2010-12-08 / Editorial

Other Voices

COTTON NOW AND THEN
By F. Leslie Jenkins Jr. Burke Banter Boy

Before Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, the seeds in the cotton had to be extracted by hand. It was a tedious and time consuming job.

On large plantations, there was probably plenty of help, but if much cotton was made it still turned into a formidable task. Freeing the seeds from the lint cotton could certainly tire the worker almost as much as picking the cotton, but de-seeding the cotton could be done sitting down and in the shade.

Nevertheless, it must have been a nerve racking chore. Now, there were many buyers of de-seeded cotton, but without a doubt there were buyers of unseeded cotton, as well. These buyers had workers to remove the seeds. Since the buyer removed the seeds, he undoubtly paid less for the cotton. When Eli came up with the idea of a mechanical cotton gin many people breathed a sigh of relief.

From the moment Eli put his new invention on the market the planting and production of cotton increased dramatically. Down through the years more and better ways of producing cotton, picking and ginning it have taken place.

For many years it took a vast amount of labor to plant, plow, chop, hoe and pick cotton. So planters of the product were constantly seeking better and cheaper ways to get that cotton on the market, and therefore money in their pockets. In the early part of the twentieth century, the invasion of the Boll Weevil was a tremendous set back to the cotton industry. It would be seventy years before man could conquer the Boll Weevil.

About 1950, farmers began having problems getting labor to plant, tend and reap the cotton crop.

The truth of the matter was the folks just didn’t want to pick cotton any more. It is true that most of the cotton was picked by black folks, but I can tell you that quite a few white folks picked it as well.

I happened to be one of the pickers. It was hard back breaking work, but there was an element of fun in pulling the fiber from the bolls if you were competing with a group of other pickers. Nevertheless, the exodus from the cotton fields began and both black and white sought better and easier jobs in the cities.

By the latter part of the twentieth century with the Weevil eradicated, the production of the ‘White Gold’ began again in earnest.

The manufacturers of farm equipment invented and produced many new or improved machines to handle the different phases of cotton production. Probably, the most important machine invented was the cotton picker. Many acres of cotton could be picked in a much shorter period of time. Therefore, the cost to the farmer was less.

During this time new methods of planting and tending the fields were introduced. The need for chopping and hoeing was eliminated and less plowing was needed, so labor costs were cut substantially.

Before the coming of the mechanical cotton picker, the cotton was hauled to the gin, loose, in trucks or wagons. About twelve to fifteen hundred pounds of lint cotton would gin out to a bale of 500 or 600 pounds.

The new cotton picker not only picked the cotton, but in the field a compressor formed a module of cotton consisting of many bales. This made transportation to the gin faster and cheaper.

For several years, this cotton picking machine has served the planter well. But, alas, this year several of our Burke farmers are sporting a new cotton picker. It is another labor saving devise.

This new picker can be operated by one person. Instead of a module of cotton(for a better word), it turns out a “Round” of cotton.

The new machine picks and compresses the cotton rolling it into a “Round” similar to the round bales of hay. I am told that the “Round” weighs as much as 5000 pounds.

King Cotton has come a long way. I wish I knew what Eli Whitney called the first ‘portion’ of cotton to come out of his gin. Was it a ‘bale’?

In over two hundred and fifty years, we have gone from ‘bales’ to ‘modules’ to ‘rounds’. The latter two names are before the cotton is ginned.

Someone tell me the correct name for ‘rounds’, and its name after the cotton is ginned. Is it still a ‘bale’? There may be many more corrections needed. But maybe, I got some of it right.

You can reach F. Leslie Jenkins Jr., Burke Banter Boy, by email at: f291@bellsouth.net

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