As pickers trudged through the cotton fields of Hickman County in August and September years ago, they dragged coarse bags behind time to hold the fluffy fiber. Bertha McClam remembers picking for Homer Lee Bolin on the Jack Johnson place. “It was hard work but I liked it because I enjoyed being with a crowd,” she said.
“There were 25 or more pickers. Two workers usually took three rows. Each one picked one full row and it was a contest to see who could get the most from the “grab row” in the center. The cotton picking bag had a strap which went over the shoulder to help full it along. It held about a hundred pounds, depending on how tight it was packed. When the bags were full, they were taken to waiting wagons to be weighed and emptied. The cotton was weighed with special scales (steelyard) which used a weight to balance them. We took our lunch and ate in the shade at noon.”
Frank Martin, who said he “grew up under a cotton stalk,” started working in the crop at age seven when he first came to the county. “There were several children in the family and we tended about 65 acres,” he reminisced.
“I could pick 100 pounds a day then and work up to 500, although most pickers averaged 200. We made about 75 cents per hundred during the Depression. After we got out our own crop, we’d pick for others or if our crop wasn’t ready we’d go there first.”
There was never enough acreage here at the edge of the Cotton Belt to declare cotton pickin’ school holidays as was the custom in Tennessee and Mississippi.
Martin explained that there was an art to pulling cotton out of the boll so as not to hurt one’s hands but breaking the whole boll off (called snapping) could make the hands sore.
“Rubbing a little coal oil on at night healed them right up,” he said. (After the cotton was picked, workers went back through the fields “snapping” off the remaining whole bolls, including seeds and fibers. If the crop was poor, it was sometimes “snapped” to start with.)
It took about 1500 pounds of cotton to gin out to a 500 pound bale after the trash and seeds were removed, explained Bob Williams who grew up on a Tennessee cotton farm. Although it was impossible for anyone to pick a bale of cotton in a day, a jaunty work song to that effect has survived from days when workers toiled endlessly in the cotton fields.
“I b’lieve to my soul I can pick uh bale uh cotton. I b’lieve to my soul I can pick uh bale uh day.”
An eager and experienced worker might pull as much as 380 pounds of the fluff in a day. Zellia Stone, of the Fulgham area, often picked that much when the pickin’ was good in her younger days.
Martin said that when a wagon was loaded with cotton it was driven to the gin where a big fan sucked the cotton out of the wagon through a pipe into the gin. Meanwhile, picking continued at a steady pace and if a waiting wagon was positioned or “spotted” int he field couldn’t hold the additional cotton, a place was cleared off to pile the snowy fiber till the empty wagon returned from the gin.
Record year for production is believed to have been in 1925 when over 4,400 bales were produced, just after the Tennessee exodus to this county. Yields dropped off after that with only 675 bales ginned in 1928, 1730 bales in 1932 and 1163 in 1947.
Williams said the term “fair to middlin” comes from grades of cotton, the best grade being “good middling.” However, grading or classing was not usually done at local gins.
Price of cotton was determined by supply and demand and controlled by cotton exchanges in such cities a New Orleans and St. Louis where in 1880, market quotations were 12 cents a pound, according to a Columbus newspaper.
The price nearly 70 years later was the same. Toby Holland was buying cotton for the Oakton Cotton Gin for 11 and 12 cents in 1949. Anguished farmers complained when the times were out of joint as indicated by the tune which wailed: “Eleven cent cotton, forty cent meat. How in the world can a poor man eat?”
During the Depression it was commonplace to see bales stacked outdoors while farmers waited for a better price. Floyd Allison was sharecropping near Oakton in 1924 when his landlord wasn’t satisfied with 8 cents per pound being offered. “I went ahead and sold mine for that but he waited and ended up with only 4 cents a pound. But another time, I sold lint cotton (with seeds removed) for $22.50 a bale, about the same price.”
Today, with not an acre of cotton being grown in the county, the price is 75 to 80 cents. For over 125 years the county seemed ideal for growing the important product which was used for everything from shirts to shoe laces, and from salad oil to fertilizer. Like the peanut, the list of its uses went on and on.
As decades passed, cheap labor was difficult to come by; beginning in 1934, government allotments restricted the acreage. Until then a farmer grew all the cotton he wanted.
With the problems of labor and allotments, along came soybeans to save the day. “A farmer could raise a crop of soybeans by himself,” Mack Ward, longtime owner of Farmer’s Gin, explained. Farmers desiring to continue growing cotton relied on big machinery and chemicals.
Soon there wasn’t a gin in the county or in neighboring counties, for that matter. Elbert Stone, a principal grower when cotton was king in the county, and his wife, Zellia, and their grand-daughter, Regina, are believed to have grown the last cotton in the county, a half-acre in 1980.
In spite of a dry summer, the plot yielded almost a bale. Mrs. Stone and Regina chopped and picked the crop the old way and made their own cotton-picking sacks. The fiber was ginned and baled at Mason Hall, Tennessee, which was the nearest processor.
(To Be Continued.)