Although cotton is associated with large plantations, much cotton production in the South was and still is by small farmers with only a few acres of cotton land. While slave labor was used on larger farms and plantations, many farmers and their families provided their own labor. After slavery was abolished, Although some call it a tree, cotton is actually a shrub that grows in the tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world. Along with corn, or maize, it’s native to the Americas where its fibrous seed protector has been woven into cloth for at least 15,000 years. Cotton was the product that made the United States into an economic power and it was cotton, not slavery, that led to the secession of eleven states from the Union thus precipitating the war now commonly – but erroneously – called the Civil War.
Although cotton is associated with large plantations, much cotton production in the South was and still is by small farmers with only a few acres of cotton land. While slave labor was used on larger farms and plantations, many farmers and their families provided their own labor. After slavery was abolished, many land-owners contracted with landless farmers, white as well as black, to farm their land for a share of the production. The land-owner typically footed the bill for all of the production costs and the sharecropper got part of the proceeds from the sale of the cotton. Another method was to rent land out to tenants.
Although cotton cloth has been produced for thousands of years in various parts of the world, it wasn’t until Eli Whitney invented his cotton gin that cotton production finally became economical. Prior to Whitney’s invention, cotton seeds had to be separated from the locks in which they grew by hand, a tedious and time-consuming task. Once seeds could be separated mechanically, the production of cotton became a major crop in the southern portion of the new United States because American cotton was found to be superior to varieties found elsewhere in the world. Reportedly, by 1860 cotton accounted for three/quarters of US exports and was the driving force behind the US economy. Although cotton could not be grown in New England, the region had become dependent on Southern cotton for fiber for its mills, most of which were water powered.
Modern Americans commonly believe that growing cotton was a laborious task involving the labor of thousands of slaves working in the hot sun. In reality, this is not true. Yes, some aspects of cotton production required manual labor, specifically the hoeing of the rows to remove grass and weeds and the harvesting of the mature locks, but much of the actual labor was provided by animals, particularly mules. Mules and horses, and sometimes oxen, pulled the plows that broke up the soil in springtime and the cultivators used to plow the rows until the plants were large enough to shade out the grasses and weeds that came up in the fields. Until mechanical cotton planters were developed, planting was by hand as was hoeing, commonly known as “chopping.” Hoes are metal blades attached to wooden handles that are used to cut grasses and weeds at the roots. Once cotton plants reach a significant height, the fields are “laid by” and receive no more attention until picking time.
Although cotton is a perennial plant in the wild, it became an annual in North America due to winter temperatures that kill the stalk. Cotton is planted when the danger of frost has passed; the tiny fragile plants are killed if temperatures drop to the freezing level. This can be as early as February in Texas and the Deep South or as late as April or early May in Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky. Once the seeds have sprouted and have emerged from the soil, the plants may be thinned although modern farming practices have made this unnecessary. Neither is hoeing necessary due to the use of “pre-emergence” chemicals that are placed in the ground at the time of planting to prevent the growth of grass and weeds.
In the Twentieth Century farmers discovered that their production could be increased by defoliating the plants, thus allowing sunlight to reach the bolls thus causing them to open sooner and more fully. The advent of the airplane allowed defoliating chemicals as well as insecticides to be dispensed quickly without damage to the plants. Insecticides became an important part of cotton farming to fight boll weevils, which can destroy a cotton crop if they aren’t eradicated. Prior to the development of insecticides, boll weevils had to be picked off by hand.
For a century after the abolishment of slavery, cotton production was essentially the same, although by the 1930s farmers were using tractors instead of horses and mules for land preparation and cultivation. Fields still had to be hoed and picking was mostly by hand. However, by the 1960s farmers were starting to use mechanical cotton pickers as they became more readily available at more reasonable prices. Wealthier farmers had started using them by the 1950s. The proliferation of mechanical cotton pickers came about at the same time as the civil rights movement and probably had a lot to do with it. Cotton pickers eliminated the need for human pickers and thus put a lot of share croppers out of work. With no need for share croppers, landowners told them to get off of their land. Many ended up in tent cities until they were moved into towns or migrated to cities such as Memphis and St. Louis or to the North where many became part of a new welfare class when they were unable to find work due to lack of education and employability beyond the performance of menial tasks.
As I said in the title, Roy Clark may not have picked cotton but I did. In fact, I was involved in every aspect of the growing and picking of cotton as a boy growing up in West Tennessee except planting, and then only because Daddy wanted to do it himself. We were mechanized farmers, except that we didn’t have a cotton picker. Daddy got one a year after I left home for the Air Force. As soon as I was old enough, at about ten or eleven, I started driving a tractor. At first, I mostly pulled a harrow but I eventually began disking and eventually breaking ground in the spring. Our plows were disc breakers rather than conventional turning plows but they did the same thing. Once the ground had been turned over, we went over it with a disc harrow, an implement with several rows of discs that broke up the ground into small clods. Sometimes we drug a spike harrow behind the disc to break the clods into smaller ones but sometimes we went back with the disc. Once the ground was prepared, the cotton was planted. We had a set of cotton planters that mounted on the sides of the tractor. Each side had two hoppers, one for fertilize and one for seed. The planters had plates on the bottom that were designed to space the seeds a certain distance apart.
Once the cotton was “big enough to plow,” meaning the stalks were tall enough that they wouldn’t be covered by dirt tossed up by the cultivators, we went through the fields row by row. We usually used scratchers, which were basically metal spring leafs with a small plow point on the end but we also had cultivators that used small plows. Plowing broke the surface and allowed air into the ground; it also covered the grass and weeds in the rows and cleared those from in between them. We plowed for the last time around the first of July then left the fields alone except for monitoring for boll weevils and other insects or blights.
