At one time cotton ruled the agricultural scene around Denison and often I have wondered what happened to the large fields of white cotton that I remember seeing.
In about 1900 a report titled “Industrial Denison” gave the title of “cotton country” to the town because of its activity in securing industries that employed labor here. The American Cotton Spinning Company operated the largest cotton mill west of the Mississippi running full time here. The mill was known as The Denison Cotton Mill.
The American Cotton Oil Company had a $300,000 plant with a daily capacity for 150 tons of seed. On the last day of December 2003 this column talked about the cotton gin that was the largest in North Texas that could turn out 30 bales of cotton every 24 hours. Buyers came to the gin to see samples and to buy the product.
Because so much cotton was coming to Denison, a Cotton Compress began operation so that the bales could be compressed and shippers could get cheaper rates and could ship more bales per car.
That first Denison Steam Cotton Compress was completed in November 1873 when Denison was in its infancy. Whether it was the same compress or another one, Nick Ciaccio remembered a long time ago working in the 1930s in a cotton compress on East Sears Street. Nick, a familiar face around Denison, passed away several years ago.
Nick recalled that there was a long platform with a cover over a portion of the structure. Large bales of cotton were brought to the compress by farmers from all around the area and machinery operated by steam compressed them into bales. Large tanks held the water used to make the steam to make the machinery work. Nick was still a student at St. Xavier's Academy at the time. He said he straightened metal bands about an inch and a half wide, to two inches wide, to bind the bales.
Most of the 15 to 20 employees were large, strong men. One worked with a great rhythm and usually sang as he worked “raise 'em up, Bring 'em down,” like in the movies. Nick and three of his older brothers, George, Bill and John, became friends with Otis Boggus. He and Nick often sang together as they worked. The Boggus family lived on East Sears. Nick lived on a truck farm east of Denison, but his family didn't raise cotton.
One thing that stuck in Nick's mind was that there were no fire extinguishers around. There were a lot of barrels of water standing near poles that held the platform cover up. One side of the bucket was shaped like a funnel, but there was no hole in the end. He surmised that it was easier to grab the bucket and throw water on the fire should one develop. He didn't remember hearing of a fire though. The cotton was shipped to American mills across the country. In those days cotton was the largest cash crop planted in Texas. It covered more acres than any other agricultural product in Texas.
In those early days farmers relied on money paid for their cotton to feed their families all year long. Those who had numerous children were in luck if they were old enough to hoe the rows and pick the white bolls when they were ready.
Fields of cotton in the fall could be seen in any direction in the county. When it was ready to be harvested everyone available took to the fields. The farmer, his wife, children, neighbors or itinerant workers would gather early in the morning by the wagon and scales to receive his/her long cotton sack that was made of a sturdy material to drag behind them as they picked the cotton and placed it inside. The bag had a strap that would be slipped over the picker's shoulder so that it could be easily pulled behind. When the bag got heavy or full, the worker would drag it back to the wagon to weigh the pickings so it could be recorded and he could be paid at the end of the day. Then the picker would start all over again with the empty sack and pick as much as possible before the day ended. The workers usually brought a lunch with them and ate in the field or found a shade tree to eat beneath.
My grandfather had a couple of farms in the area when I was a child. One of them was between Denison and Bells, where the area cotton grew. One year when I was maybe eight years old, he (we called him Pop), and grandmother (Momma) decided that I should have the opportunity to experience picking cotton. At first I thought is sounded like a fun day and to get paid was an extra enticement. I don't remember how long I worked, but I'm sure I didn't contribute much to the cotton wagon and maybe I was paid a quarter.
I decided right then that I didn't want to be a farmer's wife or have anything to do with picking cotton again.
My uncle wrote a column in 2002 telling of his experience picking cotton. He said his mother decided one day that he and my mother should have the experience. I guess that's what my grandmother remembered when she wanted me to be experienced. My mother immediately disagreed with her mother and didn't want to participate. But pleading and crying didn't work so she and R.C. put on straw hats and dragged their cotton sacks right along with the other pickers. R.C. said he was secretly hoping it would rain.
He said he looked forward to making a little spending money and mother complained the entire time. On the second day he said a cotton boll stuck her finger to her delight and her career picking cotton ended. Kids today miss out on such adventures. Like my mother, it may not have been much fun, but the experience of a by-gone necessity in the area is something these young cotton pickers never forgot. It is one of those stories they love to tell.
On May 14, 1997, cotton was designated as the Official State Fiber and Fabric of Texas. This was during the 75th Legislative Session and the Senate adopted the resolution on June 16.
The Denison Cotton Mill operated in South Denison – the Cotton Mill district – for more than 90 years. Thousands of people earned their living in the plant that was annexed into the city in 1957. In 1981 the landmark was destroyed by fire after the building has been closed for several years.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.