Cotton Picking in the Old South
By Elton Camp
Milas regularly examined the progress of his cotton fields. “Bloom’s lookin’ purty good this yeer,” he reported to his wife. “We’s had ’nough rain so far. I jest holp hit keeps up.”
Various factors influenced success in cotton farming. Without enough rain, the bolls would be small and not much cotton would be produced. Irrigation didn’t exist on the mountain. Insects could damage the crop as could excessive rainfall or storms. Those factors were beyond control of the farm family.
Chopping and hoeing cotton were the most important tasks in cultivation of the crop. It was customary to plant more seeds than could grow to maturity. The practice helped ensure a full stand.
Bertha, hoe in hand, stood near the start of a long row. Because of the over planting, it was essential to thin the crop by chopping. At the same time, weeds that might sap the cotton were removed. The length of the rows and size of the field suggested a hopeless undertaking. Yet, along with the other family members, the laborious task would be accomplished. It always had. Bertha made a point of looking only at the immediate cluster of plants. The overall job was too monumental to contemplate.
Hoeing the cotton took place several weeks later. No more cotton plants were to be cut down, but Johnson grass, Jimson weed, nut grass, cockleburs and unnamed additional weeds were destroyed. If a weed sprang up too close to a cotton plant to be removed with the hoe, it had to be pulled by hand.
“Leamon, y’u cut down sum o’ th’ cotton back thar,” Milas complained to his second son. “Thet ain’t good farmin’. B’ more particular.”
In due time, the hard, green bolls appeared, increased in size, and began to crack at the lines that marked them into sections. The slits gave glimpses of the firmly packed, damp-looking cotton. The plants were far taller than those seen after the advent of mechanical cotton pickers. On good rows, they were chest high.
“Th’ cotton’s gwine t’ b’ reddy t’ pick ’n a few days,” Milas informed his family. “B’ shore yore pick sacks is reddy.”
Cotton sacks were one of the few items the Camp family usually purchased ready-made in town. They were constructed of rough, durable ducking material. A strap from the open end went around the neck and over the shoulder of the picker. A black, tar-like substance coated the bottom of the sack so that it would withstand dragging over the sandy soil. Pick sacks could be made at home, but those rarely lasted more than a single season. A quality, store-bought pick sack would be used for years.
Sacks came in various sizes in proportion to the picker. Men generally used longer sacks than women. A child’s sack might be only four feet long. Fluffy, light-looking cotton was deceptive. The sacks became very heavy when fully filled and well packed. They had to be dragged to the wagon to be weighed if the pickers were unable to carry them.
When the crop was ready for harvest, work began as early as feasible and continued as late as light permitted. The start of work was delayed on mornings when heavy dew formed. Damp cotton was hard to handle. The weights were misleading because water was quite heavy. The shortened day might, during October, be compensated for by the “Harvest Moon.” The surprisingly bright illumination when the moon was full permitted additional picking after supper. Despite the diminished daylight of the autumn, the harvest moon made long days of picking possible.
“We’s goin’ t’ start cotton pickin’ tomorrew,” Milas informed his family. Of course “we” didn’t include him, except as supervisor of the work.
The next day the family was in the patch early, hard at work with the hot, exhausting job. The weeks-long process normally began in September. Schools didn’t start until after its completion. Hand picking was done either crouched over or on one’s knees. The picker had a choice of an aching back or sore knees.
Mamie stood and stretched. Two hours of intense picking put a goodly amount of cotton in her sack. A skilled gatherer, she used both hands at the same time. At each grab, she emptied the four or five compartments of the open boll. She turned around and lifted the sack. A couple of hard shakes put the cotton toward the closed end. To complain never entered her mind. Picking cotton was an essential part of life. She silently rubbed her burning knees. After a full day, her fingers became sore next to the cuticle from contact with the hard, sharp burrs. A bonnet and long sleeves protected her from serious sunburn.
All family members who were old enough had to help with the harvest. If the cotton wasn’t in when the time came for school to start, Milas simply kept his children out until it was done.
