“I wish I was in the land of cotton,
Old times there are not forgotten;
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.”
—“Dixie” by Daniel Decatur Emmett
(To learn more about the history of this song, click here.)
The inscription on this painting by L. Young of Monroe, Louisiana, who owns property in Southeast Arkansas, reads: “Arkansas: The Land of Cotton. Much of the South, Arkansas included, was slow to change economically after the Civil War. The image of the solitary farmer and his mule in a cotton field was the commonly accepted idea of Arkansas agriculture.” (To visit L. Young’s Web sites, click here and here. To view the inscription and the small photos, click on the painting.)
For months I have been thinking about writing a post about cotton, a subject that must be explored in order to understand anything at all about my beloved homeland, the Mississippi River Delta.
I realize that the reason I have been hesitant to do so all this time is because it is an overwhelming task. Cotton was such an integral part of my environment during the first half of my life that to try to summarize it and its influence in a few pages and with a few photos is truly impossible.
Therefore, I had to expand the subject to two posts. However, even then they will offer just a glimpse into that fascinating world that—for better or for worse—now seems to be disappearing, seemingly soon to be “Gone With the Wind.”
Some General Facts about Cotton
“The reason California has happy cows is because they get
their [cotton] seed [used for cattle feed] from Arkansas.”
—Donna Watts of McGehee Producers Gin, in McGehee, Arkansas
As I have noted in earlier posts, although I was born in the little sawmill/farming community of Selma, Arkansas, located just a mile from the edge of the Mississippi River Delta, when I was ten years old my family moved to neighboring McGehee, Arkansas, in the middle of the Delta.
The economy of McGehee was based on two industries: the Missouri Pacific Railroad, for which McGehee served as the southeastern hub for the state of Arkansas; and farming, which in that time and in that area was still denominated by King Cotton. (See the following three photos from the advertising section of my McGehee High School Class of 1956 yearbook which show girls from that class.)
In those days the so-called Cotton Belt extended from the southeast corner of Virginia, down through the Carolinas to Georgia and the Panhandle of Florida, and westward through Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and beyond the Mississippi River to Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas. And the state of Arkansas was a leading producer of that leading product of the United States, which is now still second or third in world production.
As an example of the importance of cotton to the economy of the state, at one time back in the days of the Great Depression, cotton was grown in seventy-three of Arkansas’ seventy-five counties.
In the days of my childhood and youth, back in the 1940s-1960s, the largest producer of cotton was Texas, which, primarily due to its huge size, harvested about five million bales a year. (That’s one reason the famed Cotton Bowl stadium and game are in Dallas and not in one of the cities of the Southeast.)
Second was Mississippi, with somewhat less than two million bales a year.
Arkansas was third with about a million and a half to a million and three-fourths bales.
The heart of cotton production in Arkansas was the Mississippi River Delta region, stretching from the Boot Heel of Missouri down to the Louisiana line. And in the very center of the Delta in southeast Arkansas, ten miles or so from the Mississippi River, and about forty-five miles from the Louisiana line, was my hometown of McGehee.
Although cotton acreage in the South and in Arkansas has decreased in recent years, being replaced by other crops like rice, soybeans, wheat, milo maize, and even catfish and crayfish, Arkansas still usually ranks in the top three states in the number of bales or pounds of cotton produced annually. (For more factual information about cotton production in the United States, click here. You will see that the five-year average from 2003-2008 again shows Texas as number one, Mississippi number two, and Arkansas number three.)
For an example of Arkansas’ prominence in cotton production compared to Oklahoma’s, just recently I read in a local newspaper that in 2011-12 Oklahoma is expected to produce about 65,000 bales, down 85 percent from last year due to unfavorable weather and climate changes.
About the same time I read in the McGehee Times that just one gin in my hometown of McGehee, Arkansas, estimated that it would process about 1,000 bales a day for two and a half months—which, if I figure correctly, would amount to about 75,000 bales.
From 2003-2008 the average annual amount of cotton production in Oklahoma was about 258,000 bales a year. During that same period the average annual amount of cotton production in Arkansas was 2,038,000 bales.
(Information from the Web site above and an article titled “Cotton crop brings changes,” The Times-News, Wednesday, September 21, 2011. For more information on McGehee cotton gins, see the quotes about cotton at the end of this post.)
Even so, cotton acreage in Arkansas today appears to be much less than it was back in the halcyon days of our youth. In fact, as reported by my friend Joe Dempsey from Pine Bluff in my earlier post on the Delta titled “My ‘Bucket List’ Trip II,” the number of cotton gins in the Delta has decreased immensely; in some places in the Delta they have virtually disappeared.
“Gone Are the Days”—of King Cotton
“Gone are the days
when my heart was young and gay;
Gone are my friends
from the cotton fields away.”
–“Old Black Joe,” by Stephen C. Foster (1853)
The cotton culture of our day affected almost every aspect of our lives while I was growing up. The influence of the “Cotton Kingdom” continued after I graduated from high school, college, and graduate school and began teaching in Holly Grove, a little cotton-based town in Monroe County, about ninety miles north of McGehee, and about thirty-five miles west of Helena. (To view maps of the Cotton Kingdom before the Civil War, click here and here. Desha County is located in that area in Southeast Arkansas.)
About that same time Mari and I were married in December 1962, and she began teaching in Holly Grove Elementary School. The first five years of our marriage were spent in that cotton-farming community. In fact, cotton fields came right up to the back of the school and the football field so that in the fall we could look out our classroom windows and see the adjoining fields turning “white . . . unto harvest” (John 4:35 ASV).
