A Century of the Cotton Business— The Chassaniol Family

Important part of the cotton kingdom

By MARK H. STOWERS • Photography by Timothy Ivy

Cotton has been king in Mississippi since the early 1800s but has seen its reign diminish since the late 1980s. The majestic crop has seen a rise in its ranks with an increase in acres planted the past decade. For the past century, the Chassaniol family of Greenwood has been part of the cotton kingdom and its rise and fall and rise again.  Emmett Chassaniol Jr., still works in the family cotton business his grandfather started in the early 1900s. He explained the family history in the cotton business by gathering correspondence from his grandfather, family input and his own recollection.

In 1917, the Chassaniol and Company cotton business opened its doors in the Cotton Capital city when the transplanted cotton shipper Herbert Spencer (H.S.) “Pop” Chassaniol decided to stay in his adopted home town. His original office was on 117 Front street but then he later moved to 110 Main Street—the corner of Ramcat Alley and Main Street in the “Cotton Row” area. He stayed in that building until he retired in 1963 and then he passed away in 1966. In 1968, the family sold the building to Mr. Charles Swayze.

In 1956, H.S. recounted his career in a letter he wrote to the vice president of the Hibernia National Bank in New Orleans. H.S. had known the VPs father and uncles in the cotton business in the New Orleans Cotton Exchange.

“My first job was at the age of 12, with Kline Wilson and Company and your Uncle Peter J. Stoube was the manager of the New Orleans office. Through my mother’s family, Mr. Stoube gave me my first job as his office boy.”

From there Chassaniol worked his way up from the bottom of the cotton business to owning his own cotton business. Emmett’s grandfather was later moved to the Delta in 1910—first to Greenville and then Greenwood with the English firm, Alexander Eccles and Company. But they then decided to close that office and move Chassaniol to Tennessee. But H.S. knew he had found a business home, so he stayed in Greenwood and opened up the Chassaniol and Company cotton business in 1917.

The Greenwood Cotton Exchange got its charter in 1927 and H.S. was the first president serving the 1927-1928 term. He later served again from 1940-1941.

Since then, H.S.’s sons—Pershing and Emmett (Sr.)—a cotton buyer—each worked the business together before Pershing started his own company—The Pershing Chassaniol Cotton Factor—in 1955 after serving time in World War II. He also served as president of the Greenwood Cotton Exchange for the 1970-1971 term. Pershing was then joined by his nephew Emmett Jr. and Pershing’s daughter, Sally Chassaniol McSpadden. Emmett Jr. served as the Greenwood Cotton Exchange president on three occasions—1992-1993, 1999-2000 and 2006-2007. The Cotton Exchange’s final year of existence was in 2009 and then it was dissolved.

“Pershing was in that business from 1955 to 1995,” Emmett Jr. said. “My dad was in with my grandfather at Chassaniol and Company. Sam Adams came in as partner with my grandfather in 1931 but they never changed the name. That lasted until 1953 when they dissolved the partnership. My grandfather retired in 1963 and passed away in October of 1966.”

One of H.S.’s sons, Herbert Chassaniol, Jr., worked with him in the business until June of 1939, when at the age of 25, he died in a diving accident on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Also, one of Pop’s sons, Lloyd, worked in the cotton business for different companies but never with Pop.

“Uncle Lloyd went to work for the George B. Wolfe and Company in Greenwood representing J.P. Stevens out of South Carolina. In 1963, they moved Uncle Lloyd, his wife and four daughters to Greenville, South Carolina where he stayed with them until he retired. He passed away in January of 2000. His widow and four daughters all still live in South Carolina.” Emmett Chassaniol said. “Doris Chassaniol Mallette, one of my grandfather’s daughters, worked for him as well. My grandfather’s son-in-law, J.E. McCurdy was married to Blanche, was a cotton factor but didn’t work for my grandfather. Also, my grandfather’s nephew, Herbert Chassaniol, ended up as sales manager over at Staplcotn and retired in 1965.”

Pershing retired in 1995 and sold his building to Viking Range. Then in January of 1996, Emmett Jr. incorporated his business, Chassaniol and Company and moved into the historic McBee building that dates back to 1880.

For more than a century, the Chassaniol family has blessed farmers and the family alike as the Chassaniols kept to the foundational value as stated by Pershing quite often to his daughter.

“He said it doesn’t matter if the farmer comes in and has one bale of cotton or if a farmer comes in and brings in 100 bales of cotton—you treat them just the same because they are both cotton farmers,” she said. “That was one of the things I always remembered.”

McSpadden, like the rest of the family, grew up in the cotton office as well.

“We would be up there working with them, especially during the busy season,” McSpadden said. “I came back in 1979 and took momma’s place doing the bookkeeping and worked until 1997.”

With no computers, McSpadden had plenty of paperwork to tend to that she included her children’s help with as well.

