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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Heads or tails?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The value of farm land in Southeast Missouri has always fluctuated; usually the price moves along with the financial health of the national economy. That was certainly the case beginning in the late 1920s.

For Southeast Missouri, and especially New Madrid County the bad times began with the flood of 1927. With the ebb of the waters came the rise in business failures, ruined farms, and bank closings--all two years before financial disaster struck the rest of the country with the stock market crash in October 1929. This was the beginning of the Great Depression.

Land and commodity prices fell, but property and drainage taxes did not. Many farms were sold on the east steps of the New Madrid County Courthouse by foreclosure or sheriff's sale for taxes due. Depressed land prices would continue through the next decade.

The bargain-basement prices of land gave rise to one of the most successful partnerships in county history.

Walter S. Edwards Sr. ran the Edwards Land and Title Company in New Madrid. Because many farms were "entailed," that is tied up with life estates or owners yet to be born, knowing which farms had a good title and those that did not was key to the decision of which farm to bid on. Edwards knew a lot about land titles, but he didn't have the capital needed to buy large tracts.

E. B. Gee Sr. was a successful merchant in Blytheville, Ark. Gee had acquired some land in Southeast Missouri before 1927 according to the deed records, but he had limited knowledge of what was for sale and the history of the title. What he did have was capital.

Edwards and Gee formed a partnership and began buying land--lots of land. Edwards selected the land; Gee provided the money.

John Bailey, who was from Sikeston, graduated from law school at the University of Missouri in 1940. John married a member of the Gee family and in 1941 began working for E. B. Gee farms in Portageville. Much of Gee's farm operation was the land farmed and managed by the Edwards and Gee partnership.

As partnerships go, this one was very successful. But, as is often the case, the circumstances of the partners evolve and change.

Edwards decided that it would be best that they divide the lands and go their own ways. He had a map drawn up with a proposed division of some tens of thousands of acres between the two. One half was colored red and the other half colored blue. He presented the map to Gee. Gee looked it over and then gave it to John Bailey with the instruction to study it and give his opinion of its fairness.

Bailey went to work. With another of Gee's employees, Arline Avery, the pair drove all over the county inspecting the farms and uncleared lands, talked to the tenants, studied soil and elevation maps, and poured over the partnership records. After some months of work he told Gee, in his opinion, the division was fair.

Gee met with Edwards and agreed to the division, but the question remained as to who got which part, red or blue.

They decided to flip a coin.

According to Bailey, at the appointed time, the two met. Arlene Avery had painted a silver dollar, one side blue and the other red. Edwards flipped the coin and Gee made the call. How the coin landed is lost to history, but both were well satisfied.

The division of tens of thousands of acres between the two was made and their legendary successful partnership closed--all on the flip of a painted coin.



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H. Riley Bock
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