Even Miranda was expected to share in the picking. When she had an infant, she pulled it along with her on the pick sack. If it became fussy, she’d stop to breast-feed it. The partly filled sack made a comfortable seat.
“Hesh lettle baby, now don’t y’u cry...” she sang to comfort the infant. Soon it slept peacefully on the sack as she pulled it down the long rows.
“Bertha, holp me ketch up,” she requested when her oldest daughter got almost out of sight.
To stay along together made for opportunity to talk. That way the time seemed to go faster. Bertha dragged her sack into her mother’s row and picked back to meet her. The two could then start again at the same point in the parallel rows. They’d stay together until the baby once more had to be tended.
“Howard, go fetch th’ water bucket,” Miranda called to the youngster who had been playing around the cotton wagon. “Rat now. We’s ’bout to dry up ’n this heat.”
The boy, too young to pick cotton effectively, sauntered to the house. He returned, struggling to carry a half-filled enamel bucket of spring water. The metal dipper served as a drinking vessel for them all. Rural families knew little of germs and the transmission of disease.
“Thet shore iz good,” Leamon declared when he took a drink of the cool spring water.
“Snake! Snake!” Miranda suddenly called out in alarm as she pointed in its direction and backed away a few feet. “Albert, run t’ th’ barn ’n’ fetch th’ hoe. It’s gwine t’ bite som’body. Hurry!”
As the oldest boy raced to fetch the hoe, others in the family gathered around to watch the reptile. It had bands of red, black, and yellow. The king snake represented no danger. In fact, it often dined on other snakes. Nevertheless, it would die violently. Country people had a deep and abiding fear of snakes. Albert shortly rushed up with the hoe.
“Hear ’tis, maw,” he called out. “Want me t’ keel hit?”
She wasn’t about to entrust the important task to him. Without a word, she snatched the hoe and began to chop at the hapless serpent. It made an attempt to slither away, but the first blow cut deeply into its smooth, dry skin. Blood oozed out.
“Git th’ head, maw,” Mamie urged. The snake was quickly dispatched to the relief of all onlookers.
“Take hit o’er t’ th’ road ’n’ thro’ hit en th’ ditch,” Miranda instructed. “But bewar’ ’cause hit don’t die ’till th’ sun sets. An’ hits mate mought com’ lookin’ fer vengeance.”
Albert gingerly worked the limp snake around the blade of the hoe and did as told. He knew all too well how treacherous snakes could be. As Howard walked along with him, Albert used the occasion to educate his younger brother.
“Hit wuz a snake thet fooled Eve ’n thet garden, warn’t hit? Thet’s how sly they is. Al’ays stay ’way from ‘em. Last week I seed a hoop snake. Hit tuk hits tail ’n hits mouth an’ rolled down th’ hill t’ward the creek. Hit wuz outter site afore I kud blink twiste.”
Myths about snakes were widespread among rural people who should’ve known better. To them, snakes had slimy skin, milked cows, chased people, and one, the coach whip, might beat to death an unwary victim. To persuade them otherwise was impossible since they either claimed to have seen it happen, or knew somebody who had. Testimony of that type, however mistaken, couldn’t be refuted.
“I on’st seed a glass snake.” Albert continued the error-filled education of his big-eyed smaller brother who hung on every word. “I slammed hit wif a stick ’n’ hit broke inta three pieces. Afore I kewd do no more, hit went back togither ’n’ off hit went fer th’ bushes.”
About ten thirty, Miranda took her baby and went to the house to fix dinner. Alabama people always called the middle meal “dinner,” never lunch. The evening meal was designated “supper.” The family had started early and so ate only a light breakfast. They were hungry, tired, and thirsty.
The mother fixed a meal mainly of simple vegetables. She also heated some lard in a black, iron skillet and fried several pieces of cured ham. Its aroma filled the kitchen and spilled over into the yard. Leftover cornbread would have to suffice. Fresh milk from the spring would quench their thirst. It was time to summon her family.
Dinner,” she hollered loudly from the side yard. It was uncertain whether anyone in the cotton patch could hear her, so she accompanied the call with loud ringing of the dinner bell. Its repeated clangs quickly caught the attention of the weary workers. They left their pick sacks in the field and hurried to the house. After eating, the family rested for nearly an hour before returning to resume the all-important harvest.
