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COLUMN: Cotton picking days

Published 12:16pm Thursday, September 12, 2013

Nowadays, it’s unusual to see a cotton field while traveling the roads of Morgan County. That’s why a big field near Danville always catches my eye when I’m in that area.

While the foliage remains green and the fruit on the stalks is not easily visible, it won’t be long before a big change occurs. The leaves will turn to reds, browns and drop to the ground. At the same time, the boles will open up and the field will change from green to white.

Suddenly, it’s cotton picking time in Alabama.

I can recall how this harvest ritual touched the lives of every farm family back in the 1940s and 1950s.

Farm kids played a vital role in the picking process. There was such a demand for their labor that school systems closed their doors and sent their students to the cotton fields for two weeks in late September and early October.

Each child had a custom-made cotton sack with the size depending on age and height. A first grader might have a sack large enough to hold 10 pounds while his or her older siblings might be able to cram up to 30 pounds in their sacks.

Cotton picking was a sunup to sundown job that tested the quickness of the hands and the manual dexterity of the fingers. A strong back was also important since the picker had to bend over at the waist to be productive.

A good cotton hand could pick 200 or more pounds a day and never leave a lock of cotton behind. Families that didn’t grow cotton often hired on as pickers. The pay rate was $1.50 to $2 per hundred. Cotton was weighed at the end of the day and wages were paid in cash after the weigh-in.

Small farmers (40 to 60 acres) depended on cotton as their main cash crop. They would grow 10 to 15 acres and harvest a bale per acre on average. Money from the first two or three bales would go to the local banker to pay off a seed and fertilizer loan. The remainder of the crop would be used to sustain the family until the next harvest.

For the kids, getting a new pair of shoes and a toy or game at Christmastime was well worth the two months they spent in the fields doing back-breaking work.

Clif Knight is a staff writer for the Hartselle Enquirer

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