Norris Chambers Old Timer's Tales

Another Cotton Picking Day!

by Norris Chambers

cotton scales

   Very few people under the age of "Senior Citizen" have ever picked cotton. The cotton patch is now harvested by machine, about the same way as grain, potatoes and other back breaking gatherings. But it wasn't always that way. Cotton matured in the early Fall, and when it matured, that was the time to pick it. Cotton was the primary money crop for most small farmers. There were many things that could happen to keep the cotton crop small. If it rained at the wrong time and delayed the picking, it could damage the quality of the cotton. A dry summer could cause the bolls to be small and the output to be very low. An infestation of insects could lead to a crop failure. When it was time to pick, the whole family pitched in along with all the hired help the family could find. The trouble was that most of the crops were ready at the same time, so workers that didn't have picking of their own were hard to find.

  We didn't raise cotton. Our money crop was livestock that we brought to marketable size with the feed that we grew. We headed maize by hand, pulled corn, bundled and stored peanuts and harvested wheat, oats and barley. Usually at cotton picking time I was available to help someone else.

  There were two ways of picking cotton - actually picking the cotton out of the bolls and pulling boll and all. If the crop was good, the cotton loose and fluffy and easily removed, then "picking" was the preferred method of removing it. If the bolls were small and tight and didn't like to give up the lint, then the boll was pulled off. This method was called "pulling". Most of the cotton in our area was pulled. When cotton was pulled, it took about 1600 to 1800 pounds (depending on the quality of the crop) to gin a 500 pound bale of marketable cotton. If the cotton were picked, then about 800 to 1500 pounds would make a bale, depending on the ratio of seed to lint, moisture content and the amount of trash, etc.

  When we went to the cotton patch, we took a "sack" made of heavy cotton ducking. These sacks could be bought in various lengths or the ducking material could be bought and the home seamstress could make the family sacks. These were in lengths from three or four feet to twelve or fifteen feet long and perhaps 16 or 18 inches in diameter. There was a strong strap at the open front end that went over the neck and rested on the shoulder. The bottom end was, of course, closed. The kids used the small sacks and the better pickers used the larger ones. The long sacks were very heavy to drag when they were about full, but if a smaller sack was used it had to be carried or drug to the scales.

  Cotton scales were simple balance type devices that were hung from the propped up tongue of the wagon. The sack was tied to the bottom of the scale and a "P", or small weight, was moved along the arm until it balanced. The weight was then read from the figures along the scale beam where the weight caused it to balance. A large P was used for heavier sacks and a smaller one for small sacks. The reverse side of the scale beam was calibrated for the small P. The crop owner usually designated an official weigher. He weighed all the sacks and kept a record of the amounts each picker brought in. After weighing the sack and the weight of the sack was deducted, the cotton was emptied into the wagon. The wagon bed had high side boards.

  In low areas, or areas where the soil was richer, the cotton tended to grow much taller and produced much better. This tall cotton was sometimes five or six feet high and was a nice thicket when fully grown. Since no portable potties were available, the tall cotton was a welcome retreat for those needing the facilities. This use of the tall cotton was the originator of the term that is sometimes still used to indicate something desirable - tall cotton!".

  When the weigher announced that there was enough cotton in the wagon for a bale, the team was hitched and the load started on its way to the gin. In those days there were gins all over the country, and it was usually not more than six or seven miles to the closest one. If another wagon was not available, the cotton that was picked was dumped in a big pile and had to be loaded when the wagon returned. If there wasn't a tree available, the scales were hung from a tripod, made by tying three long poles together at the top in a "wigwam" manner. Some farmers used the tripod instead of a wagon tongue. Either system worked fine, and the cotton picking continued.

  Schools began late in the year so the kids could help with the cotton picking. The first year I went to school the opening was about the middle of October. If the picking wasn't over when school started, the family usually kept them out until it was finished.

  When the picking was over, it wasn't really over. The bolls that were not mature and had not opened at picking time later opened and it was profitable to the owner to go over the field again, picking the scattered bolls. This was called "stripping". You could not hire anyone to do this because the cotton was so scattered even a good picker couldn't pick enough in a day at picker's wages to make it worthwhile. But the owner, who could sell it for forty or fifty cents a hundred could make several extra dollars.

  A bale of cotton, after ginning, usually sold for about fifty dollars. The buyer cut a big hole in the bales and inspected the cotton for cleanliness and condition. The gin would gin the cotton in exchange for the cotton seed, or if the farmer wanted to keep the seed, the cost for ginning was three to five dollars. Cotton seed was an excellent feed for milk cows and produced rich milk with a good flavor. (The taste of raw milk varied with the diet of the cow. Wild onions, especially, produced an undesirable taste. Horehound caused the milk to be bitter, etc.) The workers in the field were paid from ten cents to twenty cents a hundred pounds for pulling. Picking might pay as much as fifty cents a hundred.

  A good cotton picker might pick as much as six or seven hundred pounds in a day or pull as much as a thousand. The average picker didn't do that well. About three or four hundred was average for an average, inexperience picker: a little more for a puller.

