Our Vanishing Tenant Homes

Tenant Home Cotton Cropped

Simple lines, elegant beauty … along SC’s Highway 521

The South, and Georgialina is no exception, is surely losing a picturesque part of its past. I’m talking about tenant homes: those stately little shacks that provide one last glimpse of a vanquished culture.

As a boy, I used to see them everywhere. Elegant little houses resting on rock piles standing like sentinels over fields. Now they are rare, although a drive into farm country still turns one up now and then.

Referred to as saltbox houses, catslides, and pole cabins, they long stood with grace and character in pastures and fields. In their heyday, a sea of white cotton surrounded tenant homes every summer, but when the mules, plows, and hoes gave way to tractors, the homes were abandoned. Today, nothing but wasps, mice, and birds make their homes in them. Weather, vandalism, and sheer neglect have long been destroying them and today few remain. All that’s left of many are chimneys, a pile of bricks, and field stones.

For generations, the plain folk of the South lived in tenant homes. Many sprang up during Reconstruction, an era of suffering and upheaval when being a tenant farmer meant a step up the social ladder. Sharecroppers exchanged a crop for a house and a share of the yield. Still, a tenant farmer often had nothing to show for his efforts at year’s end.

The tenant lifestyle long provided fertile ground for writers. Many writers portrayed life in the little homes as an insufferable existence. Rita Turner Wall, author of The Vanishing Tenant Homes of Rural Georgia, wrote that “life in the old houses was what the occupants made of it: a vegetable garden and a flock of chickens or hard fare, a yard full of flower beds or blank emptiness, a tablecloth or bare boards, a good life or a bad life.”

Tenant homes had no plumbing, no built-in sinks, no cabinets, no closets. Generally, only functional furniture such as pie safes, beds, and chairs graced these old homes. Jars and simple containers on crude shelves held the staples: cornmeal, flour, and grits. Kerosene lamps broke the darkness. Buckets hauled water up from wells. Life was hard except the tenants didn’t know it. They gathered in the evening to swap stories and sing. There was no TV, no radio, and maybe that was a blessing in a way. “Survivor” was not a TV show but a way of life and everyone pulled together.

And then Southern farm tenancy ended abruptly after World War II. Government programs, farm mechanization, and tenants’ own inefficiency drove them from the land and the seductive call of prosperity lured them to the city. After decades of painting them, patching them, and sealing cracks in the walls with newspapers, people have long left tenant homes alone and that is sealing their fate.

I see more beauty in a weathered tenant home than some sparkling vinyl-sided house. Wall wrote that “there is in the pitch of the roof, the shape of chimney, the whole mass, an orderly disposition pleasing to the eye.” She’s right about that. From their simplicity, a majestic beauty blesses the land they stand on. Unimposing and providing a glimpse into the past, they stand as works of art, even as they list and their windows lose their shape. No wonder so many artists and photographers find these survivors fascinating.

4 thoughts on “Our Vanishing Tenant Homes

  1. I enjoyed this, as much for its description of lost tenant homes as for its rumination on lifestyle. I bought a 300 year old stone dwelling in France with no bathroom, kitchen or toilet, rain falling through the roof, and lovingly restored it to a comfortable holiday cottage. But the investment in time and money is problematic with a wooden house. ‘What the occupants made of it’ with chickens and vegetables was crucial to their happiness. Lovely piece. I’m glad you are our eyes on your travels.

  2. Tom. there are still a few tenant homes on the old Jim Gillis farm in Trutland County, Ga. They were lined down one side of the road that runs from Blackville to Oakpark.

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