“I’d ’ave hired som’ pickers, if I cud ’ave fount any,” Milas remarked to his wife. “Wif’ all th’ crops comin’ ’n at th’ same time, help’s sca’ce at best.”
Outside workers were paid a set rate by the pound gathered. They earned somewhat less if the crop owner furnished dinner. Since he’d located no helpers, the family had to do the harvest alone. How hard he’d tried, nobody but he knew. Milas found it hard to pay for work that could be done free.
The mule pulled the wagon into the field to serve as a depository for cotton from full sacks. Weighing was done and a record kept of each person’s success. Milas usually performed this chore since he was the family head and considered himself to be best at ciphering and writing. A spirit of competition prevailed among the pickers. The best ones took intense pride in their abilities. In good cotton, most adults could pick 200 pounds. A few of the faster ones could gather 300 pounds.
Sometimes a pleasant, unexpected discovery was made during cotton picking. A watermelon vine would “volunteer” somewhere in the cotton patch. Perhaps the seed had been dropped or blown to the location. At any rate, there it was, an elongated shell of green with yellow flecks. A thump produced a hollow sound that announced it as ripe.
“Well, looky hear,” Albert said when he made the discovery near the end of the row he was picking. “This’ll taste powerf’l good middl’ o’ th’ afternoon.”
Around three o’clock, the pickers gathered around to share the welcome bonus. Albert used his pocketknife to make a split down the length of the melon. It broke into two pieces with a ripping sound. The meat was bright red and heavily-studded with black seed. He divided the fruit into as many sections as people in the field. In the absence of utensils, each had to choose between holding his juicy slice by the rind and biting into it and breaking out hunks with unwashed fingers. Either option could be messy, but the sweet taste made up for any unpleasantness.
The best part of the melon was the “heart” near the center. It had no seed and was the sweetest and juiciest. Below that was the section crowded with seed. Eaters took bites and spit out the hard, inedible seed. It was still good, but less so than the heart.
Toward the rind was the least desirable part of the melon. It wasn’t as ripe and not as sweet. It was also harder to get without spoons. Most of it was generally thrown away. One could hold only so much watermelon and Milas might appear at any time to chastize them for wasting time.
“I’m a goin’ t’ weigh,” Mamie announced to nobody in particular.
She’d packed her sack to the point that she couldn’t lift and carry it across her shoulder. She dragged it to the wagon parked in the shade of a giant elm tree near the road. It was important to keep the mule in the shade if possible as it might overheat. A mule was a valuable farm animal. Its sickness or loss would be a significant setback for a small farmer.
“Kin y’u weigh me ’n, paw?” she requested.
The scale, a metal balance, was suspended from a big limb of the elm tree. Milas attached the cotton sack to the bottom and moved a metal “P” weight along the arm. The device had both large and small weights. Mamie was a skilled picker so the larger weight was required. He slid the weight along the scale until it showed the correct pounds. Numbers on one side of the arm were for the heavier sacks. On the opposite side of the arm were numbers to indicate the weight of smaller sacks. Milas carefully deducted the weight of the sack itself. Accuracy was important for him to know when he had enough cotton for a bale.
Mamie smiled when he announced the number of pounds. She’d done well and several hours of picking time remained. She was proud of her ability. Few men could match her.
When he wasn’t weighing, Milas came by to supervise. Sometimes he picked large double handfuls of cotton to stuff into one of his younger children’s sack. Youngsters and the elderly picked less, according to size and ability.
He inspected the row being picked by his eldest son. “Albert, ye’re leavin’ goose locks,” he charged. “Do better’n thet.”
“Goose locks” were tufts of cotton a careless picker might leave in the bolls. Cotton must be picked clean. Every ounce was important to Milas. Money was involved.
When the wagon was full, Milas drove it to the house. He had temporarily enclosed the front porch with tin to provide for dry storage of the crop before it was taken to the gin. The huge pile of cotton made a marvelous place to play for younger children. Some even slept there on cool nights. The insulating property of the cotton made for a warm bed.
