Cotton-Picking Joy In the Good Old Days

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for October 17, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Several weeks ago when I took an infrequent drive-around-our-farming-area, I noticed that the fields were white with cotton, and I’m sure that the Farmers Co-Op Gin in East Bernard and the Tavener Gin were open for business.  I always get a little nostalgic around cotton-picking time, because both sets of my grandparents were small cotton farmers in Dime Box, and I have, believe it or not, some very happy memories about picking cotton.  By hand.

            Whenever I have reminisced about the good old days in the 1930’s and 1940’s, I have observed the contrast between picking cotton then and now, often wondering why we would pick all of my Grandpa Zschech’s cotton by hand.  Eventually I learned that it wasn’t just that my grandfather wasn’t affluent enough to buy a mechanical cotton picker, but also the fact mechanical cotton pickers were not manufactured until 1949, and were few in number until 1950.  By then, my maternal grandfather was getting ready to retire from farming. 

            My cotton picking days came in the early 1940’s, peaking in 1944 and 1945, a few years before John Daniel Rust invented the first mechanical cotton picker.  The local John Deere place sold tractors but not cotton pickers, a good thing, otherwise I might not have known the pleasure of picking by hand.

            In the 1940’s, the older farmers, like both my maternal and paternal grandparents, were full-time cotton growers, the younger families were often part-time cotton farmers, with the men making extra money working for the railroad.  While my parents raised everything from pigs and chickens to corn and maize, my grandparents grew cotton for their main income.  One of my uncles ran a gin in Old Dime Box.

            In those days, and in those small farming operations, just about everybody worked for everybody else, as the farms were rather small, the soil was relatively poor, and nobody expected to make more than a living.  My parents, brother, and I would pick cotton for my maternal grandparents, my father joining us after getting off work with the railroad.  When you picked by hand, you were paid by the number of pounds you picked, and since there were no mechanical pickers, you could always earn extra money during cotton harvest.

            Men, women and children picked alongside one another, sometimes the men and women competing to see who could pick the most, but they didn’t know until they got to the weigh-station.  Sometimes, we kids would sit on the adults’ long, long sacks, and cackle with laughter when they would pull and pull on their sack and wonder why it was stuck.  We also took what I considered a picnic lunch, to eat under the trees along the perimeter of the cotton patches, and, of course, water jugs.  The common fare, which we kids absolutely loved, was chopped-up smoke-dried sausage and smoke-dried beef mixed with onions, mustard and vinegar, — about the only lunch you could take in the Texas heat and it not spoil.  As rural Texans, we were all used to the relentless sun, but at night, our backs and knees and hands would ache.

            In the cool of the evening, spending the night with my maternal grandparents, I always enjoyed “carding” cotton, a really delightful change of pace from picking.  You see, for those of you who don’t know because you let the machines pick your cotton, un-ginned cotton has seeds in it and it’s rather clumpy; thus in order to get the bags of un-ginned cotton ready for Grandma’s quilts, my brother and I were enlisted to “comb” or “card” the stuff in the rough, and pull the seeds out.  The carders consisted of two rectangular paddles, each with wire teeth on one side.  You pulled the cotton between the two carders and refined it until it looked a little bit like cotton candy.  It had to be refined and seedless in order for it to be used as a batting between the pieced top of the quilt and the solid sheet of cloth serving as the bottom.  With the small needle my grandmother used for quilting, un-carded cotton would have been very difficult to quilt through.

            By the time I was twelve, I knew everything there was to know about cotton, or so I thought.  With one cotton gin in Old Dime Box and another in New Dime Box, the very air we breathed during ginning time in Dime Box was laced with cotton fiber.  It was so much a part of my life that when I used to tell my brother on-going, to-be-continued, bed-time stories which I made up, they were about cotton.  I even gave the series a name, “The Cotton Kids.”  My brother loved my stories about the cotton fields.  I’ve always been a story-teller.


Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.

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