October 13, 2010 Edition

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A cotton pickin' day

Joe Towell
Guest Columnist

When the fall of the year comes around, it usually reminds me of a time when cotton was harvested by hand. In the late '40s and early '50s, most of my fall days were spent picking cotton on a farm just off Highway 67, about three miles north of Walnut Ridge.

Each morning, shortly after sunup, we would gather up the necessities for another grueling day in the hot sun and head out to the cotton patch. These necessities included lunch, a couple gallon jugs of water, a straw hat with a green plastic visor, knee pads (if we had them), gloves and adhesive tape for our fingers.

Of course, the most important equipment of the day was the pick sack. Pick sacks usually came in two lengths, 7 _ and 9 feet. We used the purple berries from the pokeweed plant to scrawl our initials on the sacks to indicate ownership. However, we probably wouldn't have been too displeased if someone had stolen the sack.

Upon arrival at the cotton patch, we stared at the half-mile long rows of cotton that looked so endless. We would walk to the other end of the rows so we could pick back toward the wagon, thus having a shorter distance to carry our picked cotton when it came time to weigh in and empty the sack. When the morning dew was heavy on the cotton stalks, we would wrap our pick sacks around us in order to try to keep dry as we walked through the field.

In order for the cotton bolls to open up and reveal their white gold, the fall sun had to "de-foliate" the leaves and expose the bolls to the sun. Since all of the leaves didn't come off at the same time, we could be required to pick the field as many as three times during the picking season. If we weren't able to get the cotton picked before December, we had to "pull bolls," that is start at the bottom of the stalk and literally strip the cotton and bolls in one swoop.

During this time, good cotton pickers could pick at least 200 pounds a day and be paid $6 for their efforts. However, there were some exceptional pickers around who could pick much more.

When we reached the other end of the field, we were ready to start the picking. We would drag the sack between two rows of cotton, gathering the cotton from the rows on each side, which required us to either bend over or crawl on our knees. Of course, bending over would soon have our backs aching.

But, if we crawled we were subject to having our knees come in contact with small stones or sticker weeds that we called "bull nettles." That's where the knee pads came in. Today, Home Depot and Lowe's have racks of knee pads available for use by construction workers, but they always remind me of picking cotton whenever I stroll through the stores.

After picking for a couple of hours, the sack would be full enough to have it weighed and emptied into the cotton wagon. We would hoist the sack up on our shoulder and carry it to the wagon. The sack of cotton was hung up on an odd looking weighing scale with a long metal strip with pound numbers balanced by a weight called a "p."

After weighing the cotton, the number of pounds would be recorded in a small ledger beside your name that would be totaled when payday came. Then, we were back to our rows to fill the sack again before noon.

After lunch, there was still a long afternoon of picking before the cotton pickin' day would end, and the last weigh-in occurred. When the wagon was full of about 1,500 pounds, it was ready to be taken to the cotton gin to have the seeds and debris removed.

Dad would hook up our "C" Farmall tractor to the wagon and drive the three miles to the gin. The 1,500 pounds of raw cotton would produce around 500 pounds of "lint" cotton after the seeds and debris were removed. I remember going to the cotton gin office with my dad to initiate the ginning process.

After the paperwork was done, we would get back on the tractor and pull the wagon over to the unloading stalls where the cotton would be sucked up through a large metal tube and into the gin for processing. As the cotton was being ginned, we would walk through the complex and watch the cotton flying through the ginning machinery.

Then, it was back home and off to bed to rest up for the next day, which would be just another similar cotton pickin' day. However, each day got us that much closer to the very longed for Saturday afternoons. Saturday afternoon was when we would go into town, watch a double feature movie in air conditioning at the Sharum Theater and spend some of our hard earned cotton pickin' money.

The era when manual labor was used in the area to harvest cotton has long since passed. Fields where cotton was once grown have now been replaced with rice and soybean crops. Most of the small town cotton gins have been torn down, but some remnants of decaying and rusty buildings still exist, serving as monuments to a time when people of all ages pulled the precious fiber from the burr-ridden bolls, by hand.

Most Mid-South cotton fields are now a part of large farms located along the Mississippi Delta, and the cotton is harvested by mechanical pickers that cover several rows at a time. But, the long, hard, back-breaking, cotton pickin' days will always be remembered as a part of my past.

Sometimes I grow a few stalks of cotton just to remind me of those times. Neighbors and friends ask me why I grow cotton in the middle of Ohio. My reply is, "If I have had a bad day at work, all I have to do is look at those cotton plants, and suddenly, the day hasn't been so bad after all."

(Joe Towell is a 1953 graduate of Walnut Ridge School. He is a resident of Beaver Creek, Ohio.)

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