Cotton gins are rarely seen today, but many operated in those days. It was no more than several miles to the nearest one. Farmers placed tall wooden sides onto the wagons so they’d contain more cotton without it falling out along the road. A border of white on the sides of the dirt roads leading to the gins showed that it wasn’t entirely successful.
“Goin’ t’ th’ gin ’n th’ mornin’,” Milas told Leamon. “Y’u kin com’ ’long if y’u ker t’.
A big grin showed that he did want to go. It was enjoyable in addition to providing exemption from cotton picking for most of the day. To accompany his father when he had an older brother was an unexpected treat. In truth, Milas was a bit embarrassed by Albert. No matter how much he cautioned him, the boy seldom remained quiet enough not to be noticed.
“Iz yore boy a lettle tetched ’n th’ haid,” was an inquiry that Milas disliked hearing. He never knew quite what response to make. Deep down, he suspected his oldest son’s problems might be a manifestation of Divine displeasure with him. It was a discomforting thought.
The trip to the gin began well before sunrise. The business observed a policy of first come, first served, so the loaded wagons had to line up, each to wait its turn. Milas hoped to get the ginning done in time to get back to oversee at least part of the day’s cotton picking. In the absence of the wagon, the cotton had to be piled on the ground. If it got dirty, its value was lessened. Also, it would have to be stuffed back into sacks to be weighed.
Leamon lay atop the cotton in the back of the wagon as it bounced along the dirt road. In those days before electric lights, the sky was inky black and studded with brilliant stars. The Milky Way was clearly visible as a white band in the sky. He stared out into space, contemplating his place in the scheme of things. He never discussed such matters with his father. It would have been useless because Milas was concerned with only what was immediately before him. That the thousands of points of twinkling light represented planets and stars would have seemed irrelevant to him even if he had known it.
“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 the early start, a large number of other wagons had already arrived. The line extended out of the gin yard and along the shoulder of the road. Although the gin hummed with activity, they were in for a long wait. To help pass the time, two men in the wagon directly in front of them 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 out, “Y’u got a jump.”
“Thanky,” the other player responded. He jumped his black checker over the red one and, with a satisfied grin, removed the captured piece 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.
The doubled checker then had the ability to move in any direction. The game continued until one man had captured all his opponent’s checkers.
“Play ’gain,” the loser asked. Nobody liked to be defeated at checkers.
“Stay wif th’ wagon, Leamon,” the patriarch declared. “I’ll go o’er thar ’n’ play som’ horseshoes. Nary a one o’ thet bunch kin whup me.”
Two metal stakes extended two feet above the ground about forty feet apart. No pitching box of sand absorbed the impact of the horseshoes. It was only a temporary venue for use during the ginning season. When the next game began, Milas was included. Teams were of two men to a side. A coin flip determined that Joshua would go first.
Some horseshoes clanged against the stake. Others missed and came to rest on the ground around it. Occasionally, one struck the post, bounced off, and rolled end-over-end several feet away.
“Got me uh leaner,” Joshua called.
That meant a score of two points. The horseshoe rested at an angle against the stake, but didn’t encircle it.
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 had 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 sucked the cotton from the wagon with a flexible duct so that it could be put through the ginning process to remove the seeds. The gin might do the work in exchange for the seed to be made into meal or oil. If the farmer wanted to keep the seed, he paid a set fee.
“Jest keep th’ seed this tim’,” Milas instructed.
The gin removed the seed, compacted the fluffy cotton, shaped it into a bale and covered it with brown burlap. Next came 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 the length of the fibers. His discovery and the going market set the price. Milas knew him to be a fair man and accepted the offer.
After the two returned to the farm, Leamon took as long as he dared to change clothes and join his siblings in the cotton patch. Milas had to weigh up what had been picked during his absence.
Since all the bolls don’t open at the same time, a field might be picked twice. A greatly reduced yield came the second time. Sometimes the bolls themselves were pulled, rather than the cotton being plucked from them. That harvest sold for much less. Yet, it was a reliable source of additional income. Every dollar counted.