Dockery Farms

Dockery Farms Oral History Intro Photo

Will Dockery was born in Mississippi in 1865. At the age of twenty, he graduated from the University of Mississippi. Ten years later, in 1895, he purchased hundreds of acres of Delta swamps and cane break just outside of Cleveland, the seat of government for Bolivar County.  Dockery Plantation began as a lumber business but moved to cotton, a decision that required manual labor, and led to sharecropping. At its peak, Dockery covered 40 square miles and was home to more than 400 families.

Dockery Plantation became a self-sufficient town of sorts, with two churches and two schools, a dedicated physician, a post office—even its own currency, which was honored in nearby towns. Dockery also established the Pea Vine Railroad, a 12-mile spur to bring food staples and dry goods to the commissary.The Pea Vine carried the blues, too. In 1900, Bill and Annie Patton, along with their young son Charley, moved to Dockery. Charley Patton made a name for himself with his guitar playing. Other bluesmen like Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, and Son House visited and played music on Dockery,

The plantation gave rise to a community of self-sufficient farmers. Families raised their own cows, hogs, and chickens. They hunted for squirrels and rabbits. They grew beans, tomatoes, corn, okra, and squash; and sugar cane and sorghum cane. Some residents, including Ruth Foster Blaylock, made hot tamales using cornhusks from the fields, selling them in Ruleville on Saturday nights.

When machinery started replacing manual labor in the early 1940s, the sharecroppers left Dockery. Families moved to Memphis or took the train to Chicago. Today, the Dockery service station, cotton gin,church, and cemetery still stand. The Dockery Farms Foundation was established in 1986 to “preserve the historic property and heritage of Dockery Farms and to develop these for educational purposes and the public interest in music, agriculture, and the history of the Mississippi Delta. In the words of Ruth Blaylock Foster, “Black people made Dockery.” The interviews collected here begin to tell that story.

Funding from Anson Mills, the South Carolina grower and miller of grains, drives SFA's agricultural oral histories.


Bill Lester - Dockery Farms Foundation

Bill Lester

Born in Memphis, Bill Lester attended the University of Mississippi and spent four decades teaching art at Delta State University. His great-grandfather had a large plantation in Estill, Mississippi, called Capitola, where Bill thought he’d put down some roots. But the commute was too much for his job at Delta State, so he set his eyes on Dockery. After cultivating a relationship with the Dockery family, he acquired some frontage from them and, in 1973, he built a house for himself and his wife. For the next 40 years, Bill got to know the families who, at the time, still called Dockery home.

Gentle Lee Rainey

Gentle Lee Rainey is the third generation of his family born on Dockery Plantation. The one time home of Charlie Patton and Howlin’ Wolf, Dockery is widely considered the birthplace of the Blues. For Gentle Lee Rainey, it was the birthplace of the Delta hot tamale. Rainey’s grandfather, Sylvester Blaylock, began making his own version of this Delta delicacy, using cornhusks from the fields, in an effort to earn extra money on the weekends. Eventually, all of the men in Rainey’s family learned the art of tamale making. They would peddle their homemade bundles in the nearby town of Ruleville on Saturday nights.

Ruth Blaylock Foster - Dockery Farms

Ruth Blaylock Foster

In its heyday, Dockery Plantation covered 40 square miles and was home to hundreds of families. Ruth Blaylock Foster’s family was one of them. Her father, Sylvester Blaylock, was born in 1896, one year after Will Dockery established his massive enterprise. Sylvester and his wife, Hattie, both grew up on Dockery. When they married, Sylvester sharecropped, raising cotton, corn, sugar cane, and sorghum cane. Hattie raised twelve children. Ruth, along with her brothers and sisters, picked cotton on their father’s acreage, each averaging one 500-pound bale a day. In the winter months, they would kill more hogs than Ruth cares to remember. They also raised cows and chickens, hunted rabbits and squirrels, and made tamales using cornhusks from the field. The men would go into the nearby town of Ruleville on Saturday nights to sell their homemade bundles of meat and locally milled cornmeal.