A Trip to the Cotton Gin

A Trip to the Cotton Gin

By Elton Camp


(This continues the series about life in the rural South during the early 20th Century.)

            The haul to the gin began well before sunrise. The policy observed was that of first come, first served, so the farmers arrived early to avoid a long wait.

            Leamon lay atop the cotton in the back of the wagon. Before electric lights, the sky was inky black and studded with brilliant stars. The Milky Way was clearly visible. He stared into space, contemplating his place in the scheme of things. Milas saw only what was immediately of concern.

            “I seen a shootin’ star, Paw,” he called out. Before he could get the remark out, the streak of light disappeared. Milas made no reply. He concentrated on driving in the dim starlight.

            Despite their early start, many other wagons had arrived first. The line extended out of the gin yard and along the shoulder of the road. To help pass the time, two men in the wagon directly in front were engaged in a game of checkers.

            “I’m red,” one called out as they set up the checkerboard. The game continued for only a few moves before he called, “Y’u’ve got a jump.” 

            “Thanky,” the other player responded. He jumped his black checker over the red one and removed it from the board.

            “Thanky back,” the other man returned as he jumped two of the black checkers of his inattentive opponent. He’d claimed them and in the process didn’t open any of his pieces for a counter jump.

            “King me,” exclaimed whichever man managed to reach the opposite side of the board with one of his checkers. A king could move in any direction. The game continued until one man had captured all his opponent’s checkers.

            “Play ’gain,” the loser usually asked. Nobody liked to be defeated.

            “Stay wif th’ wagon, Leamon,” Milas instructed. “I’ll go o’er thar ’n’ play som’ horseshoes. Nary a one o’ thet bunch kin whup me.” 

When the next game began, Milas was included. Teams were of two men. A coin flip determined that Joshua, one of his neighbors, would go first.


Some horseshoes clanged against the stake. Others missed and came to rest on the ground around the post.


“Got me uh leaner,” Joshua called. That meant a score of two points.

            On his first throw, Milas got a ringer, receiving three points for encircling the stake. The game continued with one point being awarded to the player whose horseshoe was closest to the stake if nobody scored otherwise.

            “Thet’s twenty-one. I win,” Milas crowed. He took pride in his horseshoe-throwing ability.

            As the game progressed, Leamon pulled the mule and wagon forward as the gin employees emptied the loads ahead of his. At length, it was his turn. Milas returned to watch.

            The gin workers used a flexible duct to pull the cotton from the wagon so that it could be put through the ginning process to remove the seed. The gin compacted the fluffy cotton, shaped it into a bale and covered it with brown burlap. It would then be ready for sale to a cotton buyer.

            “Extry good cotton this yeer,” Milas remarked to Hawkins, the buyer.

            “Let’s see whut y’u got heer,” he responded. He pulled a knife from his left pocket and cut through the burlap covering to get a sample of the cotton.

            Hawkins worked the sample between his fingers to ascertain the quality and length of the fibers. His discovery and the going market set the price. Milas knew him to be a fair man and accepted his offer.

            “Maw an’ them’s ’n th’ field. Git out thar an’ holp,” Milas ordered when they got home.  He had to weigh cotton picked during his absence. Leamon delayed as long as he dared before joining his siblings.    

            When cotton picking was complete, the family would have a welcome period of relative freedom from work as winter approached.

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Life in the rural South during the early 20th Century.
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