Hoeing cotton or corn is not particularly strenuous work. We went down the rows, usually taking two at a time, and cut out the weeds and grass. I personally preferred to how corn because young cotton stalks are easy to catch with the corner of the hoe. We usually hoed in May and June when the weather wasn’t terribly hot yet. We had no hired hands so we did all of the work ourselves, sometimes with assistance from my aunts and uncles. We had a split vacation from school. We got out at the beginning of May and remained out until early July when the cotton would be laid by. We went back to school for the new year and remained in school until late September, when we got out for “cotton picking.” We were out for six weeks then went back to school in early November. Not only did those of us who lived on farms pick cotton, so did boys and girls from the surrounding towns as well as those who lived in the country but whose fathers weren’t farmers. As I recall, the going rate for cotton pickers was a nickel a pound. An average of 100 pounds a day was a pretty good average, with some pickers doing a lot better and others doing less. I knew a few people who could pick 200 pounds a day – sometimes – but they had to get to the field early and leave late to do it. I once saw something on the Internet where someone claimed they picked 600 pounds a day – uh, uh!
While I can’t speak for those who picked cotton in the Deep South, in West Tennessee the weather conditions at picking time were pleasant. We’d start picking around the end of September and be finished by early November, although we’d go back again to pull bolls. Morning temperatures were cool and were usually in the seventies or low eighties during the day. Because wet cotton causes problems with the gin, we didn’t start picking until after the dew had burned off, usually around 10:00 AM. We stayed in the field until it was getting too dark to pick or Daddy decided it was time to quit for the day. We had no hired hands but family and neighbors often helped us, usually teenagers and older children. Some kids picked cotton to make money for school clothes but I’m sure some were boosting their family income. Picking cotton was not an unpleasant experience. Yes, we pulled a cotton sack behind us and we often were on our knees, depending on the height of the stalks, but cotton isn’t very heavy and a full sack didn’t usually weigh much more than fifty pounds. When someone’s sacks started getting full, we’d head for the trailer to weigh-in and empty it. The first weigh-in was around dinner time (lunch to Yankees) so we’d take a break to eat the sack lunch everyone had brought with them. Our family usually ate tuna or potted meat sandwiches – Mother sometimes mixed them together. Sometimes we had Vienna sausage. Some of the neighbor kids would stop by the store to buy something to take to the field with them. Some of those who picked with us were teenage girls. Some were friends but some I barley knew before I met them in the cotton patch. Having them in the field increased my productivity because I’d pick faster to stay close to them. This is no lie – one girl I knew would come to pick wearing makeup. We were in about eighth grade at the time and I suppose it was for my benefit.
In some respects, picking cotton was a social event not unlike quilting bees and barn-raisings. Someone was always telling a story and we sometimes sang while we picked. Daddy would sometimes talk about his experiences in the war. I picked faster so I could stay close enough to him to hear what he was saying. I’d also pick faster to be closer to some of the older teenage boys (and some of the girls) who picked with us. There was sort of contest to see who picked the most each day. That was something I knew I was never going to win. I only remember a time or two when I broke the 100 lbs a day. I knew full well that I wasn’t going to be a professional cotton picker.
The skies were generally clear. if there were clouds, they were usually high cirrus clouds. Cotton picking time coincided with Indian summer, which is a great time to be outside. My main complaint was that it also coincided with squirrel and dove season. I often prayed for rain so I could go to the woods. If I recall correctly, we picked our fields at least twice then came back to pull bolls. Farmers today only pick a field once, and they use mechanical cotton pickers. Hundreds of dollars worth of cotton is often left lying on the ground where it spilled out when the operator was emptying the bin into the trailer and a lot of cotton is left on the stalks. I guarantee you that our stalks were bare when we finished pulling bolls. We didn’t get as much per pound from the gin for bolls. That money was our Christmas money.
There were potential hazards in the cotton patch, particularly the green caterpillars with the acid-filled spines we called “stinging worms.” if you accidentally brushed against one, you got a painful welt. They were one reason everyone wore long sleeves. We wore cotton gloves to pull bolls but not to pick the cotton from the boll. Hands got chapped and somebody usually had a bottle of Corn Husker’s oil. Occasionally, someone would see a snake but they were usually non-poisonous. The copperheads were usually in the woods. Most of the snakes we saw were black or blue racers – and they raced off as soon as they were startled.
The cotton patch began changing in the 60s. I left home in July to join the Air Force, which I had wanted to do since I was about 13. It wasn’t but a couple of years later that Daddy bought a cotton picker. It was used, an International Harvester mounted on a Farmall C tractor frame and only picked one row at a time. But that was all it took. I remember being home on leave once right after he got it and thinking that if we’d had one sooner, I might not have left home. He also started growing soybeans which, like corn, are harvested mechanically. (We had neighbors who picked their corn by hand but Daddy bought a corn picker when I was still a little boy. Not only did he pick our corn, he picked corn for others as well.) More and more cotton pickers were appearing all over the South, and their advent meant the end of a lot of things, including share-cropping and split vacations for school children since kids were no longer needed in the fields to pick cotton. In fact, the cotton picker probably had more of an effect in the South than the civil rights movement.
My parents have been dead for some time, my dad since 2003 and my mom since 2008. Daddy farmed as long as he was able then started renting out the land to cotton farmers. After Mother died, their two farms were divided between me and my brothers and sisters. The same farmers who had been growing cotton on my part continued to farm it, until this year. They decided to get out of the business after a couple of bad crop years. Some other farmers are working it now. They’re growing corn.