by Thomas Givens
I grew up on a Mississippi Delta farm in the late ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, and when I first ventured out into this world, cotton farming was different than it is now. My dad was a renter, a status between a planter and sharecropper. For the time, ours was a medium operation, and Dad had from four to five families on our place. Back then, most farms and plantations were run the same. There were tenant farmers (sharecroppers), and there was the day crop which belonged to the planter or renter.
In March of every year there was “furnish” day, when tenants were advanced funds to live on until the crop was gathered and they settled up with the boss. They were furnished seed, fertilizer, and whatever else was necessary to bring the crop in. Needless to say, but “furnish” day was a big day in the small towns of the Delta back then. The renter and planter took care of the planting and cultivating, and the tenant took care of the chopping, hoeing and picking. The day crop was handled by day workers brought in from town and the tenants (if they were caught up on their own shares). The crop was usually “laid by” in July and everybody got ready for “pickin” time.
I used to watch my daddy and granddaddy prepare for the harvest season. They would buy a supply of nine foot cotton sacks, which had tar bottoms to keep them from wearing out from being drug up and down the rows. They’d take a green cotton boll, put it into a corner of the bottom of the sack, wrap baling wire around it, and make a loop. The loop was used to hang the sack on the scales when it was time to weigh up. Back then, each tenant had a cotton pen on his share, and they would weigh up and dump the cotton in the pen until they had a bale, which was about 1200 pounds of seed cotton. They would notify the boss or farm manager, and a wagon or trailer was then sent to load the cotton and haul it to the gin. The cotton was transferred from the cotton pen to the wagon or trailer using a large wicker basket.
I started going to the gin with my daddy and granddaddy at an early age. I was fascinated. We got there early, and the gin had this old black man in charge of the two large diesel engines that ran the two stands. He and I took a liking to each other, and he let me hang out with him.
I watched him get the engines going. Compressed air was used to get the pistons working, and the engines had huge flywheels; when they got to going, he did something to start the ignition process, and it was off to the races. I think they only had two cylinders each, but with those flywheels, quite a bit of torque.
After the cotton was suctioned off the wagon or trailer, it went into a large holding pen inside the gin and was then fed into the stands. There was a large floor inside the gin with two stands on each side. As the cotton was fed into stands, it cascaded down into the saws. It was a pretty sight, but the noise was deafening. Workers walked the stands to be sure the cotton flowed smoothly. This is where the danger was – a lot of fingers and hands were lost in those saws.
The saws separated the lint from the seed. As the lint was separated from the seed, it was fed into a press. Gin workers would prepare the press for the bale. Burlap was attached at the top and bottom of the press, steel bands were put into place, and the press was closed. A bell then rang, and the cotton was dumped in the press and compressed, and the workers snapped the steel bands into place. When the press let up, you had a bale of cotton as we know it. The bale was rolled off the press, marked, a sample taken for the cotton buyer and off to the compress it went to be made smaller.
I’m sure it’s done a lot different these days, but that’s the way it was done back then.
His memoirs are favorites at USADEEPSOUTH. Here are a few:
The Halfway Store
The Delta Theater
Memphis and the Delta
Whiskey, Chickens and Cherry Bombs
Write Tom at DeltaJudge2
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