Saturday, March 21, 2015

'Cotton sacks and aching backs are part of the past'

George Buster Singleton
(For decades, local historian and paranormal investigator George “Buster” Singleton published a weekly newspaper column called “Somewhere in Time.” The column below, which was titled “Cotton sacks and aching backs are part of the past,” was originally published in the Oct. 5, 1995 edition of The Monroe Journal in Monroeville, Ala.)

As I have stated many times in these writings, I never get enough of seeing the countryside and the many scenes that await just around the bend of the road.

Just a few days ago, my wife and I headed out for another Saturday afternoon of riding, picnicking and just plain goofing off. As we made our way through some of the farm country, the opening fields of the snow-white cotton bolls brought back many memories.

I shudder to think what would happen if our youth of today, after getting home from school, was given a long cotton sack and told to go out and pick the fluffy white stuff until early darkness. With our modern farm machinery, we given no thought of the endless back-breaking hours that were once involved in gathering a large field of cotton.

Picking looks easy

It looks so easy to see an operator of a large cotton-picking machine sitting up there in an air-conditioned cab, listening to relaxing stereo music, and doing nothing but using a finger or two to touch a lever or perhaps turn the power steering to keep the large machine going in the right direction.

After the large container is filled with gathered cotton, another finger is used to touch a lever and dump all this cotton into another machine that presses it into a large block. This pressed cotton is then picked up by another machine and the human hand never touches it. But, it hasn’t always been that way.

Picture yourself at early sunrise with a long cotton sack in your hands. You are standing at the edge of a large cotton field that looks as though a heavy, snow-white blanket has been stretched across it. Even though you haven’t begun to bend down and begin picking the fluffy white stuff your back has already started to ache.

Rows seem a mile long

The cotton rows seem a mile long; you can hardly see the end of the long rows in the early morning light. You place the strap of the long cotton sack over your shoulder. You can tell beyond a shadow of a doubt, it’s going to be a long hard day. You find yourself wondering if there is any way you might get sick and have the good luck of being sent home. But, you know, too, the chances are very slim that this will happen.

The hired help has already started gathering the white stuff with their fingers. You want to stay near the group as they move along the cotton rows. Listening to the singing and the story telling and laughter among the pickers is the only good thing about being out here.

An old black man on the row next to you smiles and signals that he will pick some of your row as he goes along. You hurry to catch up; the old man is your best friend, you know that “Uncle Tony” would never let you down.

Finally, the long sack becomes filled with the white cotton. You go over to the waiting wagon, where the cotton is weighed and dumped into the wagon bed. You hear the joking and laughter about old “Aunt Cindy” pulling off her shoes and putting them in her cotton sack and forgetting about them. After her cotton is weighed, and it is dumped into the wagon, her shoes are found.

Deducting shoe weight

You remember your father laughing and joking about having to subtract 50 pounds off Aunt Cindy’s total day’s picking for the weight of her shoes. The joking about the shoes goes on all day; Aunt Cindy pretends to be angry, but one can tell she is enjoying all the attention she is getting.

A blowing fox horn sounds from under the tall oaks down at the edge of the field. The wagon has returned from carrying the picked cotton to the cotton house where it will wait until it is carried to the cotton gin.

The returning wagon has brought back the noon meal. Several large pans of hot food and baskets of bread, along with some cool buttermilk and fresh water from a nearby spring is ready to be served.

Tin plates and tin cups are passed out to the pickers. A small boy jockeys for position in the line. Again, that special friend comes to the rescue; you are allowed to go up and get in front of him in line. The joking continues about Aunt Cindy’s shoes. A hush falls over the line as the blessing is said; several “amens” fill the air as serving begins from the several large pans and baskets. And, as the hungry workers laugh and joke among themselves while eating, a small boy thinks of a darling mother who saw to it that this delicious food was prepared as though these people were her own family.

A call for seconds is sounded. “Don’t want to have to carry any of this food back,” shouts my father. “My wife will think you don’t like her cooking; let’s eat it up.” Those who want more file past the large pans and baskets for a second and third time. If one left the shades of the large oaks hungry, it was his own fault.

All days end

Regardless how long, all days come to an end sooner or later. The older members of the group are allowed to ride the loaded wagon homeward as the others follow behind, singing first one song and then another. A tired and weary boy is helped aboard the wagon by his friend.

When the storage barn is reached, the wagon is quickly unloaded and each one receives his or her day’s earning for cotton picked. The joking about Aunt Cindy’s shoes being weighed in the cotton that she has picked begins all over again.

As the cool evening air whispers through the cracks in the walls of the old cotton house, a tired small boys falls into a deep restful sleep on the large pile of soft cotton stored there. A wonderful and darling mother will awaken her youngest son just long enough for him to eat the supper she had prepared and brought out to him. A large hound dog named Jack will end up eating most of the delicious supper.

This same tired and weary boy is allowed to back to sleep there on the large pile of soft cotton with Jack. The hound is there for company and to watch over him. Little does this boy know, until the following morning, that a tired old man has also returned to spend the remaining hours of the night on the large pile of cotton to watch over his sleeping young friend.

Memories, memories, wonderful, wonderful memories. May they dwell within me for always. The poet Longfellow might have said it better:

“This is the place, stand still my steed.
And let me review the scene,
and summoned from the shadowy past
 the forms that once have been.”

(Singleton, the author of the 1991 book “Of Foxfire and Phantom Soldiers,” passed away at the age of 79 on July 19, 2007. A longtime resident of Monroeville, he was born on Dec. 14, 1927 in Marengo County and served as the administrator of the Monroeville National Guard unit from 1964 to 1987. He is buried in Pineville Cemetery in Monroeville. The column above and all of Singleton’s other columns are available to the public through the microfilm records at the Monroe County Public Library in Monroeville. Singleton’s columns are presented here each week for research and scholarship purposes and as part of an effort to keep his work and memory alive.)

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