Tuesday, October 6, 2009

It's Cotton Picking Time Down South -or- Why I became a Chemist

This video of Lonnie Donegan singing reminds me of this time of the year growing up on the farm.

Though machines have long since replaced humans in the cotton-growing process, it's hard to imagine anyone who ever had to pick cotton 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." Thus -that's why I became a chemist because - it sure beats picking cotton.

This link takes you to a great story about picking cotton.

I grew up in the heart of cotton growing country in Watson, AR (Desha County - the Arkansas Delta). I still have memories of hoeing cotton in the spring and picking in the fall. In the late 1940's to 1950 schools had what was called summer school. We would go to school about 2 months in the summer with a month off in late spring to help chop cotton and another month off in early fall to help pick. We grew 20-30 acres of cotton. Our farm had 20 acres of cotton land and we would rent around 10 acres. Hoeing or chopping consisted of thinning plants and hoeing out grass and weeds. We would chop all the farm at least twice. This would be from late May through July. Sometimes we would refer to the hoe as a goose necked idiot stick.

This is an example of chopping cotton.

Picking time was early September through October. In years with bad weather, picking could continue until Thanksgiving. Dad could pick around 300 pounds per day. Most of us kids would pick about 200 pounds per day (late teens). A bale of loose cotton was about 1500 pounds. It would take us about 1.5 to 2 days to pick a bale. As we grew older we worked up to the 11 ft. sack. We picked until we were dragging about 60 pounds and take it to the wagon to weigh, then empty into the wagon.

Cotton scales were simple balance type devices that were hung from a board extending from the wagon. The sack was tied to the bottom of the scale and a "P", or small weight, was moved along the arm until it balanced. The weight was then read from the figures along the scale beam where the weight caused it to balance. A large P was used for heavier sacks and a smaller one for small sacks. The reverse side of the scale beam was calibrated for the small P. The crop owner usually designated an official weigher. He weighed all the sacks and kept a record of the amounts each picker brought in. After weighing the sack and the weight of the sack was deducted, the cotton was emptied into the wagon. The wagon bed had high side boards.

This is the type of scales we used to weigh our full cotton sacks.

This is the "P" that would be moved along the arm of the scales

We would have to tramp the loose cotton in the wagon to make sure we could get the required 1500 pounds. Then it was off to the gin. This was done with a mule drawn wagon until about 1953 when we switched to farming with a Ford 9N tractor. About the only fun part of picking was that about once a season we each would get to ride in the wagon to the gin. I can still remember one of my uncles who gave up cotton farming to become what us country folks called a public worker saying "I'd rather have a rattle snake around my neck than a cotton sack strap".

We could produce somewhere between 1 to 2 bales of cotton per acre. Ginned cotton in those days was worth about 40 cents per pound. Thus one bale brought in $200. The cost of planting seed, fertilizer, insecticide used to kill boll weevils, feed for the mules (or tractor fuel and parts), etc had to be subtracted from this figure to give the net return for producing that bale. So you see that with say our 30 acres with a 2 bale per acre yield gave a gross income of $12,000 before operating expenses were subtracted from that. Not much left to support our family with 6 children. It was a hard life, but looking back, I have no regrets and lot of memories.

Here is an example of cotton being picked by hand.

As much as I disliked the hard labor on the farm, I continue to plant a few stalks of cotton in my vegetable garden. In the south the cotton would be planted around mid-April. A cotton bud or square appears first then blooms (late June - early July) first with a white bloom which turns red the next day which then drys up and falls off the third day to show a small boll. The boll continues to grow in size and opens at full maturity to the white fluffy cotton boll.

Cotton Plants

Cotton Square (bud)

White Bloom (Day 1)

Red Bloom (2nd day) with a square to the lower right.

Maturing cotton Boll

Open cotton Boll. This is 4 lock cotton (4 pods of cotton between the burs). Most of what we grew was 5 lock cotton.

Mom & Dad in cotton ready for picking.

As more of us kids grew up and left the farm after graduating from high school, dad switched to having another farmer machine pick his cotton with a mechanical picker.

