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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Cotton Picking

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Long 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."
Picking Cottin, Rockdale TX PO Mural Industry in Rockdale detail
Rockdale Post Office Mural detail - Picking Cotton
TE photo, May 2008
Jean 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 Cotton Patch."

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.
Cotton Gin and Mill Scene, Yorktown, Texas
Cotton Gin and Mill Scene, Yorktown, Texas
Postcard courtesy William Beauchamp

Though anyone who ever picked cotton would agree that was the worst part, the fun came in riding in the wagon to the gin.

"When 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.

But cotton picking amounted to only part of the growing process.

"By 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 hard work.

"We 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 grass.

"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.'"

The 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.

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
January 11, 2007 column

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