Saturday, April 2, 2016

George Singleton 'almost' yearned for the time of the old cotton-pickin' days

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 “Yearning for the time of old cotton-pickin’ days” was originally published in the Aug. 29, 1991 edition of The Monroe Journal in Monroeville, Ala.)

When I write and talk about my early life as a country boy and being raised in the country, I mean no disrespect to the youth of today. I am one of those people who know many changes have taken place and many things have ceased to exist. It is not the fault of our youth if they don’t know from firsthand experience the feeling of crawling up and down a long cotton row while dragging an eight-foot cotton sack on a hot sulky afternoon.

We drive our fine, air-conditioned automobiles down our paved highways, look out across the snow-white cotton fields, and think nothing about seeing a mechanical machine (cotton picker) picking the white, fluffy cotton, gathering up to three or four rows with each trip across the field. And, sitting up there in an air-conditioned enclosed cab, the operator listens to the finest stereo music. But take it from me, it hasn’t been like that always.

During cotton-picking time, the day started around 5:30 in the morning. I can see then now – hired cotton pickers slowly making their way over to the wagon, to be carried out to the cotton fields that are snow-white with the opened cotton. The only difference between myself and the hired pickers was that they got paid for what they picked. Money was never mentioned to my brothers and myself; the work was part of living.

Once everyone was seated on the wagon (those who wanted to ride), the large mules slowly headed out toward the field. The mules seemed to know, also, that the day was going to be long and hard. Singing would usually start from within the group on the wagon. Those who walked along behind would join in, or answer to the lyrics being sung. One could always find me huddled up in the wagon bed, trying to figure out some way that I could get sick; I hated picking cotton with a passion.

When the cotton field was reached, the wagon was placed where the picked cotton could be brought to it and weighed. The weight would be written down on a piece of paper under the name of the picker. At the end of the day, these figures would be tallied up and pickers would be paid according to what they had brought to the wagon.

I can see them now, strung out across the white fields, with the long cotton sacks dragging behind them. There were some who carried two long sacks – one on each side. These people would also pick two rows of the white cotton at the same time. And behind them all, a struggling and sweating boy of 12 was doing his very best to try and keep up with the other pickers.

The wagon would leave the field around 10:30 a.m. It would carry the picked cotton to a special room in the barn. Then, after unloading, the wagon would bring the dinner that had been prepared by my mother and my sisters back to the field. Near the edge of the huge cotton field was a cool stream of water, surrounded by several large oak trees. Here, under the cool shade of the large oaks, dinner would be spread. This was the only good time that I knew of that was associated with a day of picking cotton.

The noon hour over, everyone returned to his place and started once again to gather the large, white bolls of cotton, while this same boy of 12 was trying to figure out what he had eaten at the dinner meal that, he hoped, would cause a good stomach ache. But it seemed that this never happened; always, always, the thought came to mind that even if he were successful, a terrible dose of castor oil would be waiting upon his arrival back home. So the only thing left to do was to look to the sky and hope against hope that it would rain. That, too, was very rare.

Most times after the noon meal, the cotton field would break into song. Many of the old tunes sung by those picking the cotton have long passed into oblivion. I won’t say that I didn’t enjoy the singing; many times I would find myself trying to sing along with the others, almost forgetting where I was and what I was doing. And today, as I look back into yesteryear, the old tunes spring forth; every word in detail, as if it had just happened yesterday.

The journey home at the day’s end was a most welcomed time. The thoughts of being around the supper table caused a hungry boy to forget about the long cotton rows that seemed to have no end. Snuggling up in the cotton as the mules and the wagon headed homeward was a much-looked-for time.

But it did not end at the supper table. The highlight of the week was to be allowed to spend Saturday night in the room in the barn where the cotton was stored, awaiting the trip to the cotton gin and the market. Nestled down in the fresh-picked cotton, my friend and I would swap many tales and stories before the Sandman made his call.

The warmth of the fresh cotton on a cool autumn night and the security of your pet dog asleep at your foot exceeded all the comforts that a country boy could hope for. And the snacks of popcorn balls and various other goodies, prepared by a most wonderful mother who seemed to understand all the needs of her baby son, left nothing to be desired.

Just last week, I returned to the old cotton field with the long rows. Nothing is there now except the tall timber that has replaced the cotton. As I reminisced there under the tall oaks, I thought it hadn’t been that bad. I almost wished that I were picking cotton again. Remember, I said “almost.”

(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, graduated from Sweet Water High School, served in the Korean War, moved to Monroe County in 1961 and served as the administrator of the Monroeville National Guard unit from 1964 to 1987. For years, Singleton’s column “Somewhere in Time” appeared in The Monroe Journal, and he wrote a lengthy series of articles about Monroe County that appeared in Alabama Life magazine. 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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