The Cotton Harvest is a Success

The Cotton Harvest is a Success

By Elton Camp


(This is in the continuing series of accounts of life in the rural South during the early 20th Century.) 

            The brown mule pulled the wagon into the field to serve as a depository for cotton. 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.

            “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, so she dragged it to the wagon parked under a giant elm tree near the road. The mule was kept in the shade so it wouldn’t overheat. A valuable animal, its sickness or death would be a serious loss for a small farmer. 

            “Kin y’u weigh me ’n, paw?”

            The scale, a metal balance, hung from a horizontal limb. Milas attached the cotton sack to its hook 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 one was required. He slid it along the scale until it showed the correct pounds. Milas carefully deducted the weight of the sack itself before making the entry. Accuracy was important for him to know when he had enough cotton for a bale. 

            Mamie smiled with satisfaction 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 picked less, according to size and ability.

            He inspected the row being picked by his eldest son. “Albert, yore 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, but lumpy, 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 the restraints weren’t entirely successful.

            “Goin’ t’ th’ gin ’n th’ mornin’,” Milas told Leamon. “Y’u kin com’ ’long if y’u ker to.

            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 youth seldom remained far enough in the background 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 somehow be a manifestation of Divine displeasure with him. It was a discomforting thought.

Next time, we’ll accompany Milas and Leamon to the gin.

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