By Hardy Jackson
“ . . . threads frail as truth and impalpable as equators yet cable-strong to bind for life them who made the cotton to the land their sweat fell on.”
William Faulkner, “The Bear”
As summer ends, I begin watching cotton. Watching the bolls open. Watching the machines pick it. Watching it baled – if you can call those things bales. I probably pay more attention to cotton than most folks – except for the ones who actually raise and sell it. Back when I taught at Jacksonville State University, I tried to get students to understand how that slender thread tied together people in the rural South. But I am not sure most of them understood. Why should they? Even though cotton is still one of our most profitable cash crops, fewer and fewer lives are dictated by it.
Now my folks didn’t grow cotton. But through luck, or perhaps the lack of it, I got to know cotton better than a kid of my circumstances normally did. And in the process, I got to know more than I should have about our cotton culture, even as I witnessed its decline.
Before my Daddy went into politics, he was a school teacher and teacher pay being what it was, it was necessary for Daddy to work through the summer to keep food on the family table. So, he got a job with the government measuring cotton.
The program had its roots back during the Great Depression when, in an effort to control the market and raise prices, the Roosevelt Administration set up an allotment system, under which farmers were told how much acreage they could plant. And to make sure they planted what they were supposed to plant, folks were sent out to measure the field. The whole thing is too complicated to go into here, but sufficient to say the program favored the large landowner over the small, so when the Democrats were voted out, the Republicans came in, tinkered with the rules and kept the system going.
My little piney woods county didn’t have many large farms, so folks trying to make a living with cotton were always in a heap o’ hurt. But every spring, some of them just had to put the seeds in the ground, so there was still enough cotton being grown to measure, and Daddy hired on. Then he enlisted (coerced is a better word) me to help him.
So, it followed that for a few summers, Daddy and I went out at dawn and came back at dusk, five days a week, going from cotton field to cotton field in a WWII surplus Jeep, measuring. Now, of course, I would have rather been playing baseball with my friends. But I got to know cotton, got to know cotton farmers and got to know my Daddy. Looking back, those were the best summers of my life.
And of all the farms we measured, one stands out above the rest.
I recall the day. We pulled up at a small house, sitting on rock pillars, with a tiny porch, slightly at an angle, flowers potted in coffee cans and a single rocking chair. The yard was swept clean. Dogs and chickens co-existed peacefully.
Daddy knocked on the porch post. An elderly man came out. Tall, lean, gray stubble of a beard, overalls and brogans — no socks.
Daddy told him why we were there. He invited us around back to his patch. He was justly proud. The cotton was tall. The middles were clean as a new ground. If there was ever cotton that could realize the farmers dreamed-of a “bail-an-acre” this was it.
Only there wasn’t even an acre. His allotment, the grand total granted him by the federal government, was 2/10th of an acre.
We measured it quickly. And as we turned to leave, I wondered aloud why he bothered with so little.
He smiled and told me, gently, “I’ve got to have something for my mule to do.”
And he motioned over to the animal – neat, solid and graying, like the man.
Looking back, I understand what he meant. Four elements made up the culture of rural Alabama – man, field, crop and animal. A balanced equation. The farmer could not conceive of one without the others.
Which is why they all seemed to disappear together – victims of progress and government planning.
Today, a couple of piles of stone show where the house once stood. The patch is grown up in pines. The farmer is gone. No neighbors recall his name. The mule is gone too. They don’t remember its name either.
It was Betty.
Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.