A while back, I mentioned to a friend that I picked cotton in my “growing up” years. My friend was surprised and her reaction was like others I have experienced through the years. I understand that thinking, as you rarely see pictures of white people laboring in cotton fields, though I’m at a loss as to why that is since it was common for northerners to stop alongside the road to get pictures of this southern curiosity. At my friend’s encouragement to tell the story, this blog is about the many fall days I spent in dry and dusty cotton fields. My thanks go to lifetime friend and fellow cotton picker Larry Darby for keeping me honest in the telling of the story.
Let me take you back to the 1950s and early ’60s to a rural community, my hometown of Medina, Tennessee. Every year in mid-September our school closed for four to six weeks (depending on the need) to help the farmers get their cotton crops in. Mechanical cotton pickers were yet to be had by our farmers–too expensive. I don’t recall the age I began picking cotton, but young enough that my first sack was homemade since the bought ones were too big for me. Some went to the fields at eight years, maybe younger. We were of a practical era and did what needed to be done.
There were a lot of fields, so we didn’t necessarily see many of our friends during the cotton picking season. If you could get with friends, it definitely made the long days go faster. Farmers would come in to get us town people around 6:30-7 AM and bring us home about 5 PM. We rode in the back of the farmer’s truck, equipped with sideboards for taking the picked cotton to the gin.
There was nothing about picking cotton that I liked, and I especially disliked picking the tall, leafy bottom cotton. I think we all hated it. If bottom cotton was the first field of the day, we despised it even more for its heavy dew that had us wetted down in no time. The wet cotton was sticky and harder to gather, and if it was a frosty morning, the dew would make our hands icy cold and less nimble. The only upside to wet cotton was the extra weight it gave (we were paid by weight). And then there were the creatures that could hide better in the tall, leafy cotton: huge black and yellow garden spiders, stinging worms, and the occasional spread adder snake. I learned to pay attention to where I put my hands.
Our pay was $2.50-$3.00 per one hundred pounds. The higher amount was end of season for the second picking. It seemed like everyone was better than I at picking cotton. Up until my senior year, I picked about 150 pounds a day. That last year I determined to do better and finished most days with a little over 200 pounds. The boys tended to out pick the girls and there were women in the fields who could brag of 300-350 pounds a day. Now that was moving!
Girls wore jeans, long sleeve shirts, and something on our heads if our mothers could talk us into it. To protect our hands, we wore brown jersey gloves with the fingertips cut out. You had to be able to feel the cotton to pluck it cleanly from the boll. The women wore bonnets and some wore a dress over their jeans. It wasn’t common then for older women to wear pants.
Those first days in the field were brutal with cuts and scratches around the unprotected part of our fingers and also our ankles if rigid limbs crawled under the legs of our jeans. A hot soapy bath at end of day was bittersweet. It felt so good to the aching body but stung scratched fingers and ankles with a fury.
I eventually graduated to a standard cotton sack. They had brown plastic beads of rubber on the bottom to help prevent the bottom of the sack from wearing through. In one bottom inside corner of the sack a green cotton boll would be secured with wire on the outside. The wire included a loop for help in hanging sacks on the scale.
Everyone’s cotton was weighed at the same time for efficiency. While at the scale getting our sacks weighed, we took long drinks of ice water in gallon jugs kept in the cab of the farmer’s truck. Cold water never tasted better.
The highlight of the day (other than quittin’ time!) was lunch. We sat on our cotton sacks in the shade, if we could find any, and ate sandwiches out of brown paper bags. Sometimes we spread the sandwiches and homemade pickles in a sharing manner. Larry says that was the first “country buffet.” Most of us had iced tea to drink that we brought to the field in quart jars wrapped in newspaper to keep the ice from melting. Lunch was about a 30 minute break and back to the fields we went.
I complained a lot to my parents about picking cotton. Mother never understood my distaste for it because she grew up working in the fields and loved it. But, then, anything outside and to do with the earth, Mother loved. Daddy’s reply was “You don’t have to pick cotton, but you don’t have to have any new clothes either.” What I earned picking cotton bought my winter clothes. I remember well my last day in a cotton field and singing the Hallelujah Chorus all the way home.
There seemed to be a kind of unspoken fraternity with those of us who picked cotton. We understood the language of hard work and respected one another for being part of it. We might moan about those days, but even then we knew they were good for us. We bent our backs and crawled on our knees as we picked. We threw sacks packed with cotton over our shoulders and carried them to the scale. If I couldn’t toss the sack over my shoulder, I dropped the strap to my waist and dragged it in.
Those days played a huge part of establishing my work ethic for life, and for that, I am grateful. Let me say, however, I’m not interested in any of the cotton décor so often found in gift shops. Clearly, those who find it “charming” know nothing of its original setting. Stick some branches in a vase or hang a wreath on the front door? You’ve got to be kidding me!