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Rice Still Dominates Jefferson County Agriculture

By W. T. Block

Reprinted from Beaumont Enterprise, Saturday May 29, 1999.

NEDERLAND -- In 1849 a Houston newspaper suggested to farmers that "...rice sold at 75 cents a bushel would certainly be a better business than cotton at 5 cents (a lb.) or corn and wheat at present prices..." Nevertheless, the advice went unheeded in Jefferson County, where only small amounts of rice for family use were planted in rows; almost no cotton was grown, and raising cattle remained "king."

Before 1890, Jefferson County had no agriculture worthy of the name; for 4 decades prior to 1906 Beaumont did not even have a cotton gin. Suddenly in 1886, Louis Bordages, Dan Wingate, and Ed Carouthers of Fannett planted 100 acres of rice. However it was an influx of Crowley, La., rice farmers, that instituted the "grand march to the rice fields" in 1892.

In 1891, cleared, prairie land in Orange County went begging at $1 an acre. By 1895 such land sold readily at $6 an acre and many owners demanded $8 an acre for it.

In 1891 only 1,500 acres in Jefferson County were devoted to rice. By 1900, there were 43,000 acres in the county planted in rice, a figure that increased to 54,000 acres by 1904.

During the 1890s, most rice was grown in the Taylor’s-Hillebrand Bayou watershed, from whence a reliable supply of water was available to be pumped into the fields. Many farmers in the Hamshire-Nome-China vicinity dug wells 200 feet deep, from which they flooded their fields.

John Reimershoffer of Texas Star Rice Mill of Galveston gave the Texas rice industry its greatest impetus. In 1887 he bought ten tons of Louisiana rice seed and offered it free in small amounts to any farmer that would experiment with rice.

Nederland was intentionally founded in 1898 to become a "rice capitol." The Kansas City Southern Railroad built a huge pumping plant at Smith Bluff that flooded 25 miles of rice canals. A steady stream of Dutch colonists were arriving to buy the railroad’s surplus acreage. Only 1,500 acres were planted in rice in Nederland in 1899, but by 1904 the count had increased to 13,000 acres.

The new rice mania also set off a period of rice mill and rice canal construction in Jefferson County, and by 1900 four of Texas’ eight rice mills were located in this county. Beaumont Rice Mill, Atlantic Rice Mill, and Hinz Rice Mill were located in Beaumont, and Port Arthur Rice Mill was at Port Arthur. Orange Rice Mill was built at Orange, and in 1904 Nederland Rice Mill was built at Nederland.

In addition to the Nederland canal system, Beaumont Irrigation Co. flooded 32,000 acres from its canal system. McFaddin-Weiss-Kyle Canal Co. pumped water to 16,500 acres, and the Neches Canal Co. flooded 15,000 acres at its peak.

In 1905 the supply of rice greatly exceeded demand; the price per barrel plummeted, and the Texas rice farmers lost $2,000,000 that year. Rice millers hurried off to Europe to generate new markets for their grain.

Certainly one of this county’s great boons has been the Texas A & M Experiment Station at Amelia, which was founded in 1909. In more recent times, the rice crop added $17,000,000 to Jefferson County’s economy in 1970, and let’s hope it continues to prosper. Nevertheless, rice-growing remains a risky endeavor, which requires large amounts of land, machinery, and capital in pursuit of it.

Copyright © 1998-2012 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
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