Can’t believe how old I am. Why seems just yesterday I was sittin’ ‘neath a large flowering magnolia on the bowling green lawn of a large antebellum mansion having a cigar, swatting flies and drinking mint juleps with Eli Whitney. ‘Historic times I would soon learn, a dramatic turning point in America’s economic fortunes.”
By and by Eli lays aside his cigar, sips his drink, leans forward and sez to me all serious like, Van, I’ve invented a cotton gin. Well hooty toot. I hitches up a little, takes a short puff off my stogy, takes a futile slap at a blue-tail and tells him, “Now Whitney, you know I ain’t never cared about the taste of gin and can’t even imagine the stuff made from cotton. No sir, thank you but these mint juleps do me just fine. No, no replies Eli, this here thing ain’t some liquid concoction, it’s a mechanical contraption that de-seeds raw cotton fiber faster’n greased lightning. Speeds up the process a hunnert fold. Expect you’ll be out of a job afore long old son.”
Hmm? Don’t mean to wear the subject thin, but there’s a reason I’m off onto cotton again. Lately there have been reminders of just how much I’m connected to the stuff and it’s not only these Wrangler jeans I’m wearing. Heck, not only the extent of my personal connection to cotton but the extent to which U.S. history itself is entwined.
In olden times cotton’s economic value was so great folks referred to it as king and/or white gold. If one had the pleasure of growing up in the South during the depression era, was familiar with the spreading fields of white on green, ever grew, plowed, or chopped the stuff, buckled on a pair of knee pads, strapped a 16-foot cotton sack over his shoulder and hand pulled bolls (grabbed the cotton, module and all) or picked the dry fiber from its pod, why you might even feel an affinity to the stuff and the culture that produced it.
Not that one would ever want to return to those hard post Depression times of working dawn ‘till dusk, hands worn raw by dry prickly cotton bolls and tired aching backs begging for relief from all the stooping, bending and pulling. It’s just that sentimentality springs from those bizarre regions of the mind that lead us off on nostalgic journeys back in time to places we worked hard to escape but some how, for some reason become wistful attractions as they recede further and further into time, space and distance.
Spied last winter and spring just east of Alma on U.S. 64, a garden plot next to the highway with a single short row of cotton. It sat there awhile until finally the cotton stalks were pulled from the ground and are exhibited in the outside fence-line next to the road. There’s a story here somewhere but whatever or whichever, one suspect’s it follows some nostalgic thread leading back through a labyrinth of memories to hearth and home and the culture of bygone days.
Also, serving as inspiration for this article was a large field of wild hibiscus, which this summer grew at Webb City alongside Highway 23 just south of the river bridge at Ozark. The white flowers of the hibiscus appear about the size of a cotton boll. Looking out across the white-blanketed field one might easily envision a ‘patch’ of cotton with workers bent to their task; it might also awaken a few melancholy old stirrings and a bit of nostalgic reminiscing for those who have been there done that.
‘King Cotton was the major export of the United States in the early 1800s prior to the Civil War time frame. Cotton, grown shipped and sold by Southerners was worth more than all the rest of America’s exports put together.
When it seemed slavery might soon die out in the South, inventor Eli Whitney invented an engine that quickly and efficiently removed seed from cotton fiber thereby revolutionizing process and production, and therewith making cotton the most valuable crop grown in America at that time, its intrinsic value comparable to the intrinsic value of oil today.
Yet, that which was good for the economic fortunes of America was misfortune for a race of people long subjected to human bondage; the needs of a cheap workforce ensured slavery status would carry into succeeding generations with freedom and full citizenship for the oppressed not granted until 1868 following the American civil war. Looking back now from the perspective of time and distance, that period of U.S. history is almost unimaginable.
Times, as they say, have changed: When I came on the cotton pickin’ scene’August 1933, poor white southerners were doing most of the cotton harvesting in Oklahoma, Texas and Arizona. Many did not fit the designation of a true migrant, rather, applying to a specific short-term job, traveling out and returning home once the harvest was over. It was, however, in the mind of many, stigmatizing and degrading work.
For my family, these excursions likely began around 1937-38, were intermittent and ended around 1951-52 when manufacturing industries came to town, when roads and transportation improved, when a man could get a job down at the factory and at the same time manage his own little outlying plot.
