~Cotton Picking in Pelham, Mitchell County, Georgia…The Dawson Family Style~…
by Margrett Dawson Wallace
(Pelham, Georgia USA)
Cotton in my Back Yard Garden
~Cotton Picking in Pelham, Mitchell County, Georgia…The Dawson Family Style~…
My poppa, Edress, regularly examined the progress of his cotton fields. “Bloom’s lookin’ purty good this year,” he reported to his wife, Tressie, my momma, “We’ve had ’nough rain so far. I just hope it keeps up.”
Various factors influenced success in cotton farming. Without enough rain, the bolls would be small and not much cotton would be produced. Irrigation didn’t exist and we had to water the plants by hand until poppy built his mobile irrigation system by putting a barrel for water on the mule drawn harrow…that was use to water the growing cotton plants.
Knowing that insects could damage the crop as could excessive rainfall or storms. Those factors were beyond poppa's control.
Chopping and hoeing cotton were the most important tasks in cultivation of the crop. Poppa would plant more seeds than could grow to maturity. The practice helped ensure a full stand of cotton.
My sister, Vera, was the field leader…because she was always the one working behind poppa…of course I was the youngest, but I was always third behind poppa. Then there was my brother Joe Louis, Doris and Belia, my other two sisters, were always the last two in the field work…neither wanted to be there, okay?
Hoes in hand, we stood near the start of our long row. Because of the over planting, it was essential to thin the crop by chopping. At the same time, weeds that might sap the cotton were removed. The length of the rows and size of the field suggested a hopeless undertaking. Yet, along with the other family members, the laborious task would be accomplished. It always had.
We made a point of looking only at the immediate cluster of plants. The overall job was too monumental to contemplate. Joe Louis would say, “why do poppa have to plant all of this cotton”….
Never-the-less, he had to pick his share of the cotton, no matter how many acres poppa would plant.
Hoeing the cotton took place several weeks later. No more cotton plants were to be cut down, but Johnson grass, Jimson weed, nut grass, cockleburs, beggar lice, and unnamed additional weeds were destroyed. If a weed sprang up too close to a cotton plant to be removed with the hoe, we had to pull it up by hand, no gloves in poppa field.
“Doris, you cut down some of the cotton back there,” poppa complained to her, knowing that she did not want to be there, hoeing/thinning/weeding…she had no choice…do her share or not go to school.
In due time, the hard, green bolls appeared, increased in size, and began to crack at the lines that marked them into sections. The slits gave glimpses of the firmly packed, damp-looking cotton. The plants were far taller than those seen after the advent of mechanical cotton pickers. On good rows, they were chest high.
Poppa told us…“The cotton would be ready for picking in a few days. He told momma to make sure that our cotton sacks were ready for us to start the picking process.”
Pick sacks could be made at home, but those rarely lasted more than a single season. A quality, store-bought pick sack would be used for years. Since momma taught all her daughters how to sew, it became our task to make the sacks to wear while picking the cotton.
Many years later, our cotton sacks were one of the few items that poppa brought ready-made from Hand’s Trading Company in town. They were constructed of rough, durable ducking material. A strap from the open end went around the neck and over the shoulder of the picker. A black, tar-like substance coated the bottom of the sack so that it would withstand dragging over the sandy/rocky soil.
Sacks came in various sizes in proportion to the picker. Men generally used longer sacks than women. A child’s sack might be only four feet long. I can remember being so proud of my first pick sack…not knowing at the age of 5 what I was getting myself into…becoming ‘a cotton picker’…oh-my-gosh, never again. Fluffy, light-looking cotton was deceptive. The sacks became very heavy when fully filled and well packed. They had to be dragged to the wagon to be weighed if we were unable to carry them.
When the crop was ready for harvest, work began as early as feasible and continued as late as light permitted. This was the beginning of my getting up as early as 5:00AM, a practice, of habit, that I have not been able…to break…after doing so for 67 years. If you ever want to talk to me, try calling me around 5AM and I will be up and at’em. The start of work was delayed on mornings when heavy dew formed...since damp cotton was hard to handle.
The next day the family was in the patch early, hard at work with the hot, exhausting job. The weeks-long process normally began in September. Schools didn’t start until after its completion.
In order for my brother, sisters and me to be on the basketball team in high school, we would go to the cotton field at sunrise and pick about 6 rounds of cotton, before going to school. Hand picking was done either crouched over or on one’s knees. When picking cotton, you had a choice of an aching back or sore knees.
My sister Vera could pick up to 200 plus pounds of cotton a day. Two hours of intense picking put a goodly amount of cotton in her sack. A skilled gatherer, she used both hands at the same time. At each grab, she emptied the four or five compartments of the open boll. A couple of hard shakes put the cotton toward the closed end. To complain never entered her mind. Picking cotton was an essential part of life. She silently rubbed her burning knees. After a full day, our fingers became sore next to the cuticle from contact with the hard, sharp burrs. A straw bonnet and long sleeves protected us from serious sunburn.
To stay along together made for opportunity to talk or were we gossiping. That way the time seemed to go faster.
The mule pulled the wagon into the field to serve as a depository for cotton from full sacks. Weighing was done and a record kept of each person’s success. Vera usually performed this chore since she was the family head and considered herself to be best at ciphering and writing. In good cotton, most adults could pick 200 pounds, poppa could gather 300 pounds.
Sometimes a pleasant, unexpected discovery was made during cotton picking. Well after the season for watermelon was over, a watermelon vine would “volunteer” somewhere in the cotton patch. Perhaps the seed had been dropped or blown to the location. At any rate, there it was…an elongated shell of green with yellow flecks. A thump produced a hollow sound that announced it as ripe. Around three o’clock, we gathered around to share the welcome bonus. Joe Louis used his pocketknife to make a split down the length of the melon. It broke into two pieces with a ripping sound. The meat was bright red and heavily-studded with black seed. He divided the fruit into as many sections as people in the field. In the absence of utensils, each had to choose between holding his/her juicy slice by the rind and biting into it and breaking out hunks with unwashed fingers. Either option could be messy, but the sweet taste made up for any unpleasantness. The best part of the melon was the “heart” near the center. It had no seed and was the sweetest and juiciest. Below that was the section crowded with seed. We took bites and spit out the hard, inedible seed. It was still good, but less so than the heart. To pass time, we played the game of ‘who could spit the farthest seed.'
Vera would pack her sack to the point that she couldn’t lift and carry it across her shoulder. She dragged it to the wagon parked in the shade of a giant oak tree near the road. It was important to keep the mule in the shade if possible as it might overheat. A mule was a valuable farm animal, at least to poppa, it was. Its sickness or loss would be a significant setback for a small farmer.
Since all the bolls don’t open at the same time, a field might be picked twice. This process was called ‘strapping cotton’. A greatly reduced yield came the second time. Sometimes the bolls themselves were pulled, rather than the cotton being plucked from them. That harvest sold for much less. Yet, it was a reliable source of additional income. Every dollar counted. This I did…pick cotton, up until I received my degree from Savannah State in 1961…
If you visit me, you will find cotton growing in my backyard garden as shown above in the pictures…never to live this life again…
Lifelong Lessons Edress Dawson
Cotton Picking Hands