Skip to content
$129+ FREE SHIPPING U.S. Orders Only
$129+ FREE SHIPPING U.S. Orders Only

"Pickin' Cotton"

I posted a blog the other day about a museum in Holly Springs having an old cotton pick sack.....I was wanting to find a photo and sure enough......found one on eBay. You know, you can just about find anything you want on eBay! Now, don't get me wrong.....I'm not wanting a pick sack, but I was curious to see if there were any photos out there....and I did find some))) If I don't ever have to pick cotton again, it will be just fine with me))
cotton pick sack Courtesy of eBay Seller bestmanwins
Now, if you want to purchase an old vintage pick sack, the style above is a 6 foot sack. and it's for sale on eBay! Clicking on the photo will take you there. It was the size I used growing up the 1950's-1960's. The sack is made of durable cotton material and the bottom side has little tar dots that helped keep the sack from wearing out too quick from dragging down the cotton rows. Forty to forty five pounds of cotton would probably be about all you could put in this size sack. Sacks were available in 6 foot, 7 1/2 and 9 foot lengths. This is not my family, but the scene is one that I'm all too familiar with))) These sacks look like 9 footers! This photo is courtesy of Gideon Seniors 1959. My days of "going to the field" started way before I was big enough to do anything but play on a quilt under a shade tree. When I was old enough to tag along down the rows with mother, daddy and my sisters, I proudly wore a pick sack made of burlap, or a mesh type sack that potatoes, onions or fruit came in. Then I graduated up to the 6 foot sack. Oh joy. Picking cotton is back-breaking work. The taller you are, the more you have to stoop over. There is no way to pick cotton but to stoop over the row and pick. Some people could scoot down the rows on their knees, but not many. Leather knee pads that strapped to your legs were used. We had one pair of knee pads in the family....and if anyone wore them it would usually be daddy. Kids didn't need anything but a hat, we didn't wear may not have existed then....who knows. My grandmother did her best to make us wear a bonnet....but that undoubtedly had to be the hottest thing in the world. Some folks picked in a wide brim straw hat.....most of the time I went without anything, sometimes a baseball cap. No wonder I had freckles huh.... My grandmother wanted us to pick cotton in long sleeve shirts and pants to protect us from the sun.....but you know grandmothers don't know anything...right? Right. Going to the field was a family affair most of the time. My little brother was too young to go to the field, so he stayed with my grandmother. My mother used to work in the field with us, but at some point she started working at a local factory and left the field work to daddy and the rest of us. I always did say she was smart. So, as soon as we all ate a breakfast of eggs, biscuits sausage or bacon......we got things together to head to the field. Sometimes it only meant walking out the back yard and picking cotton behind the house....sometimes we had to load up in the pickup and drive to some other patches we had, or over to my granddaddy's to pick for him. I was the youngest going to the field and had two older sisters. We fought a lot. You had to make sure you got your pick sack, cap, hat and shoes. There was no such thing as driving back to the house in case you forgot something.....if you did, you just did without until dinnertime (lunch or the noon meal). A big jug of water had to be fixed before we left. This was about a 1 and 1/2 or 2 gallon glass jug with mason jar type screw lid. No glasses or cups.....we all drank out of the same jug. Ice was made with cubes from the metal ice trays and the jug was placed in several brown grocery store sacks. The more sacks, the longer the water would stay cold. We didn't even have a Jolly Jug! lol Gracious! Now I'm really feeling sorry for us.... I think at some point we did finally get an insulated water jug......probably one that got left behind when we had hired hands come help us pick... If we were picking close to the house, we would quit around noon.....or whenever daddy said we could quit and go to the house to eat. My sister (the middle one) would leave the field a little early and go fix our lunch. Usually it was something like opening a jar of canned kraut, fried potatoes, corn bread and tea. Sometimes ice was scarce. We had to have enough for dinner, but needed some for the next jug of afternoon water. If we were picking cotton for my granddaddy.....dinnertime was a different story)))) My grandmother didn't really go to the field to pick cotton that I can remember, but she would come bring us water and she fixed lunch. She always wanted us to rest a while after lunch and didn't want us going back to the field too soon. She worried that we would get too hot, snake bit, cut if we were hoeing and a host of other problems. My granddaddy was crippled and couldn't do a lot of walking as in picking cotton, he was on the tractor most of the time. But, when we