Cotton was his past; Angus was his future

Posted by | June 9, 2017

The McPhail Angus Farm, in the vicinity of Seneca, SC, has been a locally significant farm for more than one hundred years. The farm illustrates twentieth century developments in agriculture in the South Carolina upcountry, most notably the transition from a traditional dependence on growing cotton as a cash crop to raising cattle as a major source of farm income, and growing fescue grass as both a source of pasture feed and a cash crop. The farm is also significant as an excellent intact example of an early-to-mid-twentieth century farm complex.

Walter Houlu “W.H.” McPhail (1901-1979)

Walter Houlu “W.H.” McPhail (1901-1979)

John Augustus McPhail (1876-1961) purchased the original 150-acre tract in 1902. His son Walter Houlu “W.H.” McPhail (1901-1979) acquired additional acreage up through 1931, bringing the total number of acres to almost 500. W.H. lived on the home place until his death in 1979, and the Tokeena Angus operation, run by his four sons, remains active there today.

W.H.’s interest in cows began at the age of 8 When he asked his father if he could purchase a yearling heifer. With his father’s consent and advice, W.H. purchased “Blue Bell” for a gallon of molasses and a fifty cent piece.

During his childhood, W.H. attended the elementary grades at Tokeena School #1, Which was located just a few yards from his front door. He later graduated from Townville High School, waiting on his brother so that they could begin studies together at Clemson College in 1921.

W.H.’s yearn for the farm was stronger though, and in 1922, he walked home to start the spring planting of cotton. After promising his brothers that the farm would be cared for and their educations paid for, W.H. began his profession as a life-long cattle and cotton farmer (his two younger brothers, Miyantoo (“Toy”) and Schubert, did in fact graduate from Clemson.)

In the summer of 1926, W.H. took an afternoon break from farming, just long enough to ride through a neighbor’s yard and pick up Addie Lucy Prater. Nine years later the two married and, over the years, had seven children: Mary, Hazel, Walter, Steve, Floyd, Elaine and Neil.

McPhail Angus Farm, Mule/Cattle Barn, constructed ca. 1886.

McPhail Angus Farm, mule/cattle barn, constructed ca. 1886.

By the late 1920s, overproduction had led to an agricultural depression in the Southeast, and dramatically reduced prices for both cotton and textiles.  This depression, combined with the stock market crash of 1929, dropped per capita income in South Carolina from $260 in 1929 to $151 in 1933, and many tenant farmers and sharecroppers left farms for cities and towns with mill villages that offered them higher wages and their families electricity, running water, and indoor plumbing.

During President Franklin Roosevelt’s first term, furthermore, other farm laborers found temporary or long-term employment through such federal agencies as the Works Progress Administration.

Cotton was still the farm’s main crop during this period, and its proceeds allowed W.H. McPhail to add acreage to the original 150 acres purchased by his father. Together, J.A. and W.H. McPhail purchased the original Pine Grove School lot in 1919, the Townville High School lot in 1928, and another fifty acres in 1930.  W.H. McPhail later bought additional land to increase the acreage to 468 acres by 1931.

W.H. McPhail employed many of his neighbors during what was called “lay by time.” This was the time when the crops were “laid by” or harvested for one season and the next crop was either in the ground or soon to be put in the ground. It later came to refer to the time when the mills were shut down periodically to cut production or decrease payroll. During this time, McPhail paid fifty cents per man per day to men to clean up swamp land located on the farm.

The men worked by hand to cut back plants and tree growth to keep the swamp clear enough to plant corn and to control weeds. They also dug drainage ditches by hand to reduce the water levels in the swamp as much as possible for that time.

By the late 1930s, however, laborers could make as much as $2.00 per day in the mills or on New Deal public works projects, a rate that a small farmer such as W.H. McPhail could not compete with.  McPhail was only able to continue operations with a few sharecroppers, still growing a few acres of cotton but beginning to make a rapid shift toward raising cattle for the farm’s major source of income.

W.H. saw the changes being brought about by the decline of the cotton economy and the loss of topsoil across the upstate. He was already terracing his farm but believed that cattle, not cotton, would be the crop of the future. Soon after his marriage, he bought two heifers and a bull from Mr. N. S. Black of York.

Later, McPhail purchased several registered Angus from Rabun Croft Farm in Georgia, establishing a registered Angus herd in South Carolina in 1936. This herd is one of the oldest Angus herds in South Carolina and has been designated as a Historic Herd by the American Angus Association.

In 1939, McPhail brought fescue seed from a test plot in the Anderson County Extension program home to his farm. He gradually helped established this grass throughout the area, planting acreage on his own farm and selling extra seed to neighbors so that they could increase profits through forage rather than feed. He eventually provided certified seed to such companies as Pennington and Sawan Seed, which in turn sold it to farmers across the Southeast.

Tragedy struck the McPhail’s in 1945 when brucellosis broke out on the farm.  After slaughtering most of his herd to stop the spread of the disease, W.H. partnered with John Sam Lay of Choee Valley to purchase the next two heifer crops from V.L. Lovell of Habersham, GA.

In the late 1940s, W.H. McPhail, Reese and Levis Herron, C.A. Seawright, R.A Reeves, Charles Foster, F.B. Davis and Ronnie Jones established the South Carolina Angus Association and began sponsoring their own state supported sales of Angus cattle. Mr. McPhail was active on the Board of Directors for many years, promoting the Angus breed in news articles and anywhere else he could. He believed that Angus was the top breed and said that even if you had mixed breed cattle, “you might as well have some Angus in there, so you could have the top mixed breed too.”

W.H. held the record for having the highest selling bull at the Association’s state sale for many years. He was a lifetime member of the American Angus Association, served as vice-president of the South Carolina Angus Association in the late 1960’s, and was an advisor to the Junior group until well into his ‘70’s.

In 1952, W.H. McPhail was awarded the Outstanding Accomplishment in Balanced Farming plaque from the Clemson College Extension Service; he attributed a large part of his success to his cattle. In 1969, McPhail was named an honorary member of the Block and Bridle Club.

In 1968, W.H. McPhail decided to semi-retire, since he had four sons who were interested in carrying on the farming tradition. Floyd returned home first, followed shortly by Walter. Along with Steve, they formed Tokeena Angus, and in 1977, Neil came home from Anderson College, joining the partnership by adding the Angus cattle he had acquired over the years, and pitching in to help with the work.

W.H. McPhail passed away in February of 1979, still in the habit of riding over the farm, checking daily on “the boys,” his beloved black cows.


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