Cotton Pickers

Since the year is waning and cotton is a warm weather crop, I think I’ll go ahead and do my expose on King Cotton. Cotton was ripe and ready for harvesting from early fall until early winter. And I must admit that was a time of year and a season that I definitely didn’t look forward to. But, it had to be done, and then, the mechanical cotton picker (though on the market) wasn’t in our part of the country. They did arrive about the time I finished high school – too late for my benefit, but at least it got human cotton pickers out of the fields once and for all.

Now, I’m sure most people (even those around my age) have never picked a bow of cotton in their life, but cotton was just as much a part of the Southern landscape as watermelon and pine trees. Where we lived, near Patmos, we only picked cotton in that area once. It was at a small, one-family field, and I guess it wasn’t profitable enough for them to plant again. But where my Dad was from, the land contour and grade were different – more open space and the land more fertile and accommodating to cotton-planting. So, we worked in the area where he was born and raised (near Emmett, Deann, Prescott, Blevins and Antioch church).

Actually cotton was ready in September. I remember that when school was out and the days were still long, our father or aunt picked us up at school and took us to the cotton fields. You talk about long days…school all day and work until sunset. At least, this time of year, it wasn’t really too hot and it was much more comfortable to work outside than later in the year when the weather turned cold.

On days when we didn’t have to go to school, we went to the fields. We’d get up early, have a big, country breakfast, dress appropriately and ride to the field. Those days seemed like they were a whole week long, especially if there wasn’t much lunch. The evening seemed to stretch out forever, but eventually, it was over, and we went home.

Pay was pitifully low – slave wages. A dollar for a hundred pounds of cotton, so if I only picked 25 pounds all day, I made 25 cents. An entire day, with a large family toiling among those tall, cotton stalks, didn’t even garner five dollars. I see why families were so large. Poverty was an ever present foe, and if there weren’t enough hands to help work, that pennyless spirit seemed to haunt you unmercifully. We were still poor, but a host of workers did make a little difference.

Each member of the family went to the field (children were never left home alone), but it was the sibling (babysitter) and the little ones that had the most fun. Actually, they didn’t mind going to the field. All they did was run up and down the rows, ride on our cotton sacks or sit in the warm car. That was the life I longed for.

On the other hand, though, someone has to pick the stuff to produce clothing, sheets, curtains, and other items that are made from this fiber. Sometimes, I wondered why it seemed we picked more of those pretty, white, fluffy, ice cream-looking blossoms than anybody else. I also know though that somewhere in the world cotton is still harvested by hand.

In the late 1960s, mechanical cotton pickers began working alongside the laborers, and I prayed everyday that we wouldn’t have to come back the next day – but my prayer was to no avail. However, time and age liberated me, and once I was grown and left home, there was no more field work. Bye, bye cotton fields, good bye forever!

Published on Oct 10, 2013

Grit Magazine

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