The early two row pickers would pick about 10 bales a day. Just think of these numbers, if five 300 pound/day hand pickers could pick a bale of cotton per day, then this machine replaced what took 50 good hand pickers to do in a days work. This mechanization is why so many people had to leave the farm for work in the cities as hand labor disappeared. Now there are 6-8 row pickers, replacing what it took 150-200 good men to pick in one days work. With 6-8 row pickers that would pick 30-40 bales/day, brought about other changes in the picking-ginning process. With a two row picker the farmer would collect his loose picked cotton in a 10 bale wire trailer that would make one trip a day to the gin.

As faster pickers appeared it meant that as much as 4 trailer loads a day would need to be took to the gin. This created a major logistics problem of needing more trailers and keeping a person at the gin to move trailers through the long waiting line at the gin. This brought on a new invention in the early 1970's, the cotton module builder.

The picked cotton would be dumped from the picker into a machine that worked similar to a garbage truck. It was a hydraulic press that pressed the cotton into a smaller space. This produced a tightly pressed cotton module that would shed moisture and could be left in the fields to wait for moving to the gin.

Here is a video of a module builder at work.

Technology has now progressed to the point that the picker and the module builder has been combined into one machine, the cotton module picker.

Finished cotton modules in Missouri Boot Hill along I-55.

Or it could be hauled in a module truck to a large gin lot, waiting its turn for ginning.I have seen gins in Texas that would have several hundred modules in storage in their lots.

A module truck loading a module.

These modules contained about 11 tons of cotton, almost 15 bales. The gins are operating well past the harvesting time, just to work off the volume of cotton modules coming in. This created the need for faster gins. Modern gins today can gin a bale of cotton per minute. This means 1400 bales per 24 hour day. My guess is that the gin we used in 1940-60 would take a month of 8-10 hour days to gin as much cotton as the modern gin does in one 24 hour day of operation.

The use of herbicides and a hill drop planter has eliminated the need for chopping cotton and the mechanical picker has replaced hand picking. Today's cotton farming is much different than when I grew up on a small farm. With the mechanization, farm size has increased from 100 acre farms to a thousand or more with just 2 or 3 workers to operate the large farm.

The cotton gin building that did our ginning still stands today in Watson, AR although it has not operated for over 30 years. There are 2, more efficient gins about 10 miles in opposite directions from the old gin. I have no idea if all the ginning equipment is still in the old building.

When we lived in Texas we visited the historic 1914 Burton Farmers Gin that is nestled in the heart of Burton, Texas - located on the same site where it was built almost 100 years ago!

This gin was originally powered by a steam engine, but switched in 1925 to a Bessemer Type IV diesel oil engine. The restored 16 ton “Lady B” is the largest internal combustion engine of its vintage still operating in America! It still gins a bale or two of cotton each year at the annual Cotton Gin Festival, the third weekend in April. The gin is now part of the Smithsonian Institution. The cotton that is ginned during the festival is hand picked, just as it would have been in its early days.

The 1925 Bessemer diesel oil engine.

Wagon load of cotton under the vacuum tube. The tube was pulled down into the wagon and sucked the cotton directly into the ginning mechanism.

Workers keeping an eye on the historic wooden gin stands that separates the cotton lint from the seeds.

The ginned cotton would drop into of these presses on a turn table. While one press was being filled with the ginned cotton, the previously ginned bale could be removed from the other press for weighing. The table would then it be rotated to switch to the other press to remove another bale.

Weighing the finished bale.

I am standing by a bale of cotton ginned in this gin. This gives you an idea of the size of a bale of ginned cotton. In the ginning process the 1500 pounds of loose cotton (with seeds) is reduced to a 500 pound bale of compressed lint cotton. The ginning process has removed 1000 pounds of moisture (in the dryers), seed, burs, sticks, leaves and other trash.

Here is a link describing the basic operations of a modern cotton gin. Scrool down and click on the video of "Inside the Cotton Gin" to see a gin in operation.


  1. you have a very nice blog here Ben - full of very interesting information! Great pictures too - I came across your site while using Google search for "cotton" - not so much for information but just about the fabric - but what a nice surprise to find your blog. I noticed your ministries which I'm going to check out too. Thanks, Susie aka cooknwoman

  2. Thanks for sharing this! Brings back so many memories.