In most southern communities during the 30’s and 40’s, growing cotton was the mainstay. This was usually the only “cash crop” and was depended on to bring in the much needed money for clothing and staples that could not be raised on the farm itself. The growing of cotton involved much preparation of the fields. Old stalks from the previous season had to be cut and the roots “run up.” This was accomplished with the wing removed from a “dixie” plow and the point prying the roots from the ground.
The next step was the “breaking up” of the land. With the wing replaced, the plow was pulled round and round the field by a mule or horse until all of the earth was turned over and then smoothed with a “drag harrow.”
Next came the “laying off” of the rows. This operation was very important because the rows had to follow the curvature of the field in order to drain properly. Usually this task was undertaken by The Father; or an older member of the family.
Fertilizer was then applied in the furrow and the rows were “ridged.” If a farmer was lucky he had, or could borrow, a “Guano distributer” for this purpose. When all of the ridging was complete, the tops of the ridge were “knocked off” and the seed were planted with a Mulel-drawn,’ “cotton planter.” This mule powered machine plowed a trench, spaced the seed and covered in one operation.
When the seed sprouted, the field had to be “chopped” several times with hoes to rid the tender plants of grass, and plowing several times was necessary before the cotton could be “laid by.” This simply meant that the plants would be left to mature and bear the fruits of fluffy cotton.
“Boll-Weevils” were the insect problem then and most farmers would “poison” the plants at least a couple of times during the season to try to control the pests. Mixing a portion of pesticide and molasses in a fruit jar with holes in the top, they would shake this mixture over the plants and hope for the best.
Usually around August, the hot dry weather would cause the bolls to open and the fields would appear white. This signaled the picking season. The picking of the cotton was done by hand with a sack hung by a strap over one shoulder. Stooping and pulling the fluff from each boll, moving to the next plant and repeating the operation until the entire field had been “picked.”
Two or three pickings were required as more bolls opened, and then the cotton was taken to be Ginned and Sold. All that was left in the field was a few late opening bolls that were considered, “Scattered Cotton.”
If a youngster was ambitious, they would be permitted to pick the scattered cotton and reap the benefits of selling it to one of the “Gins.” Although there was not much money to be made in this venture, it did provide a few dollars that he could claim as his own.
Machinery does most of the work of raising cotton today, but it does not clean a field of cotton as did the hand-picked methods. While traveling through the country today and seeing the cotton left by the machines, I sometimes think that if I could have had access to that much “Scattered Cotton” when I was young, I could have been a rich man now.
Was it really worth all that hard work? It was the only way that was known then for growing cotton, and I don’t think that it did any permanent damage to anyone; ‘growing -up’ in the era of “KING COTTON.”