Cotton Picking by
before motivational speaking developed as a way to make money without having to
do any heavy lifting, Texans already had a strong impetuous to strive for greater
things: The cotton patch.|
Though machines have long since replaced humans
in the cotton-growing process, it's hard to imagine anyone who ever had to pick
cotton express regret that they moved on to other ways of earning a living. In
fact, the back-breaking job grew the once-common expression that such and such
- practically anything - "sure beat picking cotton."
Adele Cox (no relation) grew up during the Depression on a 68-acre cotton farm
straddling the Coleman-Runnels County line. Working in the fields alongside her
parents and siblings helped inspire her long career in nursing, the only cotton
involved in that nurturing pursuit being swabs and bandages and the starchy white
uniforms she wore. |
After retirement, Cox returned to the small frame house
of her childhood, 50 miles south of Abilene.
Standing outside the dilapidated, long-abandoned structure, she surveyed a desolate
scene of cactus and mesquite. But as she looked at worn out ground that had not
seen a plow in decades, she remembered another era.
"I could see in my mind's eye my hard working father and the five of us children
moving slowly down the cotton rows, a canvas
sack strapped over our shoulders, picking the soft, fluffy white cotton
out of the bolls, often pricking our fingers on sharp prongs which held the cotton
firmly inside the boll," she wrote in her 2001 memoir, "A Long Way from the
Nearby sat a wagon used to carry the cotton
to the gin, about a mile away.
Her father could pick 500 pounds of cotton
in a twelve-hour workday, from sunup to sundown, taking off only an hour for a
big lunch and a nap.
|Cox, on the other
hand, never managed to sack even a hundred pounds despite threats from her father
to switch her with a cotton stalk if she didn't figuratively carry her weight.|
"Working in the cotton field provided lots of time to think," Cox continued. "I
often daydreamed about life in the city - anywhere to get off the farm." Thousands
of Texans in the teens, '20s, '30s and early '40s dreamed the same dream.
anyone who ever picked cotton would agree that
was the worst part, the fun came in riding in the wagon to the gin.
the wagon was full of cotton," Leslie Munson
recalled in "A Grand Gathering," an anthology of memories from Texas grandmothers
and grandfathers, "Grandpa picked me up and put me in the center of the cotton.
We would head for the gin, me
riding like the Little Prince, as he drove the mules to the other side of town."
Similarly, Cox's father let her ride in the wagon when he hauled their
cotton to the gin.
Cox liked it for two reasons. One, it got her out of a couple of hours of cotton-picking.
Second, she got a kick watching the machinery as it sucked the snowy harvest out
of the wagon.
Their wagon held up to 1,400 pounds of cotton.
Every ounce hand-picked.
picking amounted to only part of the growing process.
the mid-1950s, we started using traveling cotton
pickers on our place," West Texas cotton-picking veteran Roger
Moore of Austin remembers. "But
before herbicide, you still had to hoe the SOB."
That, too, was brutally
hoed twice a summer and each time took my dad and me three to four weeks," Moore
said. "My dad used the expression 'hoeing the half-mile row' to refer to anything
that was real hard. Cotton-farming's also where the term 'hoeing the short rows'
came from. The half-mile rows went all the way across our 160 acres. The short
rows were on the terraced ground, running diagonally off the longer rows."
At the end of each long row, Moore's father kept a can of water, a drink being
pretty badly needed by the time he had chopped a half-mile of weeds and Johnson
"Picking and hoeing were great motivators," Moore reflected. "When
I'd ask my dad why I had to do it, he'd said, 'I'm trying to keep you in school.'"
elder Moore let his son off from work for any extra-curricular school activity.
The prospect of not having to hoe the half-mile rows also made the younger Moore
much more enthusiastic about going to college.
Moore's experiences on
his family farm near Merkel underscore
the wisdom of what Cox's father used to say: "Kids that don't learn to pick cotton
never amount to anything."
Indeed, though the hard work associated with
the cotton patch arguably helped to kill rural Texas by sending young people to
the cities to escape the excruciating labor, raising cotton tended to instill
a strong work ethic in those who survived it. A long day at the office definitely
beat picking cotton. Or hoeing even the short rows.