The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Cotton Farming in the 1920's

By Grace Cash © 1989

Issue: January, 1989

Editor's Note... The following is one of a series of articles written by Grace Cash. She lives in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Watch for more of her stories in future issues.

The slogan of my father during our farming years could be capsulated; "No cotton, no money." Without a cotton crop, there would be no money for clothes, no trading at the country store for products not grown on a Georgia farm, such as sugar, coffee, spices, soda, salt, vinegar - and flour and meal, in case no wheat or corn had been grown for processing at Tanner's Mill.

Papa spent his winters mapping Cotton Land, Corn Land and Syrup Cane Land. The richest upland acres would be planted in cotton, upon which everything depended. The bottom land, watered by creeks and rivulets, were set aside for corn and syrup cane. Cotton plants, tender in embryo and in the early-growing stages, required moisture. During a drought, we prayed for rain and kept the plants growing by constant plowing and hoeing. From landowner to halves-farmer is a fearsome jump. A sharecropper never forgets that his plans must meet the approval of his landlord, who furnishes work mules and their upkeep, usually corn, fodder and hay.

The tenant farmer borrows from the landlord to buy fertilizer, which he repays from his first bale (or bales) of cotton, but he furnishes his own seed and his labor force, which is mainly his wife and children - and himself, out there foremost, both manual laborer and farm manager. The baby isn't hung from a limb, Indian-fashion, but the child might be more comfortable swinging from a tree limb than getting chigger bitten laying on a quilt in the nearby shades of the cotton field. Occasionally the landlord visits the farm. In 1924 - at our first halves-farm - the landlord came at wheat-threshing time. He was there around the noon hour, at a time when it seemed fitting for us to ask him to eat with us.

At the age of nine, I was old enough to share equally Mama's embarrassment when the situation seemed beyond her control. A severe hailstorm had riddled our crops and garden earlier in the spring, and our pantry was almost totally bare. Mama made strong coffee in the old galvanized pot. After baking a vinegar pie, powdered heavily with sugar, she caught up a straggly chicken from the red clay yard. She wrung its scrawny neck. Then scalded it and picked the feathers until nothing was left but to singe the feather rooted skin with lighter newspapers out in the backyard. She washed the singed chicken, cut it into small pieces and fried it Southern-style, battered in flour, salted and peppered. She made a bowl of thick brown milk gravy. Altogether the meal earned for her a fine compliment from our landlord, who asked Papa privately what ingredients she used to make such a delicious pie.

Cotton was such an important factor in our household that each of us - all could figure with a pencil - knew how to speculate on how much was coming to us from the crops at harvest time. When it didn't rain we worried about the cotton, yet enormous rainfall filled us with equal fear. We mourned when the mules snipped the tops off prime stalks, or worse yet, chopped down the plants with their sharp cloven feet. We waited for it to burst the soil with its afterbirth - fuzzy seed on top of a newly emerged plant and we watched it grow and welcomed its maturity.

Papa knew to the inch how much cotton was needed to pack thirteen hundred pounds on a high-slatted wagon bed. The younger children packed-down the cotton with vigorous, pounding feet as the "menfolks" emptied hamper baskets of seed cotton into the wagon bed. We began after breakfast, at day-break, and we worked fast to get Papa started on his ten mile journey to the gin at Braselton. It was an exciting moment when he flicked the mules' rumps and growled "Gid-up," so that they - like the children when he spoke an order - took a quick start, kicking up dirt and rocks, till they fell into a measured rhythm they would follow on the pulling trip. Then Papa, as though he had forgotten it, would call back from the running board where he sat, "Tell Ella I'm bringing cheese for supper."

Cheese! The message was for all of us. Rich yellow hoop cheese, bought from Braselton Brothers' Department Store. The three Braselton brothers, founders of the town bearing their name, owned the farm we rented on halves. We envisioned cheese melting in the hot, cat-eye biscuits Mama would make for supper. The happy circumstances sent us with pick sacks strung around our shoulders and extra empty sacks to the field, where cotton was bursting with white fluffy locks and four to the boll. We looked forward to more bales for the gin, more cheese and eventually - if the cotton market held up that long - warm sweaters and woolen stocking caps and a new dress or two around for school, and overalls for my brothers, and the hickory shirts Mama would make on her pedal sewing machine.

School was in session even as we harvested, but we didn't enroll until all the crops had been gathered, and on top of that, my brothers quit school a month or more before term ended in the spring to start plowing the fields. We were allowed an hour for lunch, to use the time as we chose. Usually Mama had vegetables, fried chicken and brown gravy and blackberry pie for dinner on heavy workdays. The chickens were raised in the yards, and sometimes there might be a plateful of eggs scrambled with sausage, or fatback. If Papa had taken time off for the syrup mill, there would be thick amber-colored syrup, or that might come later. Nothing stood in the way of cotton. Fodder might dry up on the stalks, potatoes rot in the ground, syrup cane lose its juices, but cotton took a back seat to nothing, not even to minor illness and cuts and bruises. Better that than starvation.

After lunch we might read Sunday school lessons, the newspaper "funnies" or a serialized love story running for several weeks in the paper, coming out from the county seat. Then back to the fields, straw-hatted, long shirt sleeves rolled to the wrists, and a gallon of water for drinking. One hour - exact - the same as though we had punched a clock at the factory.

It would often be dark before we saw Papa's wagon team plodding up the red dirt road and himself weary from a long day, waiting with other farmers for his turn at the gin, looking indeed like a drooping Indian warrior, back from the war path. Yet he came bearing news of the cotton market, either "it was up today" or "it's down again." A few cents drop in the price of a ginned cotton bale might equal the cost of a child's winter coat, or the price of the sheeting bolts Mama needed for new bedclothes.

A ginned bale of cotton averaged five hundred pounds of lint cotton. The balance of thirteen hundred pounds was returned in the next cotton bed as cotton seed for the next springs planting, and for feeding livestock during the winter months. Papa actually sold two hundred and fifty pounds of lint cotton, and he returned with four hundred pounds of cotton seed, after the landlord was paid his share. First on the agenda was payment for fertilizer and credit at the store for household and farm needs. It usually took several bales of cotton to settle up with the landlord, who shared in everything except small garden patches, during the years from 1924-1929. Then Papa bought his own mules and once again became a thirds farmer. In either circumstance, we were a vigorous fun-loving family.