At one time, the area around Denison was sometime known as “cotton country.” Not only did we have the largest cotton mill this side of the Mississippi, but almost every farm in Grayson County had fields of cotton. Cotton gins were numerous and most every smaller town in the county had one.
In early 1900, farmers relied on money paid for their cotton to feed their families all year long. Those who had a lot of children were in luck if the kids 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 the cotton was ready to be harvested, everyone available took to the fields. The farmer, his wife, his children, maybe neighbors or sometime itinerant workers would gather early in the morning by the wagon and scales to receive his/her long cotton sack to drag along behind them as they picked the cotton and placed it inside.
The strong bag had a strap that would be slipped over the picker’s shoulder so that it could be easily pulled behind. When the bag was full, the worker would drag it back to the wagon to weigh his pickings so it could be recorded and he could be paid at the end of the day. Then he/she would start all over again with the empty sack and pick as much as possible before the day ended.
It didn’t take a picker long to learn how to avoid the sharp points of the open bolls. Some of the more experienced pickers had kneepads and instead of bending over to pick the bolls, they crawled along on their knees as they slowly went between two rows. Others walked bent forward at the waist. I’m sure they had sore backs by the end of the day. I’ve heard stories about women dragging a child on the bag as they worked right along with the men and other pickers.
The farmer always wanted to get all the cotton that could be picked each day because if a hailstorm hit, the cotton would be knocked out of the bolls into the muddy field, ruining the entire year’s crop.
My grandfather had a couple of farms in the area when I was just a child and on one of them between Denison and Bells he grew cotton. One year when I was maybe 8 years old (I don’t remember exactly how old), he — who we called Pop — and my grandmother — Momma — decided that I should have the experience to remember. At first, I thought it sounded like a fun day and to get paid was an extra enticement.
I think that Momma made me a smaller sack than most pickers had and she packed a picnic lunch and carried a jar of water to the farm. They showed me how to pull the cotton bolls and how to stow the pickings in the sack and off we went. 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.
Pop’s second farm was near Cherry Mound and it was loaded with pecans. Now picking up pecans was fun. My family would go out in the morning and Daddy would take a long fishing pole and beat the limbs holding the pecans, then we would go in and pick them up. We took a picnic lunch and spread it out at noon. I don’t think our pecan harvesting was a serious harvest, but we always had plenty of pecans for brownies, cookies or other recipes. I remember those days as fun, but usually just one day a year.
My uncle, Judge R.C. Vaughan, wrote a column in 2002 telling of his experience picking cotton. He said his mother, my grandmother, decided one day that he and my mother should have the experience. I guess my grandmother remembered that day and that’s why she wanted me to have the same experience.
R.C., who my sister, Monna and I always called Unkie until he said we were so old it made him feel old and to call him R.C. like everyone else, said his uncle Gene Vaughn and his two older children, Billy and Dot, picked cotton on Uncle Gene’s farm on the road to Ambrose.
My mother, Inez, 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, dragging their cotton sacks, joined the others in the cotton field. He said he was secretly hoping it would rain.
R.C. said he looked forward to making a little spending money and my mother complained the entire time. On the second day, he said a cotton boll stuck her finger, thus to her delight successfully ending her cotton picking days.
He said he didn’t think she saw a doctor but he did hear the words “bone felon” being said in describing her wound. He looked for the words together in the dictionary but didn’t find them. However, he did find “felon” as “a painful abscess or infection at the end of a finger or toe.” He said he had no doubt that my mother would have traded her cotton picking job for a “felon” any time.
Several other times, R.C. picked cotton with his relatives and after the wagon was filled on one occasion, he was invited to ride with his Uncle Gene and Billy on the horse-drawn wagon loaded with cotton to the gin in Bells. When they finally arrived at the gin, he said his uncle pulled into line behind several other wagons.
Finally they became first in line and the wagon was weighed before and after the ginning. At the gin, there was a machine that separated the cotton fibers from the seeds and the farmers could take their seeds back home for the next year’s planting. Kids never change and he said he and Billy had a real adventure having a lunch of cheese and crackers and soda pop at their wagon.
Kids today miss out on such adventures. Like my mother, it may not have been much fun, but the experiences of a by-gone necessity in this area are something that these young cotton pickers never forgot. It is one of those stories we always love to tell.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her bi-weekly column, which appears in the Wednesday and Sunday editions. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.