The Old Cotton Fields Back Home

The Old Cotton Fields Back Home

By Elton Camp


(This is in the series on life in the South during the early 20th Century.  All people and circumstances are real.)

            When the annual cotton picking commenced, it consumed the time and attention of the family to the exclusion of all else.

            “We’s goin’ t’ start cotton pickin’ tomorrew,” Milas stated. “We” didn’t include him, except as supervisor.

            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. Handpicking was done either crouched over or on one’s knees. The picker could choose between an aching back and sore knees.

            Mamie stood up 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 bolls. She turned around, lifted the sack and with a couple of hard shakes, put the cotton toward the closed end. 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 complete.

            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 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. “We’s ’bout t’ 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 drinking vessel for them all.

            “Thet shore iz good,” Leamon declared when he took a drink of the cool spring water.

            “Snake!  Snake!” Miranda called in alarm. “Albert, run t’ th’ barn ’n’ fetch th’ hoe. It’s gwine t’ bite som’body. Hurry.” 

            As the oldest boy raced to get the hoe, others in the family gathered around to watch the reptile. The king snake with bands of red, black, and yellow represented no danger. Nevertheless, it would die violently. Many 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 encouraged. 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 beware ’cause hit don’t die ’till th’ sun sets. An’ hits mate mought com’ lookin’ fer vengeance.” 

            The snake was an exciting diversion, but as soon as it was destroyed, the family returned to picking cotton.


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About rural life in the early 20th Century South.