Monday, October 24, 2016

Cotton Pickin Summer ~ My column from Sunday's paper

A meeting in Fayette had me headed to West Alabama again today. The route there took me through long stretches of rural farm country. 

I drove through clouds of cotton on both sides of the road. On one section of lonesome highway were cotton fields with rows that stretched as far as the eye could see. Parked on the roadside was what looked like a cotton train with boxcars of white gold if the prices of today’s cotton t-shirts are any indication.

One of the first jobs I had was in grammar school picking cotton during the fall break. Mrs. Plunkett who lived next door had picked cotton all her life, and she convinced me there was money in cotton for young people with nimble hands.

I had no money and Christmas was around the corner. Fantasizing about picking up some cash in the cotton field, I decided to give it a try.

Mrs. Plunkett told me to be ready and out front by 6 a.m. My mom was an early riser, and she rolled me out at 5:30 so I could have some oatmeal, coffee (yes I was drinking coffee in grammar school) and brush my teeth.  I was sitting on the retaining wall in front of our house at 6 a.m. 

Looking down the tar and gravel road that ran past our house, I heard the old cotton truck before it appeared out of the morning mist. The Chevy truck was the color of an old gun barrel, and the breaks complained a little as it came to a stop to pick up the last of the pickers.

Gripping my lunch sack, I hoisted myself into the back along with the Plunkett boys. Mrs. Plunket had seniority and rode in front with the driver. She wasn’t keen on hopping.

She would not be considered petite these days and she moved slowly around her house, but she picked cotton faster than an International Harvester tractor. She taught me a few things about that work while waiting to get our sacks.

“It’s best to pick fast in the early morning when the cotton is damp with dew. It don’t weigh much when it dries.” With those words, she was off dragging an 11-foot cotton bag behind her like a land whale. My bag was only a seven-foot bag and I felt a little envious of her long bag until mine was full. I was thankful the cotton boss understood that the smaller bag was right for me.

When my first bag was full, I dragged it up to the cotton truck for weighing. The helper reached down and pulled it up by the strap hanging it on one end of an old metal balancing scale. The scale was a smooth metal bar with numbers etched on it. The bag hung on one end of the scale bar which was curved making it look almost like a scythe. The counterweight moved up and down the other end of the scale and where it ended up indicated how much cotton was in the bag.

The work was slow and got even slower as the morning sun rose. Soon I had my sleeves of my flannel shirt tied around my waist. From behind me it must have looked like a cape over my rear end.

At the end of the day when the scale master tallied up our work, Mrs. Plunkett had picked just over 500 pounds. My list of weigh-ins was much shorter — I’d picked 101 pounds. At that time, the going rates for picking cotton was three cents a pound. After sweating blood for eight hours, my take-home pay was $3.03.

That was an eye-opening experience for me. I had time to contemplate my life, career, and whatnot as the wind whipped my hair on the ride home in the back of that old truck. I knew without a doubt that I would not make a career in the cotton pickin’ business.


  1. An excellent column as always. I guess it wasn't too difficult to decide that picking cotton wasn't the love of your life.


  2. Since cotton does not thrive in this part of the country we did not pick cotton. But there is corn and it had to be de-tassled. It was a dirty and hard job that paid little. The crop may be different but the hard work is the same.

  3. My first job (selling women's underwear) paid the princely sum of $0.26 cents an hour. We didn't work as hard as farm labourers though.

  4. I was raised on a farm and cotton picking by hand was one of our jobs, when we finished at home I would always find jobs picking for other farmers and as you said the pay was cheap. I never wanted to be the wife of a farmer, but I never mined hard work. I was just a child at that time, now it would be child a bused. I did enjoyed the few dollars I made

  5. I remember picking strawberries with a group one summer much like you did with the cotton. I went several times, but like you I figured I'd never get rich picking berries. Good memories though.

  6. Anonymous10:45 AM

    That's a lot of work for very little pay!!

  7. I don't think $3 was very much even in the olden days. I remember when I was 5 driving through the south on our was to Ca. seeing cotton picking going on, even at 5 it did not look like fun.

  8. Im thinking your fingers bled. What a hard job for little pay.

  9. I imagine it was back breaking work for very little money.

  10. I picked cotton one fall. I think I was 9, and a town boy. I was spending the summer with my brother, his in-law kin picked for money for the county fair. I am sure I never reached 100 lbs, may be fifty. "But, but Mrs Plunket weren't there to teach me nothing!"
    When visiting Lapanto, AK I talked to friends of Johnny Cash who said he picked a bail a day just like the song.
    But I'm with you, wudn't my cup a tea.

  11. PS: But a great article, that will resonate with your readers!

  12. I have never picked cotton, or anything else really don't think it would be something that would interest me at all, that said I liked the post

  13. Great column Rick!


  14. Nice post. The $3.03 wasn't much, but it would be hard to put a price on the lessons learned.


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