7/26/1990: Cotton Was King in County 65 Years Ago

Cotton1by Virginia Jewell
(First in a series)
(Appeared in The Hickman County Gazette, Clinton (Hickman County, Ky.) on July 26, 1990)

Hickman County was once the Land O’Cotton. Located within the northern fringe of the Cotton Belt, the county was growing thousands of acres of cotton in the 1920s and 30s and had three gins to process the important fiber.

Tenant dwelling were scattered over the farms to house the many sharecroppers who planted, chopped and picked the cotton, a labor-intensive crop which depended on large families and cheap labor. Profits were shared with the landowner.

It was the principal cash crop for most farmers, ready for harvesting when taxes were due and it was time to buy school shoes.

“Most everyone who grew cotton was a sharecropper, ” Frank Martin, Hickman County farmer, said. If a tenant has 75 acres of ground and two teams of mules he could make a good living.”

In the early 1920s, scores of farmers moved to the county from near Jackson, Tenn., he recalled. His father, Wash Martin, came here in 1923, he said. Also, there were the Elams, Rowletts, Rices, Whittingtons, Peters, Richardsons and Allison, to name a few. Most of them lived in the Greenwood and Deweese communities.

Young George Bacot had come to the county from Mississippi in 1924 as the new farm agent and saw the potential for cotton because the soil and climate were right. (Cotton grows best in loam and clay soil and needs occasional rain while the bolls are developing but dry weather is preferable after the bolls open.) In 1925 he reported through the GAZETTE columns that the county had 10,000 acres of cotton in her soils.

The voll weevil was not yet an enemy. “There were more wooded acres then to stop them,” Frank Martin explained, and the little pests had not invaded the county. When Tennessee farmers learned about the new promised land, the flocked here.

Floyd Allison was among those who migrated from Tennessee. He grew a crop of cotton in the Greenwood area but became disenchanted and went back home. Later he came back to raise cotton on the Herman Magruder farm north of Clinton. This time he stayed. “The boll weevil and poor soil drove us out of Tennessee,” he said. Crop after crop had drained the fertility from the earth and was producing only a third of bale per acre.

Martin and his family came to the county in the fall of 1923 on the M&O “dinky” train and stopped off at Oakton. “It was a tough winder as there were 12 children in the family, but we survived. The next year we made a cotton crop.”

Geraldine Rowlett Bostick was a young girl when her folds, the Will Rowlett family came to the county, also, in 1923 from Tennessee. There were six children and they all helped make the cotton crop on the George Utterback place. “It was hard work but I didn’t think much about it. I’ve thought more about it since then,” she laughed.

Simon and Alic McClam and their nine children came to the county in 1924 from Missouri and were cotton sharecroppers on the Cage Vivrette farm north of Clinton. One of the children, Willet McClam of Clinton, was only two years old at the the time but he said all the children who were old enough helped with the crop.

A plow with the double moldboard, called a lister or middlebuster, turned up ridges of earth on which to plant the seed, Martin explained. A mule-drawn breaking ;ow was used for this purpose; cotton production was tedious and tasteless but it was a living so most folks didn’t question it.

“April 2o5h was the target date for finishing planting cottonseed,” he continued, “and we began ‘chopping’ or thinning the plants and cutting out grass with a hoe as soon as there were two or four leaves on the stalk. A fast worker could ‘clop’ an acre a day.”

Bob Williams, who is now a banker in Clinton, said he sought a better way to make a living after spending his youth “farming on the end of a hoe handle and a cotton sack” while his older brother drove the tractor. His experience, similar, to Martin’s was in southwest Tennessee. Germination was not very dependable, he said, so surplus seeds were planted, probably three times what were needed. That’s what made ‘chopping’ necessary, although on the other hand, choppers carried a pocketful of cotton seed to plant at skipped places, he explained.

In addition to going through the acreage bout three times to “chop,” the cotton was plowed every week till it was laid by in June. Williams said his dad though cotton had to be plowed every week whether it needed it or not.

The crop was allowed to grow during the long hot summer months but in August the bolls popped open and the fluffy white fibers were ready for gathering.

(To Be Continued.)

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