  Everyone brought their lunch to the cotton patch (sometimes, if the field was not too far, the family went home for dinner). The cotton sack made a soft seat for sandwich munching and a nice bed for resting before going back to work. For a bed, the sack was doubled back (full of cotton) and the one resting lay in the lowered middle. Some folks built a fire and boiled coffee in a bucket, or a big pot. All of the crew was invited to share. There was a water bucket in the shade of the wagon with a dipper hanging on the rim. Everyone drank thirstily from the same dipper and when the bucket was dry, a kid fetched another. Better equipped groups had one or more water bags - these bags were made of ducking and the water seeping through kept the bag cool by evaporation. This was better than the water bucket.

  The cotton was unloaded at the gin with a large vacuum tube. The tube was pulled down into the wagon and sucked the cotton directly into the ginning mechanism. Wagons waited in line to be unloaded. Sometimes, when the crops were heavy, the line was pretty long. There were sometimes games between those waiting, such as cards, dominoes, checkers, horseshoe pitching, marbles or tall tale telling.

  As the year 2000 rolls around, not too many people can remember picking cotton. In a few more years, it will be a forgotten activity. The same could be said for most of the farm chores of the early part of the 20th century. Almost everything is done by machinery now. Instead of walking or riding behind horses or mules when plowing, and catching all of the heat, flies and dust, the farmer now sits in an air conditioned cab and listens to his favorite radio program or tape and guides his power-steered tractor down the rows.

  But I'll bet the farmer still finds time to do some hard work.

  And I'll also bet he finds time to enjoy it - just like we did.

  It is the farmer, whether large or small, that makes it possible to go to the grocery store and fill your cart. Without him it would be a hungry world.

(Additonal e-mail input)
More Perils Of The Cotton Patch:

By Fay


  I am a country girl. I was raised on a farm up till I was about 10. Cotton was one of the things my dad raised. I was about 5 and back then, flour came in a 25 lb. bag. My mom bore two holes in the side of a sack and I felt just as proud as the rest of them.

  As I grew older I graduated to a 71/2 ft. sack. I never stayed long enough to have a 9 footer. I was very thankful too. ha
When picking the cotton and the bolls would open up with very sharp needles on the tip of each hull. Fingers would bleed every day.

  What was so bad is when you start a row to pick and you get little more than half way down toward the end and here you have a sack full and you have to lift the sack up over your shoulder and start walking. That walk to the wagon seemed so far away.

  People now day don't know what it is like putting in 10 hours of labor. Now it is all machinery. Would I like to go back then?
No way in tarnation.

  In your stories, I too, went back in time. Wow in some of them I would almost say you were our next door neighbor. ha
Really enjoyed your stories. Keep up the good work.


  Thank you, Fay......Norris


Additional E-mail Imput




By Nolan Bailey, Sr. 

 I enjoyed your story about picking cotton by hand.  It brought back fond memories of my childhood.


My "formative years" were spent on a dusty little country road in North Louisiana where there were as many "black folks" as there were "white folks."  My Granddaddy didn't keep any permanent "hired hands," so he hired "hands" when he needed them.  Since there was little other work in the area is was not difficult to find enough people to get the particular job done.  When the "picking" began, I followed the hands around in the cotton fields when they were picking cotton in early Fall.  Well, I played at picking cotton. They dragged a long cotton sack behind themselves and filled it with cotton bolls as they slowly moved down the rows.


I was a tyke, so my granddaddy would send me to the field with an empty syrup bucket to fill. He'd give me a nickel per bucket for helping. <grin> Back then, the cotton stalks grew very tall, and were higher than my head. In fact, it was often chest to shoulder high on the adults. I'd just disappear into the field to fill my bucket, and magically reappear near my grandparent's home to get my pay.   Years later I wondered if my memory had failed me when I saw cotton stalks around knee thing.  Then, I figured out that it was a concession to the cotton picking machines.


The custom was to pay the hands and give them a free "dinner" meal.  (Back then there was no lunch.)  When the "hands" broke for lunch, I'd take my plate from my Grandmother and go sit on the well porch to eat with the other "workers," rather than eat with my grandparent's in the dining room.  The meals usually consisted of some kind of meat, and things like "snap beans, purple hull peas, creamed fresh corn, greens, fresh vine ripened tomatoes, new potatoes," and cornbread with iced tea.  I'd give lots of money to anyone who could cook "snap green beans, collards, turnip greens, and fresh cream corn" like my Grandmother.  It is a lost art.


After all of the cotton was gathered, it was weighed and put into a mule driven wagon with tall sideboards.  In early morning we would head for the nearest cotton gin around five miles away.  Granddaddy would put me on top of the load of cotton and away we would go.  I'll never forget the huge "vacuum hoses/ducts" that were moved around in the wagon bed to suck the cotton into the gin.  Even though I was small I'd pester my Granddaddy until he let me move the duct around to suck up the cotton.



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