Also, in 1949 International Harvester began the first commercial production of a mechanized cotton picker and the end of an era was in sight. For a kid who once strapped a cotton sack over a shoulder it seemed downright zany that a worker might become so enraged of his mechanical competition that he’d shoot an operator right off the contraption but the incident was reported to have happened in Pima Valley, Ariz.,when mechanized harvesters were first introduced.
Big ball in cow town: Pima Valley proved to be my “last rodeo” but the most memorable was Chillicothe Texas, vintage 1949. I was 17 and just getting my “sea legs.” Chillicothe may ordinarily have been a mild little western plains village, but was a wild and zany place when the pickers came to town: A dry county but it’s like you can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant in the way of booze. A lone bootlegger in a big green 48 Frazer automobile polished to a shine, cruised city streets at night and one had but to flag it down to lay his hand on liquid contraband no questions asked, no ID required.
Names have been changed to protect the guilty: For the most part we were family neighbors and friends with names like Atwell, Burkhart, Teague, Hunter and Larue; a responsible element of the community at the older level running to a bit of hell-raising at the younger. Two “socially erratic” young adults, and aren’t there always one or two amongst the group, kept the exclusive little community of cotton pickers on edge, but fortunately, despite their propensity for rowdiness, caused no one injury and no one wound up in jail.
The full adventure of Chillicothe I don’t dare recount in a public forum. Suffice to say I was witness to some pretty hairy goings on during the time and I’m puzzled still that at 17, my strict Christian father would allow me to pile in with a bunch of rambunctious cousins and friends and hit the streets of a such a wild and wooly town come Saturday night. Yet I kept out of trouble and my own puny contribution to the rowdiness was exploding a cherry bomb above the night watchman’s head as he ambled down a dark side street making his rounds. I was gone ere he had time to recover any composure he may have lost.
There are other incidents dearer to my memory and we look back upon those with both amazement and amusement. Where there is youth there is romance.
Cousin Alfred, the bee man, and I were each handsome enough, and spiffy enough to attract the attention and interests of two young Texas Darlings, but having no transportation of our own made dates to meet at a Saturday night high school football game somewhere outside town. With directions to the stadium in hand we sets out afoot through a residential section, up this street and down that until we comes upon the fresh stench of a road kill skunk.
Later in the evening it would prove to be a landmark of sorts for the Bee Man. Eventually we arrive at our destination and the first thing we see is Cousin Harold of the Atwell clan exiting the stadium with a pretty little thing in tow and close behind with a determined Texas stride a tall John Wayne type in cowboy boots and hat assumed to be the gals father; without a word he gestures with his hand and forthwith the gal heads back inside the stadium. Cousin Harold, who we depended upon for transportation to town and back home, mounted to his truck and drove off into the night.
The Bee Man’s date didn’t show, and left alone and afoot, Cousin Al sets out on the long walk back to town. Things went not well: Van, he sez later, I got lost! Here was I wandering down one street and up another but no matter which direction, every effort wound up back at the skunk works. Meanwhile I had problems of my own.
Date wise my luck was a little better than that of my two unlucky buddies. My date did show and we passed a pleasant evening laughing chatting, drinking soda pop and watching the game. Problem was, neither of us had a supporting cast and neither of us had the foggiest if we’d ever get back to town. Come 1 o’clock, the game over and the area deserted we sought refuge in a small park outside the stadium.
T’was my own responsibility to get myself back to the rendezvous point in town for the ride home; not a soul would likely miss my carcass until the wee hours, so how do I care for the well being of a young lady that by all social protocol has fallen to my charge?
The girl assures me she has three brothers in town, they know where she planned to spend the evening and will eventually come looking. The hour’s tick by, a whisper of a breeze kicks up, the night becomes chilly nobody shows and I begin wondering about the civility of the brothers if they ever do show up.
The three of them drove up in a single seat pickup truck, the door opened and my gracious young female companion stepped in while I, expecting a disapproving frown and a bone-chilling ride to town, began climbing in back. The guys would have none of it. Demanding, rather, that I scrunch in with them in the warm cab of the truck. Thank God for small blessings.
Inventor John Daniel Rust (1892-1954) is credited with inventing the first viable mechanical cotton picking machine: I never met him but appreciate his contribution. I thank Eli for the memories.