And, as had been the case in McGehee and throughout much of the Arkansas Delta region, not only were the fields “white . . . unto harvest,” the roadsides were lined with white from the stands of cotton fibers that were blown from the hundreds of cotton trailers that farmers used to transport their precious “white gold” from the fields to the cotton gins.
In those days virtually every town and community had at least one gin (short for “engine”), a large building that housed the equipment that separated the seeds from the cotton bolls and then cleaned and pressed the seedless cotton fiber into bales weighing usually about 450-500 pounds. (To watch a ten-minute video of the operation of a modern, high-tech cotton gin that moves the raw cotton through the entire process to the final “strapping and wrapping” of a cotton bale, click here. To read about the old and the modern high-tech McGehee Producers Gin, read the quotes about cotton at the end of the post. To order miniature cotton bales, click here.)
Of course, the trees and even sometimes the grass and bushes around these busy buildings were covered with cotton fiber. In fact, in the fall the whole landscape of the Delta gave an impression of a “winter wonderland” produced by these flying wisps of white.
But not only was cotton production a major activity and source of income in the agricultural dominated Delta, it was also the basis of an entire way of life, one that seemingly has marked me—and many others—for life.
“Cotton is goin’ west . . .”
“Cotton is goin’ west,
Cattle are comin’ east,
Blacks are goin’ north,’
And industry is comin’ south!”
—Southern saying of the 1960s
As the above quotation indicates, starting back in the 1950s with the mechanization of cotton farming, things began to change in the Delta as elsewhere across the South. As laborers and sharecroppers, both black and white, were replaced by machines, many of them were forced to leave their rural homes and journey north to urban areas like St. Louis, Chicago, and Detroit in search of work, usually in factories in what is now referred to as the Rust Belt.
When I was working as graduate assistant in the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Arkansas, I learned that during a twenty-year period of the 1950s and 60s Arkansas lost approximately 25 percent of its black population, most of whom migrated to the North in search of a better life. In joining this mass migration of displaced Southern farm workers, often called the greatest human migration in the history of the nation, if not the world, they left behind a Delta, and indeed an entire South, that was destined for change.
Part of that change, as also expressed in the above quote, was the movement of cotton production from the traditional Southern Cotton Belt to Western states like New Mexico, Arizona, and California. (At one time I read that California had replaced Mississippi as second in the production of cotton, and that Arizona had replaced Arkansas as third, a situation that has now reversed.) Another reason for that movement was the change from cotton to other types of crops in the South due to the decreasing productivity of the soil, which cotton depletes if it is sown in the same land year after year.
Ironically, that was one of the factors that influenced many of the same families (like my own Georgia ancestors who fled the Southeast in 1857) to migrate west to states like Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas when their own lands were worn out from repeated cotton production.
Select Quotes on Cotton
Below are a few select quotes on cotton: mine and other’s. The discussion of the changing Cotton Kingdom in general and in Southeast Arkansas in particular will be continued in next week’s post which will end with some additional select quotes about cotton and the Delta.
“How can they call Israel the Holy Land when they don’t even grow cotton there?” (In fact, as I later learned, Israel does grow cotton but is ranked as thirty-fifth in the amount of cotton produced. To see a list of the nations that produce cotton and their rankings and amount of production, click here.)
“In Arkansas cotton is a staple; in Mississippi it is a fetish!” (And the Mississippi Delta, called “the most Southern place on earth,” is still one of the leading areas of cotton production in the country.)
“You are so Southeast Arkansas if you know the seven roadside words that describe its treasured culture: Razorback, Delta, catfish, cotton, Baptist, beer, and bait.” (Used by the Arkansas Times.)
“The smell of cotton poison always makes me teary-eyed!” (This is double entendre, referring to the physical reaction to the familiar acrid odor of the chemicals used to eradicate boll weevils and to the “mistiness of memory.” It is not by chance that the mascot of the University of Arkansas at Monticello, twenty-five miles west of McGehee, is the boll weevil or that the university’s women athletes are known as the Cotton Blossoms.)
“No one was ever inspired to sing, ‘I wish I was in the land of polyester.’”
—Agricultural chemical company billboard
outside McGehee, Arkansas, in 1980
“McGehee [Arkansas, my hometown], located in southern Arkansas, is a typical hamlet in the Mississippi Delta, with its bayous filled with cypress trees surrounded by miles of cotton and soybean fields. . . . ‘When they say the impoverished Mississippi Delta, they mean Desha County. . .’”
—Helen Adcock, quoted by Amy Schlesing in article titled
“Delta town pins hopes for revival on children,”
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 25, 2001
“As I was raised next door to a cotton gin, I recall the changes and progress. Our first gin was located on the west bank of Boggy Bayou. It was powered by steam. In April of 1927, Daddy ginned cotton all day, ginning 14 bales of cotton. Later gins used diesel and butane.”
—Jimmy Kemp of McGehee, Arkansas,
quoted in McGehee Centennial 1906-2006
“In the early days, Cotton Gins were individually owned. . . .Today many gins are farmer cooperatively owned such as McGehee Producers Gin, Inc. In the 2005 season, 65,000 bales of cotton were ginned in 64 days. In 2006, the gin was one of 12 in the Middle South to score 100% on safety. The Gin is completely electric and computer controlled providing extra quality to increase the financial return of the farmer owners.”
Kevin Watts, quoted in McGehee Centennial 1906-2006