Monday, September 05, 2005

Choppin’ and Pickin’

Ernie Simpson

At an early age, I learned that there are some things I didn’t want to do forever. Choppin’ and pickin’ were two of these. Since then, I have also learned that the classes of ’55-’56 and ’57 were really blessed in many ways. Some of the classmates were blessed to have attained material wealth, some have been very successful as humanitarians, teachers, authors, musicians, and the one thing that I have been blessed with, foremost, was to have instilled in me was to be better than I thought I could be. I hung a sign above my bed in Danner Hall early on at ASU that said, “Remember, Simpson, what you have to do to be what you want to be.”

And, not so incidentally, it was not chopping cotton.

I thank goodness too, for all the kids that I went to school with, who were -- those years and many still today -- true friends. I really didn’t know I was poor until I went to college. Thank you, my friends, for keeping me in the dark on that. I was blessed by the people who never brought it out. In fact, in high school, I didn’t realize until I was about sixteen that tires on your car were supposed to have tread. You just drove a slick tire until it wouldn’t go any further.

Elois and I had our first date in a ’46 Dodge pickup, and neither she nor her parents made me feel any the less than comfortable with what I had to present as a young fourteen-year-old suitor. I always appreciated and respected them for that.

After some recent discussion on the Internet with my dear friend, Cliff Wiggs, I thought it time we shared some of the things about the cotton patch that everyone should know. How the bolls tore your fingers to shreds, and your back would not cooperate after a day’s work hoeing cotton.

I soon learned to scrounge for other jobs after a couple of summers doing that: waiting tables at the Mayfair, pumping gas at Mr. Troy Haile’s station at Race and Main, and night clerking at the Rose-Ann Motel. Not to mention doorman and general flunkie at the Rialto, along with hauling hay. I thought it was still better than picking cotton. And better than following a team of mules in the early spring, behind a breaking plow. The mule’s names were Nell and Blue, as I recall. Didn’t every farmer have a team called Nell and Blue? “Gee, Nell; haw, Blue, dammit, haw, Blue!"

We didn’t have much of a farm, so we hired out to Jarrod Rascoe, who farmed a large area east of Rocky Branch. Three dollars a day for chopping, three dollars a hundred for picking. Lord, I was just glad to get a hundred pounds. I posed the question to Cliff, to see if what he had experienced was anything close, and to find out it was quite a bit more.

Cliff Wiggs

Yes Ernie, I sure did chop and pick cotton. I don't know if everybody made a distinction between chopping and hoeing or not. I have talked to others who were raised from different parts of the state who did, though. For instance, I used to work with a fellow from Bisco, and he said they did, too. Chopping cotton is what we did the first time, when we not only hoed out the grass, but also thinned the cotton. You'd always plant more than you'd allow to grow.

At least we did. We'd leave about one hoe width between hills, and leave about 2 stalks in the hill. Daddy always made sure we hoed the cotton 2 more times after chopping. He didn't want any grass. Dad and I took turns plowing the crops. He plowed with the tractor one day, and I'd plow with the team (horses). The next day we'd swap out. That way we didn't get quite so worn out, although my legs would still get raw, I could hardly walk. I remember one year, must have been about 1952, when it rained so much we couldn't get into the fields, and when we finally could, the grass was about as high as the cotton. Both were about 4 in. tall, and we were out there chopping cotton, while all our neighbors were going by on their way to Barbers Lake.

Cotton wasn't our main money crop, but my daddy thought he had to raise a cotton crop.

As you probably remember, farmers were only allotted so many acres of cotton, according to the size of their farms. My dad would even sharecrop some body else’s allotment, if he could. Our main money crop was corn. It didn't cost as much to raise, and you could raise all you wanted. And we could always sell all we wanted to. We'd sell by the truckload, and they'd weigh up over at Center Hill at the cotton gin scales. Daddy sold a thousand bushels of corn at one time to a fellow from Augusta. When he tried to drive away from the barn, the truck tires just began to mire up in the dirt. It wasn't wet, just too much weight. Daddy carried them back to Augusta, where they got a 4-wheel drive jeep, and it took that plus our tractor to pull it out of the lot. That jeep was just bouncing all over the place, and had men sitting all over it to try to hold it down.

