Any good history of the United States will mention that in 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. Whitney put together a set of brushes and saws capable of separating cotton fiber from cotton seeds.
Whitney’s invention revolutionized the cotton industry, and until the coming of synthetic fibers and cheap imports, cotton was king in what is known today as the Deep South. Thousands of acres were planted in cotton, and schools even let out for two or three weeks in late September or early October so that children could be at home to pick cotton.
In the late 1920s and ‘30s, cotton production in Newton and Neshoba Counties in Mississippi (and the rest of the South) was sufficient to support gins in every town and crossroads. Although ginning was done every day during the season, Saturday was the day when I was permitted to ride to the gin on a truckload of cotton.
The week started on Monday morning when I went to the field with an assemblage of folks dressed in garments the likes of which the world may never see again. Today, women spend hours lying in the sun because a deep tan is considered a mark of beauty. The women I knew went to great lengths to avoid direct contact with the sun.
Round circles of cardboard were often cut and fit over the crowns of straw hats in order to create a wider brim and greater protection from the sun. The legs of worn-out overalls were made into gloves. The last joint in each finger was left exposed for dexterity in picking.
Cotton pickers brought lunches in cooking pots, paper sacks, syrup buckets and Jewel T lard cans. These dinner pails were usually hung on the limbs of trees at the edge of the field. Today’s avant-garde artists would have marveled at these trees glistening in the sunlight, an abundance of tin and aluminum fruit hanging from their branches.
Cotton patch conversation was of a type heard nowhere else. An account was always given of the opening of a grave in an adjoining county and the discovery, to everyone’s amazement, that the hair of the deceased had grown several inches. During the recounting of a successful gallbladder operation, some local doctor was accorded the same veneration as Franklin Roosevelt, Roy Acuff and John the Baptist.
Long exchanges took place over such Biblical matters as: What was the origin of the people in the land of Nod? Did turtles ever have the ability to make sounds? And was it not a contradiction for the Bible to say “an eye for an eye” and then turn around and say “Turn the other cheek?” Some woman would always announce that she would not be picking cotton if her husband had not run off with some hussy from over in Alabama.
There were certain cardinal sins that one did not commit while picking cotton. Running in the field was strictly forbidden. Running knocked the cotton off the stalk. Sitting on another person’s cotton sheet, or even being close to someone else’s sheet, was frowned upon. Cotton pickers were always ready to believe that someone was attempting to steal cotton from their sheets.
Another sin was letting the ants get on the baby. Somewhere in the shade at the edge of the field, a blanket was spread for the baby, and one of the older children was assigned the task of watching the baby. The baby would often have sweet crackers, which attracted ants of all shapes, sizes and colors.
The great belts and wheels of community cotton gins have been silenced forever. Across the landscape a few of the rusting tin buildings that once housed gins are occasionally seen. The era of farming in the South when small farmers raised cotton and picked it by hand has passed, but there are those of my generation who remember it well.
(Copyright 2009. The Neshoba Democrat. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.)
– Ovid Vickers, Decatur, Miss.