Like many kids growing up in the Missouri Bootheel, cotton was the center of our lives. It drew the whole community together. From everyday lunches at the local grocery store to “cotton tales” so memorable they have lived on through the years.
Francis Hulshof: In 1942, I was in the eighth grade. Cotton was picked by hand and hauled to the gin with a one-bale wagon and a team of mules. It would take eight good pickers to pick one bale of cotton a day. That continued until 1950.
When I was younger, on Saturdays we would haul our last bale of cotton for the week to town and park the team and wagon in the back of the grocery store. We always told the butcher the same thing: “I would like 10 cents worth of bologna and throw in some crackers with it.” Back then, a quarter-inch slice of bologna would fit on the four-square crackers we had, and you could get two or three slices for 10 cents. We would sit on our wagons with others and have a feast.
Later on, there was tromping cotton. The trompers climbed up into the trailer after the cotton was dropped in from the basket and walked and stomped back and forth. They spread it around evenly and walked in circles until the next load came and then repeated the process. After school, my kids would find out where I was and get there as soon as they could to help tromp down the cotton so my trailers could hold more.
One day they got home from school close to dark. The pickup truck was hooked up to the trailer. I remember driving the cotton picker down the row knowing somehow there was an issue with a fire in the cotton trailer. I parked the picker and jumped into the truck with my younger daughter and headed to the house so we could get to the pump to wet it down. We didn’t have 1,000-gallon water trailers in the field that farmers do now.
As we rounded the corner to our house, cotton flew into a nearby bean field, setting part of it on fire. My older daughter ran out of the house with wet blankets to put it out. My younger daughter who was with me in the cotton field told me she had gotten cold, had some matches in her pocket and decided to light a small pile of cotton on fire to keep her hands warm. She told us later the fire just went “phophf!,” and she knew right away it was the wrong thing to do.
After my older daughter put out the fire in the bean field, she asked, “How did the cotton ever catch on fire?” And I responded,
“I don’t know. Maybe you need to ask your sister about that one.” Sheepishly, the younger daughter shared what she had done. The story was repeated for years and is still told today.
Sally Hulshof: When I was around 10 or 12 years old, the owner of the field where we were working had a truck that picked us up. We would ride in the back, and that was so exciting for me. If you could get 100 pounds a day, that was considered wonderful. We got 3 cents a pound, and we liked to make money. Afterward, the owner stopped at a little grocery store and paid us. I knew right away what I wanted to buy — Dentyne gum. I loved that. We didn’t have the opportunity much to buy gum with our own money.
One day the trailer wasn’t there when our cotton sacks were full. My sister, Betty, said, “I’m not gonna carry this heavy cotton sack all of the way home.” Betty was known to take opportunities when she could. So she lifted her cotton sack onto the horse’s back. She was going to get on, too, but the horse took off, and the cotton flew everywhere! Boy, was she in trouble. My dad said, “Betty, you need to go and pick up all of that cotton.” We all had a good laugh, but we still went out to help her.
We will never forget these stories and enjoy retelling them over and over. Back then, cotton was our heart and soul and is still our heart and soul today.
– Francis and Sally Hulshof