Week 18: May 3, 2014
Cotton Growing on the McKinley Farm
One of the many crops my grandfather grew was cotton. All the family worked in the field, lugging large cotton baskets behind them through rows and rows of cotton. Sometimes local workers were hired to help pick the crop when it was ready and they were paid by the weight of the basket at the end of the day – the more they picked, the more they made. During school my mother made sure she didn’t miss the school bus, because it meant she had to work in the field all day ‘picking cotton.’ But it was fun to make her brother, Leroy, miss the bus; she remembered doing that a few times. They always were doing something to each other back and forth as payback for whatever the last one had done. That was just sibling rivalry – they loved each other very much and would have defended the other in a moments notice to anyone.
My mother hated picking cotton more than anything else asked of her. One day, while out in the field, she put a few rocks in the bottom of her basket, thinking that when she turned it in to her father, and he weighed it, it would show how hard she had worked. But her father was always one step ahead of her; she got a licking for that one. Sometimes she’d even faint in the field, and the workers would yell, “Mr. Edgar, better come ‘git’ Miss Helen, she done fainted.” They knew she was alright, but her father walked over and carried her back to the house anyway; she wouldn’t have to go back out to the field that day. She didn’t faint because of the heat – she fainted on purpose. Whenever she didn’t want to do something, she’d faint. I’m surprised her father let her get away with that – I’m sure he knew. You didn’t pull the wool over his eyes – unless he let you!
The only thing mama liked about cotton was when her father hauled it to the cotton gin. She enjoyed riding with him to the mill, which was located right outside of Siloam, behind the old post office; it was near his brother Joe McKinley’s blacksmith shop. Some days he’d take one wagon full, while other days he’d make two trips. It all depended on how much cotton he had at the time. The cotton was piled high in the back of the wagon. When they arrived at the mill, he’d drive the wagon underneath the chute hanging down and it sucked the cotton out of the wagon. Mama liked to ride on top on the cotton and the men often teased her, saying out loud, “Mr. McKinley, you want us to suck up that little girl back there on the cotton too?”
After the cotton went up the chute it was compressed into a bale of cotton. The price of cotton that day determined if my grandfather sold it. If he didn’t like the price, he threw his bale back in the wagon, bringing it home to store in the barn until he got the price he wanted. Most people sold their cotton the same day, regardless of price, but not my grandfather. He was a shrewd businessman, he knew how to make money – and all that came from only having a 4th grade education.
Granddaddy saved loose cotton for Grandmamma to make their mattresses and quilts with; they were called loose cotton mattresses. She sewed large sheets together to form the size needed to fit the bed and stuffed it firmly with cotton. To finish them off, she sewed all around the sheet leaving an opening in the middle of the mattress. The opening was left so the cotton could be fluffed up every morning after making the bed. That meant every morning she stuck her hands in through that hole to fluff it from the night of sleeping on. She also spread sheets of newspaper between the springs and the mattress to keep the springs from puncturing the mattress and the cold air from the floor The first mattresses had open springs, not enclosed like today; the newspaper kept you warmer in bed.
Once my grandmother made the bed in the morning, you didn’t dare sit on that bed unless you wanted a licking. The bed was for sleeping, the kitchen for eating and you didn’t dare think of not abiding by those rules. Grandmamma’s bed was just as smooth and perfect with that old cotton home-made mattress as compared to ones of today. If you sat anything on it after fluffing, you put a dent in the bed – and everyone knew better than to do that. Years later they changed to tacked cotton mattresses, instead of loose cotton. They were tacked front to back with a stitch keeping the cotton from shifting around. The new mattresses no longer required fluffing.
Grandmamma never had to make home-made mattresses again!