by Laura M. Cruz
A progressive agricultural hero is the last thing you expect to find at an amusement park in Alabama.
De Soto Caverns Park in Childersburg, Alabama is a childhood staple for many in the south. Visitors can explore a magnificent series of caves, experience total darkness and amuse themselves with attractions like DeSoto’s Lost Trail maze.
A historical figure named Ida Mathis has left her mark in the park and the surrounding area. You’ll find her photo in the park’s gift shop, her name dropped in the guided cave tours, and her life’s story lovingly retold through speakers hidden throughout the park.
Mrs. Mathis was a cunning business woman, an expert in agriculture and a masterful public speaker. Ida educated many on crop diversification and helped farmers in Alabama and the Southeast U.S. gain security by growing their own food during wartime.
For decades, Alabama’s prime crop was cotton, which gave it the name of the Cotton State. In 1877 alone, there were more than 2 million acres of cotton farmland. This prosperity would not last. Erosion, the boll weevil, adverse weather, among other challenges, marked the decline of cotton farming.
As the daughter of a farmer, and a farmer herself, Ida understood the benefits of crop rotation. Rotating crops helps sustain nutrients in the soil, control pests and suppress weeds. The crops themselves nurtured the land, instead of the farmer having to replenish nutrients himself. The existing approach of planting cotton every season ridded the land of its nutrients and sped up erosion. Crop rotation was exactly what Alabama’s farmland needed.
Ida traveled across the country teaching anyone that would listen about the importance of diversifying crops. She also preached the importance of growing food that the farmer themselves could eat. In the event of a war, it would be beneficial to communities to know that they had food growing right there in their own farms. This was wise advice, as the U.S. found itself in the middle of World War 1 just a few years later.
Taking Care of Business
Ida was not just a farmer but also a financier and field agent for the Alabama Bankers Association. She initially bought DeSoto cavern with several partners in order to mine onyx. After the American onyx market crashed, Mrs. Mathis bought the cavern back from her partners to become the sole proprietor.
Mrs. Mathis knew the land and how to make it profitable. She bought acres at low prices and instructed renters how to work the land. Mrs. Mathis told her renters exactly what to plant, when and how. She also expected excellence out of her renters and the bankers lending them money. In some cases, she personally negotiated better rates with the bankers on behalf of her tenants.
Ida often spoke on tenancy within the context of diversified farming. Sharecropping and tenant farming were not without their faults. In the worst of cases, tenant farmers became tied up in dept to the landowner and barely made ends meet. To Mrs. Mathis credit, it seems she actually cared about the good of the land and her tenants.
A Way with Words
Ida managed to convince many thanks to her terrific public speaking skills. An experienced woman that could walk the talk. She spoke at conferences, college graduations, and local events. The Journal of American Bankers Association said hers was “one of the best talks on diversified farming”. She was the first woman to give a graduation speech at what is now Samford University.
Ida’s education at the Florence Synodical Female College must has been an incredible influence on her , and likely instilled in her the belief of being a man’s equal. She had faith in progressive women. She is quoted saying that “antipathy in the South to women in public life was a failing as she had observed it”.
It is said that she spoke to 28,000 farmers in a period of two months. Her talks were packed and attended by hundreds. Dozens of newspaper clippings announced her arrival with anticipation. Ida knew how to speak to farmers, bankers, governors. “Anything Mrs. Mathis wants, she gets. ” said a new York broker to a reporter writing a profile on Mrs Mathis
To think that this amazing woman’s history hides within a humble amusement park, makes one think how many more stories like hide around us every day. Ida’s efforts brought over $20,000,000 to Alabama in 1915 alone. She was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993. Her descendants now run DeSoto Caverns Park.
“Alabama Women's Hall of Fame Inductees.” Accessed November 11, 2020. http://www.awhf.org/inductee.html.
“Banker-Farmer Conference Brings Exchange of Ideas of Practical Value.” American Bankers Association Journal: (1915-1916) 8, no. 2 (August 1915): 114–16.
Crowell, Merle. “Interesting People: She Has Increased the Wealth of Thousands.” The American Magazine 83 (1917): 46–47.
“Florence Synodical Female College.” Shoals History, July 27, 2011. http://shoalshistory.com/florence-synodical-female-college/.
“Ida Elizabeth Brandon Mathis (1857-1925).” Alabama Women's Hall of Fame - Ida Elizabeth Brandon Mathis. Accessed November 11, 2020. http://www.awhf.org/mathis.html.
“Mrs. G.H. Mathis and F.W. Barnett Address People of Walker on the War and Food Shortage.” Daily Mountain Eagle. April 25, 1917.