When the great flood of 1927 hit Lake Village, Ark., Sam Epstein had already been ginning cotton for some 30 years.
“It was April when the terrible flood hit,” says Sam Angel, Epstein’s grandson and the SCGA 2017 Ginner of the Year. “At the time, my aunt was at college in Georgia. My grandmother sent her a telegram – I still have it at the house somewhere -- saying ‘Don’t worry. We’re all safe. Sam saved all his mules. We have refugees living in the gin.’
“He had a bunch of mules. I’m not sure where he carried them but they beat the flood. Of course, in those days mules were absolutely vital to a cotton operation.”
The Mississippi River levee is just five or six miles from Angel’s base of operations. The gin site and cemetery, just a stone’s throw apart, are on the highest point in Lake Village. So, in 1927, the gin was the only part of the town out of the water.
“I believe my granddaddy had the first gin here, built in the late 1800s. At one time, he owned two: the one here and one at Luna, a small community on the river, about 10 miles north of here.
“In 1944, granddaddy was dying in the hospital not far from here. Daddy had gone to see him and the fire alarm went off. The gin that was here burned down. We built another gin in 1944/45 and it was here until we built this one in 1973.”
In the late 1880s, Sam Epstein was a young man when he arrived in the United States as an immigrant from Russia. The new surroundings must have seemed odd for a man born on a farm near Riga, Latvia, in 1875.
He traveled to Memphis to join up with relatives already living in the area. After working as a peddler with his brother for a few years, the ambitious pair looked farther south to expand their business opportunities.
Epstein “bought land as far back as 1893 – all cotton sharecropping,” says Angel. “There were two or three Jewish families here. We were mostly tied in with the Jewish community across the river in Greenville, Miss.”
Angel hasn’t strayed far from the Delta. “I went off to school for a very short time. Daddy had a heart attack and I came back to help and never had a desire to go back to college.”
The family used to have an office downtown. For the last 25 years-plus, they’ve worked out of a former cotton house next to the gin. “It had 36 rooms. They brought the cotton in on wagons or small trucks. A sucker pipe would blow the cotton into the rooms. When we got caught up ginning, we’d open up the door and gather the cotton.”
Sam Angel, II, -- known as Sammy -- picks up the story. Before turning his attention to ginning, “Sam Epstein came here and opened a dry goods store on Main Street in the late 1800s. Later, he began purchasing land.
“He had three daughters and two of them continued operating the dry goods business until the 1970s. The youngest daughter didn’t participate. The middle daughter’s husband married Ben Angel, my grandfather.”
Since Sam Epstein passed, “Dad’s run our portion of the business (Epstein Land Company and Epstein Gin Company). I hope to do the same.”
According to Sammy, his father has taken what was once a small, diesel-powered gin to today’s 45-bales-per-hour plant. His father “has strived to increase quality and productivity through technology and upgrades year after year.”
“We typically update something every year,” says Sammy. “That might be something like expanding the width of the machinery. The dynamics and internal parts are the same they’ve always been. But to gain capacity, obviously, you need width. We started out going to a 72-inch, then 96-inch and, now, we have some 120-inch equipment.
“So, we usually look at the gin see where there’s a bottleneck and try to update to alleviate that.”
Did this corner of extreme southeast Arkansas see an expansion of cotton acres in 2016?
“Unfortunately, not here,” says Sammy.
It’s increasingly hard to get farmers to grow cotton, laments Sam. “This last government program has killed us on cotton.
“We have a lot of land – that’s why we’re able to gin the small amount of cotton we have. I believe there are five privately-owned gins in southern Arkansas – one here, one in Wilmot, three in Portland – and they’re all hooked up with lots of land. There’s no other way to do it.”
It’s sad, says Sammy, “because there used to be 10 gins in every town. We’ve lost a lot of infrastructure and equipment when grain prices went through the roof. The market dropped off and farmers got rid of their equipment. It’s not easy to get back into production -- $750,000 pickers in this environment isn’t something most farmers want to consider.
“There was some expansion of cotton acres north of us. From here south, though, any bump was very small.”
Regardless, the land holdings are spread across three counties in southeast Arkansas. Twenty, or more, tenants farm cotton, rice, soybeans and corn. Sammy says his father prefers “handshake business.”
The properties are being improved through land leveling “to conserve water usage while enhancing crop production.”
Among the things that have helped the Angels stay in business: a seed house built in the late 1980s. “We ship a lot of our seed, probably 99 percent, north to Pacific Northwest dairies for feed,” says Sammy.
The Angels also operate a trans-loading business. A rail line runs right alongside the gin and seedhouse. “Seed is hauled in from Mississippi and we store some of that. At least part of the reason it’s brought here is there’s a big discrepancy between the cost of shipping freight east of the Mississippi River and west of it. Cotton gins in Mississippi have figured out there’s money to be saved sending it over here.
“Regardless, when a deal is struck, we load it right onto a railcar for shipping.”
On the CV
Besides running the gin and land companies, Angel is:
- Former director and president of the Dumas Cotton Warehouse in Dumas, Ark.
- A former delegate and board member of the Cotton Warehouse Association of America.
- Former president, director and chairman of the board for the Southern Cotton Ginners Association.
- A former director of the Bank of Lake Village.
- Former commissioner of the Chicot County Rural Development Authority, the Southeast Arkansas Levee District and the Chicot County Watershed District.
- An Army veteran.
In 2001, Angel and his family donated Lakeport Plantation to Arkansas State University. Lakeport Plantation, says Sammy, “is the only remaining Arkansas plantation home on the Mississippi River.”
The Mississippi River Commission
In response to so much flooding, in 1879, the Mississippi River Commission began.
“The way it’s set up is the president is a general stationed in Vicksburg, Miss,” says Sam, the commission’s longest serving member. “There are also two generals and one admiral. On the civilian side, two of the members must be civil engineers. The third civilian – and that’s me, the ‘citizen representative’ – can be any profession.”
The citizen representative has to be nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. Sam has had “four Presidents put me on the commission: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Obama. We have nine-year terms and I’ve still got a couple of years to go.”
Having been appointed on Sept. 25, 1979, Angel is currently the longest-serving member of the commission.
Sam is not one to mince words. “The first thing (President) Trump can do is get rid of the EPA and all these regulations. That’s the worst agency for business for maintaining the waterways. Say we have a $300 million river project. Well, the first $100 million is spent going through red tape.
“Anything that happens on the Mississippi River comes through the commission. It used to be we had a lot of new projects to consider. Recently, that’s stopped because we’ve had trouble getting funded. That should change in 2017, though, with some funds coming open.”
It is imperative, says Sam, the nation focus on caring for waterways infrastructure. “There are locks and dams on the upper Mississippi that were built in 1932/1933 with a 50-year life span. Those are still in operation – they’re just patching them up.
“My two main concerns are flood control and navigation. People in the Delta forget how vulnerable we really are. If the levee breaks in Missouri, water will come down all the way to Helena. If the levee in Helena breaks, the water will come all the way down here into Louisiana. If one breaks in northern Mississippi, it floods all the way down to Vicksburg.
“Honestly, the New Orleans flooding would look like a drop in the bucket if we had a levee failure up here. I think we spent $14 billion getting the New Orleans system back into shape.”