Five generations have now cultivated rice on Isbell Farms.
In the late 1800’s Benjamin Franklin Isbell moved his family to a place called Snake Island. It was an island in some sense, but not in the traditional sense.
Snake Island Arkansas is a geographical anomaly approximately 3 miles across,a naturally elevated area of land situated along the edge of the Grand Prairie and set in the middle of sometimes flooded hard wood bottoms along Bayou Meto.
Frank, as everyone called him, bought timber land, started a saw mill and began to supply cross ties to the growing railroad industry. He also began his family that would eventually number eight, five boys and three girls.
Frank was an avid hunter who often took his buggy through the virgin timber to the adjoining prairie to hunt prairie chickens, which were numerous at that time. It is told that he sometimes returned with a buggy full of them. Ducks were also plentiful almost in his back yard. With plenty to eat and lots of cross ties to sell, his family did quite well. He was instrumental in building roads and starting several schools in isolated areas in and around his home. Because of his work to build a community, the area was declared a voting district and named Isbell Township.
His first child was a boy. He and his wife Rosie proudly named him Bud. No abbreviation, no middle name. Just Bud.
It suited him.
Bud was a quiet boy who later became a quiet man-a hard worker and a builder of roads himself. As the land was cleared of trees, it was put to work growing corn for the mules and cotton for the markets. Bud was also a poet as his family found out later reading a letter he wrote to his sweetheart Minnie. (Like rats run in the rafters, you’re the one I’m after). Hopefully that was not one of his best ones.
In 1924, Bud and Minnie began their family. They had one son whom they named Marcus Leroy Isbell. The whole of Snake Island called him Sonny Boy. By now Bud had left the logging business and was growing cotton on a small area he bought joining his Father’s property. In 1928 cotton sold for just 5 cents a pound. Bud put that crop into the government warehouse hoping the price would go up. By 1929 the cotton price had fallen to 4 and a half cents. Licking his wounds, Bud sold both crops and put the money in the bank. Two weeks later the bank closed its doors and left Bud with a five year old son and nothing to show for two years work.
Though a quiet man, Bud kept a yearly ledger which is a family heirloom to this day. In it he wrote.
“1929. Hell and destruction, and plenty of corn.”
He was a man of few words. With enough feed to keep the livestock fed, he sought out an uncle that had a meat cutting business and began rebuilding his life. By the end of the depression he had returned to cotton farming and was able to lead his small family back into a manner of prosperity. At the beginning of WWII Leroy was 17 years old. He had worked on the farm with his dad, and taken part time jobs in hardware stores and body shops during slow times on the farm. Uncle Sam called and he entered the Navy at age 19.
After training as signalman for ship to ship communication, Leroy was later put on landing craft duty. On his trip to the theater of war his orders came through. His group was assigned the duty of landing marines on Hokkaido the northern island of Japan. They were on their way to Japan when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. His company was diverted to China to help in the evacuation of Japanese soldiers from there, where he served out the rest of his time in the Navy.
Upon returning home Leroy took advantage of the GI bills training and a $90 per month stipend to start his own farming career. He and his new bride Luverne began with cotton also, planting with their new Ford tractor and chopping and picking by hand.
Rice was a fairly new crop at that time and Leroy was very interested.
He planted his first crop of rice and did quite well. He began to buy land adjoining his father’s, cleaning it up, and planting the rice on new ground, as they called it. The system then was to grow rice on the clean new ground for a couple years and then leave the fields fallow for two years, plowing it to keep it free of grass as there were no herbicides at that time. He had found his sweet spot. Rice was to be his future from that time forward.
By now his family was complete. Benny the oldest boy, Vickie the only girl, and Chris the baby boy now only four years old. Leroy would take his Massey combine with tracks and custom cut rice for others after his own crop was in. He spent a lot of time helping a nearby farmer, Walter Birdsong. He became a favorite of Mr. Walters and as such was given the first opportunity to buy his farm when he retired. This was 1959 and land was a whopping $250.00 an acre. Everyone told him he could never pay for land that expensive. He thought he could, and soon moved his family out of Snake Island and onto the new farm four miles away.
He worked hard to make the farm efficient. Draglines and bull dozers began to shape fields and canals into his dream of how things should look.
Leroy steadily improved his farms, the new one and also the one in Snake Island. He paid off the mortgage and bought more land as it became available. His two sons worked beside him and learned to build and repair specialty machinery that at the time could not be found to suit their needs.
Benny took his knowledge and began to create new machinery to sell to other farmers. He was very smart and creative, and could figure out ways to improve almost anything.
His longest lasting item is the double sickle cutter bar. When ready to harvest rice is blown down by autumn winds it is almost impossible to get through the combine. Benny’s new cutter bar improved the cutting time at least two fold. Sadly, Benny was killed in a car accident at the age of 38. His oldest son Shane builds the Jaws cutter bar to this day. When the Hurricanes blow or the thunderstorms build, his cell phone rings regularly.
To be continued…