“We lived on the state line down this gravel road,” I told my husband. “This is the road we lived on the year it flooded.”
He nodded, knowing I was referring to another of my childhood stories.
“I haven’t lived here for over 40 years,” I said, “but this part of southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas still feels like home to me.”
As a child I spent a lot of time playing in the dirt at the end of cotton rows. My mom would be in the field, and depending on the time of year, she would be either chopping or picking cotton. My sister, brother, and I would be left with some bacon biscuits and an old quilt beneath any object big enough to provide shade. We’d use our arms and hands to pull soil into mounds, then we’d sit on the mounds to form “butt prints”. We moved the dirt around to build small roads and mountains, and we made “foot caves” by carefully removing our bare feet from a mound of soil we’d packed over them.
We weren’t supposed to play in the water, but sometimes we’d push the button on the big thermos and allow water to stream down onto the soil. We scraped up the mud and made pies which we decorated with leaves and sticks and whatever else was handy.
In the fall when it was picking time, we hung around the trailer which was a large wagon with sideboards on all four sides. We would resume our dirt games with a greater bounty of decorative seeds, grasses, and cotton bolls. Sometimes when the adults were on the other side of the field, we’d climb up on the sides of the trailer and jump into the mass of cotton inside. By the afternoon, tired and hot and out of ideas, we’d drag the quilt to the shady side of the trailer and take a nap.
Many of the homes we lived in back then had wells or pumps. Indoor plumbing and bathrooms were common in the newer homes, but we lived in houses that were much older and weren’t designed with an indoor bath. We had an old cast iron caldron and a couple of washtubs that we filled up with water each morning. By the time we got home at the end of the day the water was nice and warm. We kids then took turns getting the worst of the fields off us.
When I was 8 or 9 I was old enough to pick cotton, and I joined my mother and the other workers in the fields. I rarely picked the whole day at that age, but my skills and work time increased with each season.
Picking cotton is long hours of bending over or crawling between rows of cotton stalks while you pull the cotton from the dried boll and drop it into a pick sack. A pick sack was a long, white canvas bag with a wide strap sewn on to it. Pickers pulled the strap over their heads and let the strap rest on their shoulder. The sack was several feet long so it hung on the ground and trailed beside the picker like a train.
Fingers and hands were often scratched and pricked by the sharp point of the dried cotton boll. Some pickers wore brown work gloves with the tips cut off the fingers so they could grasp the cotton but still protect as much of their hand as possible. We never had gloves, but Mom would sometimes buy “Cotton Picker’s Friend” or “Corn Husker’s Lotion” to rub on the scratches. They cooled the wounds and helped soothe them while they healed.
I hated dewey mornings the most. “Get as much cotton as you can while the dew is on it,” was the cotton picker’s matra. The extra moisture made the cotton weigh more so it was more lucrative to pick fast and get at least one sack to the scales before the dew dried off. But the moisture from the cotton seemed to just make the scratches hurt worse, and my clothes would get wet which made the cool morning temperatures even cooler. It always got hot later in the day and my clothes soon dried, but I never picked very fast when I was cold, wet, and sore.
Sewn into the bottom of each sack was a canvas loop or a metal ring. Pick sacks were hung from the scale using the ring at one end and the strap at the other. A hundred pounds of cotton in one sack was a pretty good haul. One person took care of the master list, but each picker or family of pickers kept their own record as well. Mom kept a small, spiral-bound notebook with a pencil tucked inside the spiral, and she recorded the weight of all the sacks in our family. Pickers were paid by the pound so keeping accurate records mattered.
When I was old enough to handle a hoe, I started chopping cotton too. In the spring when the cotton plants are young and have only a couple of leaves on them, choppers walked the rows cutting out weeds and thinning the cotton plants. A sharp hoe was required so after several rows, choppers would dig out their hand files and sharpen the blades of their hoes. I was never allowed to sharpen my own hoe, a rule I was happy to abide by after seeing my mom slice open her hand once when the file slipped and her hand slid onto the sharp blade. The cut was deep enough she had to be taken to the doctor for stitches.
Chopping season was short and required lots of manpower to complete. The farmer my dad worked for would drive his big stock truck to Neeleyville. When he returned the back of the truck would be packed with black people, standing up, and holding on to the side rails with one hand and their hoe with the other. I could see them in the distance. They worked hard and fast, and their fields were chopped before the sun went down. It took my sister and mom and me a couple more days to finish our field though Mom made sure we didn’t dilly-dally.
I asked my mom about what I’d seen. “Your dad works for the farmer,” she said, “so he’s been good to give the rest of us this field to earn a little extra money. And he is paying us 60 cents an hour; they only get 50.”
“That doesn’t sound fair,” I thought, but I knew not to say anything. As a family we were just surviving, and cotton season was our best chance for everyone to get new shoes.
A lot has changed since then. At the end of cotton fields today are rows of cotton in rectangular blocks or round cylinders. They are covered with plastic sleeves or loose tarps.
Machines load them into trucks and they are hauled away. There is no need for human labor, except for the small number that work the machines. It is without a doubt a more efficient means of production and harvest. “I don’t see much of anything that is as it was,” I tell my husband. “but I still recognize the area, if only by its topography.”
I point out places as I drive. “We lived in this house next to the highway and then we moved to that house on the other side, back further across the field.” My husband looks at open fields of cotton, soybeans, and rice. None of the houses I’m pointing out still exist, but he nods his head and kindly acts as though he sees them too.
- Cotton 101: Facts about Cotton – The Crop & Products (jplovescotton.com)