Gene Foster was a man tied to a place in this world — Cottonwood community, northeast of the small town of Eustace.
Gene, however, did not start life in the countryside outside Eustace. His parents were sharecroppers in Crisp, near Ennis, Texas, which is south of Dallas. William Everett Foster and Fairy Gertrude Morton Foster, both age 24, gave birth to Ferrell Eugene “Gene” Foster on October 26, 1926, in Crisp. He was the couple’s third son, and another son would come after Gene. Lloyd Daniel had been born February 23, 1922, and died March 24 that same year. Charles Everett came along on May 22, 1923. So the couple and Charles welcomed Gene into their home. Billy John came along August 24, 1932, after the family had moved to Cottonwood, so after age 6, Gene grew up with two brothers.
Crisp is in Ellis County along FM 660 about 10 miles east of Waxahachie. In 2000, it had a population of about 90 people. Gene and I visited Crisp together in 2008. It is not a town; it is more a community, with houses scattered here and there.
To understand Ellis County in 1926, we position it in its past. In the 1870s, a little after Gene’s ancestors arrived in Henderson County to the east, a cotton boom had come to Ellis County, situated as it was in the Blackland Belt of Texas. “Ellis County, named for Richard Ellis, President of the Constitutional Convention in the formation of the Texas Republic, was reputed to be the banner cotton county of Texas,” wrote Joseph Martin Dawson years later. That cotton boom lasted the 50 years between the 1870s and the 1920s, when Everett and Gertrude Foster moved to Crisp. From 1878 “onward until the great depression of 1929 the region was dotted with tenant hovels interspersed here and there with the mansions of the rich landlords.” Gertrude gave birth to Gene in one of those hovels.
The most famous resident of Crisp, Ernest Tubb, was 12 years old when Gene was born. The boy who would grow to stardom as a country music singer was also the son of a sharecropper. It would be interesting to know the proximity of the Tubb and Foster homes, but that is lost to us. The “Hillbilly Music dawt com” website gives some information on Tubb’s younger years that might inform our understanding of life in Crisp in 1926, but it is unclear when the Tubb family moved away from Crisp..
“One of country music’s most distinctive voices and legends was a man born on a ranch in a small town called Crisp, Texas that fans worldwide came to know as the Texas Troubadour, Ernest Tubb. You may not find Crisp on any map, as a quote attributed to Ernest might attest to ‘it’s hardly a wide place in the road.’ He considered San Antonio his home town for that’s where he had spent much of his early life. . . .
On more than one occasion in his early song folios, it was mentioned that Ernest couldn’t really recall when he first started singing or performing. His youth was spent on the farm and ranch but when work was done, he would attend the local old time dances, that seemed to be a part of the scene in many a rural area. And it was there that he started his entertainment training, by singing ‘…the old time songs accompanied by the small string bands that played for these gatherings.'” [Source: Hillbilly-Music dawt com, “Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours,” http://www.hillbilly-music.com/artists/story/index.php?id=10193]
It is hard to know exactly what sharecropping life was like in Crisp in 1926, but there may be some clues in Dawson’s recollection of his experience growing up in Ellis County starting in 1879. That was 47 years before Gene Foster’s birth, but the tenant farming system still prevailed those many years later. Dawson said this of the system:
“Father mistrusted the tenant system, resolved to achieve independence speedily. He heartily disliked landlordism, called in a curse, a dreadful tyranny. He recoiled at the exactions imposed upon renters–the requirement that they furnish teams and tools, frequently that they buy supplies from owner constabularies, mortgage their crops for living expenses, and add ten percent interest on deferred payments of high-priced items of ordinary food and clothing. He boiled with rage when the manager often hinted that housewives might be exceeding the credit agreement. Most of all, cotton being always a hand labor crop, he denounced the custom of keeping renters’ children in the cotton fields, out of school. He pointed in bitter revolt to the fact that with all these impositions the poor sharecroppers seldom came out clear at the end of the year.” [Source: Joseph Martin Dawson, A Thousand Months to Remember: An Autobiography]
There is no way to know the specific financial situation of the Fosters in 1926. They were not an educated people who wrote histories; they labored. But the experience of the Dawson family sheds light on the typical situation of tenant farmers in Ellis County. It helps explain why this young family picked up and moved back to Henderson County, where Gertrude’s dad had significant land holdings and could help the couple get on sounder financial footing.
Copyright © 2020 Ferrell Foster