grew up on a typical small family cotton farm in the 1940s and 1950s. We grew about 10-15 acres, depending on the season. We did everything by hand — chopped to thin the stand, hoed to control the grass, cultivated with a rolling cultivator pulled by two mules and hand picked over every acre two or three times.
I began seriously helping my family pick when I was five years old with a homemade sack. By the time I was six I could pick 100 lbs. in a day. About 1958, when I was 16, I began at day light and picked until almost dark to see how much I could hand pick in one day. The total was 551 lbs. A typical day in good cotton would be about 250–275 lbs., paid at the rate of $2/hundred lbs.
Some of my favorite memories of this period of my life are riding about four miles in late afternoon to the gin in a mule drawn wagon driven by my granddad, sleeping on the cotton wagon after dark under the stars and waiting in line for our turn to get the cotton ginned.
In later years, when we were caught up with our crop, we rode at daybreak in the back of an open pick-up truck about 20 miles to “hire out” to pick for big landowners in the Tennessee Valley. This was in late October or November when it was freezing cold only to have the temperature reach 80 degrees Fahrenheit by noon.
The family and entire field crew would drink water out of one three- to four-gallon galvanized bucket with the same metal dipper. Some of the women would be snuff dippers. Competing to pick on the terrace or water furrow rows where the top soil was deeper or the cotton plants had more moisture and larger bolls. Taking a quick break from picking to run to the house during the 1956 World Series to see if Don Larsen’s perfect game was still intact.
Taking one of the first battery-powered portable radios to the field and placing it on top of my pick sack in order to hear the great wins of a Shug Jordon coached Auburn team coming from behind to beat Tennessee in 1957 and 1958. At that time, I didn’t even know where Auburn was located in Alabama. No one in my family had ever been that far from home or to the Auburn part of the state.
Later in my Extension career, one of our county agents organized a cotton-picking field day with the local schools. I was the guest speaker and prepared a set of “How to pick cotton” rules for the occasion:
1. Do not ever place two hands on the same boll.
2. If a boll or burs come off with the lint, put it in your sack.
3. Do not reach for the same boll but one time. If you miss a lock, leave it.
4. Fill both hands to capacity before combining all cotton into the right hand for placing into pick sack. (Assuming you are right handed).
5. The left hand begins picking again while right hand is placing cotton into pick sack.
6. Alternate on focusing on the right and left hand as they reach for additional bolls.
7. A hand picker may carry one, two or three rows at once. Two is standard for adults and one for children.
8. Have a weigh-up when you have picked 30 to 50 lbs. Pulling more than 50 pounds in a sack reduces the effectiveness of the picker.
9. Keep the majority of the cotton shook or packed in the bottom of the sack.
10. Do not gaze at the sky, stop to chat with a person on a nearby row or take a break to sit on your sack. This could lead to a scolding from an elder if you are a youngster.
For 10 minutes that day, the school superintendent, Charles Cole, and I had a hand-picking contest. He was picking his cotton real clean. I was picking for the most pounds by my rules, and I won!
In 1940, as Ben Robertson said in Red Hills and Cotton — An Up Country Memory, “… our Great Aunt Narcissa stated once in public that she did not care what anybody in Washington or anywhere else in the world said about cotton, it was still the greatest crop that heaven ever gave to any county.”
— Ron Smith