Cotton Picking

Every farmer in our area in the thirties had a cotton patch.  It was the one money crop and was essential to pay off the loans on the crop and to furnish money for the fall and winter clothing.  The cotton was a very labor intensive crop.  The land had to be broken by using a turning plow.  The rows were laid off with Georgia stock plow, and guano was put in the row using a guano distributor.  Finally the cotton was planted using a cotton planter, which was a plow with a hopper filled with seeds.  As the plow was pulled by a mule, seeds dropped into the furrow and were covered by the rear of the planter.  Then the seed germinated and came up, usually there was a solid row of plants.  Since this row was too thick, it had to be thinned.  This process was called chopping cotton.  With a hoe the worker worked his way from one end of the row to the other, thinning the plants and propping up the delicate ones with dirt.

Most farmers then hoed the cotton at least one more time to remove all the grass from the row.  In addition to the chopping and hoeing, the rows were plowed several times depending on the weather.  Finally, in late fall, the bolls would open and be ready for picking.  I should mention that the boll weevil would destroy his share of the crop, with rainy weather increasing the quantity of weevils.  In our area in the thirties no one poisoned the cotton to kill the weevils.  This process came about later.  Finally it was fall and the cotton was ready to be picked.  Picking was done entirely by hand.

Step one was to pick cotton- you needed a pick sack.  These was sold in stores.  They were made of burlap or heavy cloth and usually measured about six feet long.  The pick sack was reinforced on the back bottom with very thick heavy cloth to prevent to from wearing out as it was dragged along the ground.  A shoulder strap on the front of the sack was placed over thew pickers head, resting on the shoulders so it could be pulled, which left the hands to remove the cotton from the bolls.  The bolls had sharp ends which could be painful to the picker.

When enough of the bolls were open picking began.  Many farmers would not wait for all the bolls to open but would make two pickings.  Scattered bolls that open late were picked in the later picking.

At picking time, the farm wagon was fitted with side boards, increasing the capacity to hold enough to make a bale.  The wagon was driven to the middle of the field and parked.  The brake pole was removed and was hung on the side of the wagon.  A set of scales were put on the pole to weigh the cotton.  Pickers would pick down a row until their sack was full.  They would carry the sacks to the wagon where it was weighed and emptied into the wagon.  Since the cotton stalks were only a few feet high, the picker was required to bend over.  After a while this became very painful as the back objected to the position.  The picker would then get in his knees and crawl as he picked.  Many pickers wore knee pads to cushion the contact with the ground and to keep from wearing holes in their overalls.  Probably no farm chore was more universally hated than picking cotton.  It was painful on the back, and the ends of the fingers would become sore from the points on the burrs.

The amount of cotton a person could pick varied greatly.  It depended on the quality of the crop, the dexterity of the picker, and his determination.  It also depended on how clean he picked it.  By clean I mean how much trash he left with the cotton.  I guess and average weight picked daily would be about 175 pounds.  A very poor picker would pick maybe 125 pounds, with a good one getting perhaps 300 pounds.  A few colossal pickers could pick 500 pounds, but most of these had more trash with the cotton.  Some pickers had incredibly fast hands.

We always picked our own cotton as mentioned in other parts of these articles.  We never made more than a few bales.  Most of our neighbors had large families and were able to harvest all the cotton they grew.  A few farmers with no or very young children had to hire it picked.  In the early thirties I remember they paid 50 cents per hundred pounds, with the price increasing to 75 cents, and then to a dollar per hundred pounds in the early forties.  As you can ascertain, it was a hard way to get rich.

My Uncle Herman Weems lived about three miles from my family.  He needed help with picking his cotton.  My dad arranged for me, my two sisters, and our younger brother to help gather his crop.  We would leave home at daylight and walk the three miles to his farm.  We would then pick cotton all day and, when we were finished, walk the three miles home, getting home about dark.  The four of us would pick 1000 pounds per day.  We all were pretty fast and at this time my youngest brother was only about five years old.  No time was wasted at lunch as my aunt prepared lunch for us.  One problem with picking cotton was dew.  In the early morning the fibers were damp and the stalks were wet with the dew.

My brother Andus tells me that in the mid fifties he and a neighbor were hired out to pick cotton, and they picked more than 500 pounds per day.  A friend, Paul Joe Tidwell, also said he picked more than 500 pounds per day.

Incidentally, it took about 1200 pounds of cotton to make a 500 pound bale when the seeds were removed.  So the wagon stayed in the field until this amount was loaded.

Probably the most unpleasant cotton picking occurred in the late fall.  There would be few late opening bolls that would have to be missed after the last picking.  In our desperate need for cash these few white puffs in the field could not be ignored.  By the time the weather would have gotten colder, and the picking with cold hands was no fun.  The burrs on the balls were painful to cold fingers.

I remember a Saturday in late fall when I was given the unpleasant task of chasing and picking the scattered cotton.  So with my coat and a short sack I dutifully ventured forth.  The wind was blowing and my hands were about as cold as my spirits were low.  I gave it my best efforts, but at the end of the day I had only some fifteen pounds of cotton, which sold for perhaps ninety cents.

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