“I would bring work home at night and we’d be sitting in the middle of the living room floor—me and my two boys—and we would have all the class cards spread out and they would help me put them in order,” she said. “But just to be able to work with your daddy every day for 18 to 19 years is a true blessing,” she said. “We had a wonderful relationship and I went home every day with him to each lunch with momma.”

McSpadden invoiced and paid famers while Emmett graded out and sold the cotton.

“I can’t say enough nice things about the farmers, the buyers and the other sellers,” McSpadden said. “They were true to their word and it was just a pleasure to be in the cotton business as long as I was.”

Emmett Jr. explained his job as “I sell cotton for the farmers. That’s all I’ve ever done as well as my Uncle Pershing. My father and grandfather were shippers and buyers but I don’t buy a bale of cotton. I just represent the farmer and get the price for him and sell cotton for him.”

Three generation of the Chassaniol family have worked with the Bank of Commerce and continue do so today, according to Emmett Jr. The Chassaniols have experienced plenty of technology changes on the cotton selling side as farmers have seen in the field. As field hands used to pick cotton by hand, all of the bookkeeping and cotton samples were all done by hand with what now would seem to be primitive tools.

“The buyers would actually come by, look at the cotton and grade it themselves and pull the staple on it and give you a bid on it,” Emmett said. “Now, I don’t ever see a farmer come by the office. It’s all done electronically. We get our data electronically and we get our warehouse receipts electronically. I’ve done business with a guy down in Louisiana for 30 years and we’ve only seen each other twice.”

McSpadden’s early days involved two daily trips to the bank with cotton receipts.

“I invoiced every bale of cotton. In a year’s time, we’re talking thousands of bales of cotton. In the beginning the receipts were kept at the bank (in the main safe) and every morning we would have to go to the bank and pick up all the cotton receipts and bring them back to the office and I would invoice them out. The ones I didn’t finish with, I had to take back to the bank before they closed at 2:00 p.m.,” she said.

But then Pershing got his own safe so his daughter could work a few more hours each day.

“That way we couldn’t stop and talk to people on the way to the bank every day,” she said.

For Emmett Jr., the introduction of technology made selling cotton a 24/7/365 business pretty much.

“When I first started, the cotton market would open up at 9:30 a.m. and close at 1:30 or 2:00 p.m. Now it opens at 8:00 p.m. at night and closes at 1:15 the next day. While I’m sleeping, the foreign markets are trading cotton. Sometimes when I wake up at night and punch my phone to see what the markets doing. It’s really changed,” he said. “In 2008, they went to electronic trading and its changed the cotton business for ever and ever. They used to trade it manually in the pits in New York but now it’s just punching a button.”

Chassaniol is gearing up for a busier year this year as more farmers are adding acreage.

“One thing in the cotton business is that no two years are alike weather-wise or marketwise,” he said. “In 1963 and ’73 we had good falls and big crops. In ’73, we had the flood and two million acres of the Mississippi Delta under water. The price of cotton was around 28 cents and with the flood it shot up to around 90 cents. But in February of ’74 it fell pretty good. When the water fell, people started planting cotton and beans. We also had a lot of crawfish that year.”

Chassaniol’s reach extends beyond the Cotton Capital as he’s sold cotton out of Louisiana and Arkansas and in the hills of Mississippi beyond the Delta.

“My favorite part of the business is in the fall when we’re busy but with the markets it’s a year-round business and you have to watch it every day. When my father and grandfather did it, it was three months—October to December,” he said. “It’s been a challenge as I’ve seen my acres decrease over the years but I’ve got some people coming back who haven’t planted cotton in five years. You’re going to lose some customers and you’re going to pick some up.”

As the Chassaniol women married, many of those joined the cotton business including the McCurdy part of the family. McSpadden knows that the kingly crop brought and kept her Chassaniol family close together.

“I am extremely proud of my entire Chassaniol family. They are wonderful people and we’ve stayed close over the years. Daddy had six brothers and sisters. We have all stayed close. There were 22 grandchildren. Even though we are scattered around we always know what’s going on and we keep in touch.”

With the parents working long hours in the business, they made sure the kids made it to their extracurricular events over the years as well.

“They had this older man, Sidney Matlock (a porter who worked in the sample room) started with momma and daddy. He was somebody that was big in our lives. Momma couldn’t get away to take us to Girl Scouts, well they’d send Sidney to take us,” she said.

“I worked with Sidney for a number of years and he was there until his health failed and he retired. We probably opened 100s of thousands of samples of cotton.,” Emmett Jr. said. “That’s how you sold cotton back then. He was a pretty good judge of cotton himself.”

Chassaniol has relied on his secretary, Penny Kesterson for the past 16 years to keep his office a success and running smoothly.

“She is invaluable in the office she pulls in our electronic data warehouse receipts and classing info. She does the recaps invoicing and sees to wire transfers, plus other clerical duties,” he said. “I could not do without her.”

100 years of working in the cotton business with plenty more to come—the Chassaniol family of Greenwood.