By Otis Griffin
What, you say? Why cotton chopping, that’s what, gone forever. There are only a few that can tell you about one of the greatest Southern traditions, that is only found in history books. Maybe some stories at the old country store around the pot-belly stove are relived, or possibly remembered on the front store bench.
This was a way for us to earn money growing up. See, I said earn money, as they make money up North, and we had to work down here to earn it. There is a difference. Raising cotton was another skill that our smart Southern farmers had using our God given earth to supply everyone in the world of their needs. Some folks think denim comes from Sears and Wal-Mart?
Cotton chopping took training, technology, and a feel for the “hoe”, a strong back, to get it done. For you in bewilderment, you don’t actually chop down the cotton, but thin it out, measuring from stand to stand by a hoe’s width, and clean out grass around the cotton stalks. A stand is three stalks of cotton. Simple.
The good part, you earned two dollars a day, for twelve hours from six a.m. to six p.m., with an hour for dinner. A cash transaction at six p. m. and the water was free!
The water was a big deal and another science to behold. Gallon jugs were filled with ice water in the morning, wrapped in to’ sacks with baling wire tied around the jugs real tight, and put in dirt holes under shade trees to stay cool at the end of the rows. Yeah right, especially when it was one hundred and ten degrees in the shade. The only time you could get a drink was at the turn around at the end of the row. Do you ’member?
Mr. Solon Woodard, “Rabbit’s” Daddy, had about two hundred fifty acres of cotton that was chopped every year, usually twice ’til “laid by”. Rabbit had two older brothers, Carlton and Richard, that were overseers. They did a masterful job keeping everyone working. They also furnished and sharpened the goose necks before six a.m., and then again at dinner time, (noon) while the hands were nourishing. I’ll bet some have forgotten, but some drivers from Memphis had old dilapidated former school buses to transport families, and anyone that wanted to earn a few dollars chopping. Usually twenty five hands or so, as they were called, would make the back breaking trip.
The driver got a quarter from each ‘hand’ for gas, when they were paid at six p.m. as they boarded the bus returning home. The cash transaction did not require a lot of bookkeeping. (The Daddy always got all the money at “PAYOFF”, not the kids).
You are wondering how much cotton did you chop a day? Well, of course, depending on the amount of grass in the field, you shot for an acre, at least. Sound like fun?
The best part of the day was edging to quitting time. I really don’t know if I can explain this feeling or not, maybe you just had to have lived it. Around five o’clock from what sounded like ‘way off yonder’, you would hear one of the hands commence a little humming. In a few minutes, several more hands though scattered all over the field would blend in. First there, then over here, then over there, well, you get the idea, ’til everyone was in unison.
Then, all of a sudden, the singing would start, and let me tell you, it was the most beautiful singing that I have ever heard in my life. You talk about singing spirituals, there ain’t nothing like it. It was so pretty it would make a bull dog hug a hound! The best description is like a freight train coming ’til it’s real loud, right on you, goes by, and you hear it in the distance slowly fading. Then the singing would peacefully die down, and tail off ’cause it was “QUITTIN’ TIME’. Made “nuther un”. End of the day!
Reliving this makes the hair stand up on my neck, and chills ease down my back. Thank God, I got to experience another beautiful Southern treasure. As you close your eyes, vision a big field of hands in the hot summer, chopping cotton, and you still hear the blessed singing. Well, the chopping is gone, replaced by chemicals and mechanization, but the memories still remain. If You Love the South, Say…GLORY!
By Otis Griffin