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Reminiscence of cotton picking by hand in the mid-20th century
 
Darryl Cox’s cotton display at this year’s Gateway Farm Toy Show in St. Louis, Mo., was based on his own experience from the late 1960s when he was a young boy and worked on the family farm.
Harvest began with the cotton sack, Daryl said. “I remember picking lint and seed and putting it in a sack, which was between 6 to 9 feet long. The wagon and scales would be close by. We weighed the sack, and that is what would determine what the farmer would pay that worker. We paid at the end of the day; that was a common practice to do.”

The average picker made about $3 per 100 pounds of field cotton. An average adult could pick 300 pounds a day and make $9. “I was 11 or 12 and I was supposed to pick 100 pounds a day. I was lucky to get 80 to 100 pounds because I goofed off,” Darryl admitted.
When he was a young man picking was still a racially segregated job, but everyone worked together and the same families worked the same fields year after year. “That’s the way it was,” Darryl said.
“School would turn out three weeks for picking,” he added, until as time progressed, it was reduced to two weeks, then one, and finally the schools stopped the practice altogether. “We literally grew up in the cotton fields. I was raised in a cotton patch.”

Once cotton was picked, big bales were hauled to the cotton gin. “Fifteen hundred pounds of cotton would be hauled; by the time it was ginned, you got 500 pounds of lint and that is what you got paid for,” Darryl said.

The ginning process removed the valuable cotton seeds and that was traded to cover the cost of the ginning operation. As times changed and cotton harvest became mechanized, Darryl felt parents lost a good work source for their children. “Cotton picking was a good way that parents got work for their kids and kept them busy,” he said.

Mechanization changed the cotton culture and did make life easier for farmers. Bigger cotton-picking machines have taken many stops out of the harvest. “My job growing up, after we bought our cotton harvester, was to get it ready in the morning,” he recalled. “It took two hours to get it ready, and you can harvest cotton pretty early.
“The picker would pump cotton into the wagons and I’d pull them with a tractor to empty. We would tamp down the cotton because you didn’t want to run out of wagons.”

In the days of hand-picking, another labor-intensive effort in the spring was chopping cotton. “They didn’t use chemicals like they did today. They planted four to six plants, then cleared out the weed and thinned out the plants. If you could carry a hoe, you could chop cotton.”

After the cotton was chopped they kept a wary eye out for boll weevils. “The big worry was, the farmer wanted to see a bloom by the fourth of July,” Darryl explained, adding that once the flower falls off, the boll begins.

-By Cindy Ladage
3/15/2013