worked for him, he paid us just like he did any other hired hand. Now, I had to be 9-12 maybe at the time.....and I got a full day's pay just like everyone else. Plus, every afternoon he would take out and go to the store at Pinedale and come back with a carton of Pepsi, Snickers, Milky Way or package of peanuts for everyone.....he did this everyday we were in the field without fail. To get your sack ready for picking, it first had to be fitted on your shoulder for the right length. The strap would go around my left shoulder and the sack opening be on the right right. A big knot would be taking up in the strap to make it fit. "Professional" pickers would have their strap sewn flat to get rid of the knot to make it more comfortable. A walnut sized rock or cotton boll would be placed in the corner on one side or the other of the sack and a heavy wire twisted around it. We would have a "weigh in" about mid morning, noon, mid afternoon and end of day. A pickup truck with side planks would be pulled into the field or a tractor pulling a cotton wagon for the weigh in. Usually the truck or tractor would sit in about the same spot and we'd leave our water jug and food there or under the nearest shade tree where we thought we would finish up at lunch time. If we had to take our lunch in the field, it would usually be left over biscuits with eggs or peanut butter and crackers, sometimes Vienna sausages in a can with crackers and water from the jug. The cotton wagon or pickup would have a plank extended high out from the back for the scales to hang on. The cotton sacks would be hung on the scales by the strap and the hook that had been made in the corner of the sack. The sacks would have to clear the ground and a pound or so had to be taken off from the amount the cotton weighed to account for the sack. Photo courtesy of Gideon Seniors 1959. The scales shown in the photos are just like the ones we used. Once the sack was doubled up and hung and cleared the ground, the "pea" was placed on the slender end to level the scale. Depending on how much cotton was in the sack, you either had to use the "big pea" or "little pea." I think the peas weighed around 1 and 4 pounds, but I'm not sure. Our scales were bought at Hamilton Hardware in New Albany, according to daddy, around 1953. They would weigh up to about 200 pounds and had markings on one side up to 40 and up to 160 on the other. I think to weigh 200 pounds you had to use both peas... Usually the owner of the field did the weighing. The most I could ever pick was 35-45 pounds at a time, but some some folks would have 100 or more pounds at each weigh in. Competition was pretty fierce sometimes depending on who you were picking with. The weigh in amounts were written down so the truck load could be kept up with. When the truck or wagon had 1,200 to 1,500 pounds, it would be taken to the local gin at night. We had little paper tablets or books to write our weights down in to keep up with it individually. These were free at the country stores from companies like Garrett Snuff. Sometimes the amount on the wagon would be written down on a wagon plank. The sacks would be tossed into the wagon for emptying. Sometimes if there were young men picking, they would get up in the wagon and empty the sacks as my daddy threw them in. If not, daddy would empty all the sacks when he finished the weighing while everyone rested. He'd throw your sack back out to you and we would head back out to the row where you had left off. There wasn't much danger of getting your sack mixed up with anyone else's. Sometimes, we would write our names on them using those purple berries off bushes. Depending on where we were, we all might get to jump on the cotton wagon or in the back of the truck laying around on the cotton and head back to the house for lunch or home in the afternoon. This was always a pleasant time. The cotton would be soft and the smaller kids like me would do some playing by burying each other or throwing cotton around. We had to be careful not to throw it out of the wagon though. Depending on how many had to ride back to the house, someone might get to ride on the tractor seat with daddy and even do a little driving. The smokers among the cotton pickers would take this time to have a cigarette. More than once a small fire had to be put out in the cotton wagon.....which could have been a disaster. My daddy and grandaddy both smoked but they were always mindful of the dangers around the cotton and kept an eye on the other smokers. Daddy smoked Camels.....and my grandaddy rolled his own. I still have one of his last cans of Prince Albert and the little package of thin, cigarette papers. The can still has a little tobacco in it. My grandson saw the can one day and asked me what it was.....I showed it to him and opened it so he could see the tobacco and talked a little about my granddaddy. He was probably in the 2nd or third grade at the time. Well, at school one day they had a police officer come to class to do a little talk on drugs. Apparently they discussed marijuana in class and saw some samples.....the