By Tom Poland
My jaunts around the South take me past old haunts, a cotton gin now and then. I’ve seen gins in Salters, Bishopville, and other rural places. They sit idle. A spell back I ventured inside an old gin. Gear wheels, belts and pulleys, ropes, and large vacuum pipes told me it had been a place of din, this cotton gin. Powdery white dust and tufts of cotton told me it was a dusty dry place. Sure enough half a dozen old timey fire extinguishers huddled amid spider webs floured with cotton dust.
My excursions take me past a good many cotton fields too. When I see a cotton field, memories blaze up. First among my memories are the stories Mom told of picking cotton. Away down South on our autumn Sunday drives we couldn’t avoid farm country. It surrounded us and sometimes we passed a field of cotton. Mom paid attention to those fields. Her dad held her and her brothers and sisters out of school to pick cotton. She talked about how picking made her hands hurt. A tinge of resentment colored her words, and I picked something myself. I picked up that mom felt cotton hurt her education. She never got over it best I could tell, though I know too that she and her sister, Evelyn, and others played in big piles of cotton as kids.
Second among my memories is a bale of cotton sitting on a flatbed truck. That truck sat beneath a large oak at Granddad Poland’s farm in the 1950s. I knew he grew cotton but I can’t recall ever seeing one of his fields. Today I see big round bales of cotton but in Granddad’s day burlap and cords held the bales together. If I freed my imagination a tad, the bale looked like a big loaf of light bread, as Granddad put it. “Thelma, get me some light bread.”
Third among my memories … I was traveling a back road late one night. A full moon had turned the land silver and the highway’s center stripe glowed as if lit by a black light. Rounding a sharp curve, moonlight bathed a cotton field with silver light and thousands of cotton puffs glowed with unworldly brilliance. That led to another memory of Mom’s, a more joyous recall. They’d pick cotton on full moon nights and make a party of it with cookies, “pulled candy” (taffy), popcorn, and peanuts.
Fourth among my white, fluffy recollections is a large field of cotton away down South Georgia way, Climax, Georgia, to be specific. A big field blazed up white to my left but dead ahead in the road lay the real attraction: a diamondback rattler, the biggest I’d seen. It stretched across half the road and such was its girth it looked like an oak limb.
Mom picked cotton. Who ginned it? I don’t know. Back home in Lincoln County, Georgia, the Historical Park holds the 1840 Rees Cotton gin. I don’t think Mom’s cotton ended up there. Most likely it went to a gin in Wilkes County, which she lived closer to than the gin down in Lincoln County.
When I see cotton fields and gins my trip reroutes to a distant place called Memory Lane. I think of a young girl in a cotton field wondering what she’s missing at school. I see a Georgia cracker taking his bales to the gin, and dread fills me when I think of rattlers and cotton stalks, though our reptilian fears are without basis for the most part.
And down near Texarkana way, I hear folks sing that when those cotton bolls get rotten they can’t pick very much cotton. I suspect Mom would have been okay with that, though I know, too, that she loved those moonlight nights in those lunar-lit silver fields with cookies and other treats. It was a night of work but a night extravagant in what were some hard, hard times.
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