett expected him to pay him back later, I don’t know. It was in 1947 or ’48 that he gave daddy the tractor.  Daddy was able to continue farming, and he and I both retired from farming about the same time, 1974-75.  Jett was a good guy.  I remember when I was old enough to go to the fields and drive the rice cart, Jett would show up just to visit and see how things were going.  Daddy told me that Jett helped many a farmer out. We need more people like him these days.”

Since the beginning of the mechanization of the rice industry, Chambers County has continued to be a major player on the rice industry stage.  Now, who’s in the mood for a big steaming bowl of gumbo and rice?

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Before creating Bluebonnet News in 2018, Vanesa Brashier was a community editor for the Houston Chronicle/Houston Community Newspapers. During part of her 12 years at the newspapers, she was assigned as the digital editor and managing editor for the Humble Observer, Kingwood Observer, East Montgomery County Observer and the Lake Houston Observer, and the editor of the Dayton News, Cleveland Advocate and Eastex Advocate. Over the years, she has earned more than two dozen writing awards, including Journalist of the Year.

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