Imagine, if you can, your birthday is this coming Dec. 2 and you were born in 1916. The math is easy, but the reality of turning 100 years old is difficult for most to imagine.
For Dixie Evelyn Howard Ramey, that birthday will be just another opportunity to sit in the passenger seat of her daughter Nancy’s SUV and ride around the rural roads of Mississippi County, Ark., gazing at the crops being harvested from her land — land of which she had been a part for almost a century.
“I love getting out and going. I love seeing the farmers and their machinery on the land where my family worked so hard for so many years,” Dixie says softly, her wrinkled hand raising slowly, pointing to the John Deere on-board module harvester picking yet another cotton crop from the rich sandy loam soils filled with alluvial and terrace deposits from the Mississippi River.
Cotton producer Dwight Jackson has been farming 800 acres on Mrs. Dixie’s land since 1986. He grows a few soybeans, a little corn, but mostly cotton.
“Mrs. Dixie is a gem. She’s seen so much life. It’s fascinating listening to her recount the past, and she’s got a lot to recount,” says Jackson with a laugh and nod toward Dixie.
The Early Years
Her parents were born in Lexington, Tenn., but in the early 1900s, Dixie’s uncle traveled to Luxora, Ark., to visit a friend. He soon penned a letter to Dixie’s father instructing him to pack up everything and come to Luxora as soon as possible. Land was fertile, cheap and perfect for growing cotton.
Charles and Ruth Howard, with all their possessions, made the trip in mule-drawn wagons. The original land where the farm is today was replete with timber, much of which was cleared under the direction of Dixie’s father-in-law, who managed a lumber and hardwood timber business owned by a wealthy man in Chicago whose name Dixie can’t recall.
Her family has always taken care of the land, and the land has always given back to them. They have always believed that land is the one constant in life — acquiring it, working it and preserving it.
“We grew alfalfa for the mules, baled hay and grew cotton as far as you could see,” remembers Dixie, her tiny brown eyes wincing from the sun, as the breeze blows through her silky white hair.
She clearly remembers the fun she had playing with homemade stilts crafted by her father, made from empty tomato cans and strings.
“I played with those things until my feet hurt,” she says with laughing eyes.
She won the Miss Luxora contest, but she can’t remember which year. It may have been the year that she got her first ride in an airplane when some barnstormers landed their bi-winged “flying machines” on the flat land around Luxora, and all the locals gathered around to see.
Marriage carried Dixie away from the farm for a few years after WWII, but she and her husband Charles, who was a talented artist, made the trip from Chicago back home every three months to check on the farms and stay connected with their land and those who were working it.
House, Family and Future
The Civil War-era home in Luxora, where Dixie spent her childhood, is now on the Arkansas List of Endangered Houses. It was built by James Horn Williams, who came to Mississippi County in the 1840s and served in the General Assembly in both the House and Senate chambers. Today, the sprawling two-story structure is covered in ivy, years of dust, and spotted with dirt dauber nests. Wind blows tattered, thread-bare curtains in and out of broken windowpanes as the smell of defoliant blends with the old home’s musty air.
Dixie’s husband passed away five years ago. He was 97.
“My family has been healthy. Even during the Depression years, we were lucky to have what we needed — food, clothing, and good health,” she adds.
Dixie is the matriarch of the family. The history of her family and the Ramey and Howard family farms are known across Mississippi County and past its borders. When the family trust recently decided to once again purchase land, Dixie’s son, Jim Ramey and her great-grandson, John Stevens, who serve as co-executors of the trust, thought they would be requested to sign the contracts.
“When we walked into the bank that day to sign the documents securing the loan, we were told that Mrs. Dixie Ramey’s signature was required. It warmed our hearts to hear that,” explains Jim Ramey.
The family loaded Dixie in the car and wheeled her into the bank. Before her frail hand pressed the pen down on the paper, she looked up at the banker and quietly said, “I’m about to borrow a considerable amount of money from you, but you do realize I’m almost 100 years old, don’t you?”
The room erupted with laughter and Mrs. Dixie just smiled.
She remembers when the first “cotton boll picking machine” was purchased for the farm. The Rust Cotton Picking Machine was manufactured by the Rust brothers.
(See the video of the old Rust cotton boll picking machine on YouTube at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wipvvUYXYgA.)
Over a 100-year span of time, so many inventions that we take for granted today immensely improved the lives of Mrs. Dixie and her family. Radio and television, of course, were huge life-changing inventions, but when asked if there were one thing that really made her life easier through the years, Mrs. Dixie stared out the farm shop window and simply said, “Roads!”