I hated picking cotton with a passion. Our first pick sack, as kids, was a "toe sack" that mom had sewed a strap onto. Then as we got bigger, we got regular cotton sacks. The early ones weighed 5 lbs. by themselves. One of my jobs was to climb up into the wagon, and empty the sacks, and tromp the cotton to pack it down. Dad always wanted at least a 500 lb.bale, after it was ginned. Sometimes we'd sell the seed, and sometimes we'd bring it back home with us. It made good feed for the milch cows.(Incidentally, some people still think it's spelled m-i-l-k cow). We planted cotton in the "bottoms" down by the creek, and the stalks would get head high. You could get lost in the cotton patch, but it would make 2 1/2 bales to the acre down there. In a lot of places, if you got a bale to the acre, you did well.

When I was in the 10th grade in high school, I had a cotton crop. I rented (sharecropped) 3 acres from a neighbor. I think I ended up with $200 after all was said and done. I thought I was rich.

Do remember the Hughes fellow who had a little used car lot down there by the band building? He had a 42 Ford Coupe that I wanted sooo bad. But daddy wouldn't let me buy it. He knew best, as I look back on it now.

I wrote a little story once about some of my childhood days and the cotton patch. It started something like this:

My first encounter with death came in 1949. I was 10 years old, and it left me heartbroken and devastated. My best friend and confidante, my constant companion, had been cut down, run over and killed, at a tender young age. I remember it like yesterday, and think that I shall never forget that memorable event. I have wondered what caused it to happen as it did. Maybe it was because we kids were cheering him on and hollering at Ring, as he raced along. We were on our way to the cotton patch that morning and we kids were riding in the wagon, as we went down that dirt road. My little dog Ring, liked to run alongside the wagon. And for some reason, as the wagon turned into the cotton patch, Ring darted in front of the wheel of the wagon, which already had about half a bale of cotton on it at the time. The wagon ran over him, and we kids watched in shock, as he lay writhing in pain, and there he died. I shed many tears for my little friend Ring, whom I'll never forget.

I remember one year Charles Hunter and I were registering for school, and Mr. Hardin came by and looked at what classes we were registering for, and said "Boys, aren't you going to take agriculture"? And I said, "I'm gettin' all the agriculture I want, right now." He said "Boys, farming is going to be worth something some day." I hated it. Work all the time, and no money. I wanted a job in town, where you got paid at the end of the week, not at the end of the year, when the crops were all gathered and sold, and you paid all your debts, and had little left over.

These are just some of my memories about the cotton patch. I wouldn't take a thousand dollars for the memories, but wouldn't go back for ten thousand.

Take care my friend,

Ernie, again

So, you see my friends, some of what we learned from the cotton patch; I do recall the gallon jug with gunny sack sewn around it for insulation, and ice and water to the top; we had a dipper, none of that community jug stuff for us high class hands.

There was no such thing as heat stroke, and heaven was at the end of the row, or sundown, whichever came first.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one thing. When I first started teaching at dear old Cooter School, they were a split-term school in the early sixties. Go to school in the summer, let out eight weeks in the fall to pick cotton.

I had just started a band boosters club, (Cooter’s first) and I came up with the brainstorm of having a Cooter Band Cotton Picking Day. A farmer furnished the wagon, all the kids picked cotton all day, and we gave prizes to the top pickers. Good way to get a uniform and instrument fund going.

I have not been back in a cotton patch since. That was over forty years ago.

I am like Cliff: I wouldn’t take anything for the memories, but wouldn’t go back for thousands.


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