officer asked if anyone had ever seen anything like that. My grandson proudly raised his had and said "Yes! My NeNe has some at her house." Once enough cotton had been picked, the wagon load or truck load had to be taken to the gin for ginning. The wagon had to be emptied at night, so more cotton could be loaded the next day. Some of the farmers with bigger farms had mechanical cotton pickers and extra trailers. But the smaller farmers picked a load, had it ginned and started back over with the same wagon. So, ginning for the smaller farmer had to be done at night. I don't know how long the gin stayed open, but it always seemed to be. Most of the time our cotton was taken to the Hurricane Gin. After supper daddy would head to the gin pulling the wagon load with the tractor. The gin was only probably 10 miles away, but driving the tractor at night was slow and now that I look back, I see how dangerous it really was. It was always a treat to get to go to the gin at night. Sometimes a friend and I would get to ride on the cotton to the gin. We would bury under the cotton to stay warm and comfy on the way. Once at the gin, there would always be a long line of wagons and trucks and you just had to get in line and wait your turn. This was always a good time for running across the road for a soft drink and candy bar. When it was our time to get the cotton ginned, we had to get out of the wagon and wait. Daddy would get in the back of the wagon and suck up the cotton with this big tubular vacuum. Sometimes he would let us put our hands under it to feel the force of the vacuum. We would stand around and watch the ginning process as the seeds were separated from the cotton. Sometimes we would wait inside the gin office especially if the nights were becoming chilly. Once the wagon was emptied, we headed back home. Daddy would get some sort of paper from the gin office, I think it had to do something with the seed or maybe just the bale number. Once the cotton was ginned, we never saw it again. The bales stayed at the gin for the buyer. A card and cotton sample would arrive in the mail in a few days. The cotton sample was about the size 12-14" long, had brown paper wrapped around the middle like yarn, with the cotton sticking out on each end. Inside the brown paper flap would be a card with the cotton grade. The card would have letters on it like M, LM, SLM that stood for middling, low middling, strict low middling. The middling was always the best grade. There may have been more grades, these are the ones I remember. SLM was not something that daddy wanted to see, so we were always happy to be able to shout out Middling! I think daddy would take the cotton sample and the card to the cotton broker to sell the bale. After that, the cotton was used for stuffing cushions or something like that. The ride back home wasn't nearly as comfy as the one going. If you were riding in the back of the wagon, it bounced you all over the place, was windy and cool. Cotton picked paid about $3.00 per 100 pounds. So a really good picker made $10-12 dollars a day. Yes, the good old days))) Back breaking, hot work. The cotton burs would make your hands so sore. Some people picked in gloves with the fingers cut out. The worst picking would be the "scrapping." Fields would be picked a second time to get every scrap of cotton getting bolls that had opened after the first picking or had been left behind in fields that had been first picked by mechanical cotton pickers. Cotton pickers (mechanical) do a much better job today than they did 30-40 years ago. The money we made picking or hoeing cotton was our own. We never had to turn it in as family money, but we did use it for school clothes, supplies and things like that. One during before basketball season started, the girls and boys basketball team had a "field trip." Now, our field trip didn't quite have the same connotation as a field trip today by most classroom standards. Sometime around 1966 or 1967, our basketball team got new warm-ups (pants to wear over our basketball uniforms to the games). Previous to the new warm-ups, we had to take our ball uniforms or "ball suit" in an overnight case and change into it, play ball, then change back into our regular clothes. Having the new warm-ups was great....we could get ready to play quicker and the team looked great. So, one Saturday we all picked cotton for one of the local farmers to help pay for our warm-ups. Not a bad deal at the time and no one quibbled about doing a day's work for the team.
1967-68 Hurricane Basketball Team
So maybe the 1950 and 1960's were the good old days......well....guess it depends on what part of those days you're talking about))) I'm not complaining though.......doesn't appear that I was abused from child labor, or my pysche damaged for life......children need to do something productive, satisfying, and there is certainly nothing wrong with learning some responsibility and even making a little money. But if you ask me if I want to go pick some thank you)))
Previous article Fresh Magnolia & Cypress Christmas Garland for Outdoor Mantel