This is a Cotton Picking Story . . .
If you think . . .
that there is something romantic about picking cotton.
that you are living in a special time warp in the universe.
All I can say is, "You are sadly mistaken." I argued with myself if saying you were a fool would be too harsh. All in all, there is nothing at all romantic, dramatic, or "special" about the back-breaking labor of picking cotton.
Picking cotton: Not a pleasurable hobby.
In essence, picking cotton (by hand) is a heavy, toiling, burdensome task in the broiling sun. And do not be deceived. In the traditional "cotton picking time," in mid to late September, "Ol' Mr. Sol," can still burn the patches off your britches at will. So experienced hands of the cotton picking game took "the" most-important tool with them at daybreak: the water jug, bucket, or any container that would not leak. For if you were far-away from your water source and had no water . . .you were in deep trouble.
When the mechanical cotton picker came along, naturally the John-Deere Company made tons of money, but with the same token, put a lot of people who depended on picking cotton for their living out of work and onto the road begging bread. Yes, it was that serious.
Picking cotton gave men jobs.
My dad in his share-cropping days, was responsible for not just planting the crops, but harvesting the crops which meant hiring local guys who didn't have jobs to help pick the cotton and for a good wage I might add. There was Johnny Hall, Ray Clark, and J.D. Glenn, to name a few. I liked these guys for they were all nice to me. I was seven at the time.
I would love when dinner time came. I know that some call it "lunch," but not in this day and time. I loved how my dad, mom, Johnny, Ray, and J.D. would eat, laugh, and talk about their adventures in cotton picking. You see. Picking the cotton was not a hobby or pleasurable past time. It was more or less a "cottage industry" that helped feed a lot of people. And I will stand by that statement until I meet my grave.
From the time that the mechanical cotton picker was born, cotton picking and the families who owned the cotton fields were in a round-about way, judged as racists. Some might have been. I give my critics that much, but my dad and mom were anything but racists. But history states, along with my photos (to the right), that portions of slavery was attached to rich plantation owners who wanted to get their cotton to market quicker. Thus, get a few hungry slaves to pick the cotton. Give them a roof over their heads, a hot meal and they were happy. Now that is racism at its finest.
My turn to step inside a cotton field.
Let me end this portion of my story by saying that if there had been any black men or women in our area near Hamilton, Ala., who needed work, my dad would hire them on the spot and pay them equally to his white cotton pickers laboring in the field. My parents did not like to see anyone of any color suffer or go hungry.
One day at dinnertime while listening to my parents and the guys who helped with the cotton picking, I had a big idea. "I" wanted to make my mark in the cotton field. Yes, I wanted my place in this historical moment that would not come again. Can you believe that even when I was seven, I saw glimpses of a certain future?
So with some negotiating with my mom, she called my bluff and sewed me the cutest little pick-sack that had a strap that went over my shoulders just like the big boys. I was the happiest boy in the area. Yes, I was on my way to be a cotton picker. I was proud.
Looking back on cotton picking.
Hi. My name, as you well know, is Kenneth Avery, and I am solely-responsible for the contents of this piece. Thank you.
The true story of my cotton picking "career":
But my mom, rest her soul, was one of the craftiest parents in the world. She could, without trying, put child-raising specialist, Dr. Benjamin Spock to shame, just by using common every day logic. So starting below is the true account of my "career" in the "field" of cotton picking.
- At 5:30 a.m. the next morning, I was awakened by, "Now get out of that bed. Time for you to hit the fields and pick cotton," coming from the mouth of my sweet mother. And with sleepy eyes, I stumbled out of bed, dressed, ate a minimal-breakfast, grabbed the pick-sack that my mom had made me and headed-off to get with my dad and wait for the rest of the crew.
- I could barely keep my eyes open. My dad was finishing is coffee and cigarettes at the edge of the yard and ever so often he would say, "You best keep your eyes open, Kenny, or you won't make any money."
- On this "special" day, the first day of my cotton picking job, my mother took it on herself to help pick some cotton herself. Mother was not a dainty, push-over-of-a-mother or wife. And somehow deep down inside, I felt a surge of relief knowing that mama's presence in the cotton field would make my first day even better.
- I started off well. I was given a "training row," of cotton to get familiar with how to pick cotton the right way. That was not that hard to learn. In cotton picking, you do not "pull" the cotton boll filled with the "white gold," but you gently pick the cotton out and stuff it inside your pick-sack. Note: Some cotton farmers would go back and "pull" the cotton bolls long after the cotton was picked. Cotton gins would pay almost as much for pulled cotton as they did for picked cotton.
- Long about 8 a.m., the sun started hitting me with such heat, I "was on the ropes," most of my time on the row of cotton I was working feverishly to finish. I know that mama got irritated at me asking every ten minutes "What time is it?" For I was hoping it was getting near dinner time. I can tell you here and now that time crawls when you are seven and on your first cotton picking gig.
- What parts of the the broiling sun didn't singe, the aggravating sweat bees stung. I would pick with one hand while swatting the sweat bees with the other. Then only stopping long enough to wipe the sweat from my forehead. Note: You cannot be a successful cotton picker with sweat burning your eyes no matter your age.
- My hope was elevated when I caught the sweet image of the Ford ton-truck that was used to haul the cotton to the cotton gin in Hamilton, Ala., owned by Mr. James Ray. Underneath the bed of the truck was the most-amazing sight I had seen that morning: The water jug with ice in the water. My mouth instantly started growing dry as well as my throat.
- Finally. My dad yelled, "Dinner!" And I was the first to the truck. Johnny, Ray, J.D. and my parents walked up a few minutes later and got their lunch bags (paper bags) and found a shady spot near the truck to sit, eat, and rest for an hour. Me? I went for the water and ice. I did eat some bologna and bread then I had another idea which was not as productive as my idea of picking cotton.
- When the lunch hour was over, my dad didn't have to say to get back to work because the guys and my mom knew what to do. I did too. I told my mom, "I did not feel good. My stomach was hurting." And with that, she advised that I stay in the shade underneath the truck.
- After mom, dad and the crew got out of sight picking the long rows of cotton, I checked-out the cotton that had been loaded into the truck. I loved how the cotton smelled and felt as I relaxed and fell asleep.
- A half-day. That was the full-extent of my cotton picking "career."
And to my dad, mom, Johnny, Ray, and J.D., "I have owed you something for many years and now it's time for me to pay-off. I offer you my deepest apologies for deserting you on that hot September day as I was learning quickly that not everyone is cut-out to pick cotton."
I know that you, Johnny, Ray and J.D. are all looking down from Heaven and have wondered what happened to me that evening.
Well, my dad chewed my butt out like I was a common thief caught in the act. I would wager (and win) that my dad never did this to you on your worst day.
I cannot publish this hub without
giving my good friend, Jerry Cole, of Hackleburg, Alabama, the credit for above photo. Jerry is a retired Navy veteran who collects vintage photos and does genealogies for people. And no matter what he goes at, he succeeds. I am blessed to call him my friend.