Category Archives: Cotton Raising

Cotton Picking in South Carolina

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Cotton Picking in South Carolina with a

John Deere Model 630 Tractor

by

Brian Wayne Wells

(As published in the January/February 2008 issue of

Belt Pulley Magazine)

            As noted in a previous article, Deere and Company had, ever since the late 1940s entertained great hopes that their cotton pickers would have the same overnight success that had greeted the introduction of the small combine and/or the introduction of the corn picker into the farm market.  (See the article called “Cotton Picking on the Mississippi Delta” contained in the November/December 2007 issue of Belt Pulley magazine.)

When the small combine was made available to the North American farmer at the end of the Second World War, there had been a revolutionary change in which small grains were harvested.  The small combine entirely replaced the stationary thresher in a period of a very few years.  Similarly, the introduction of the corn picker had quickly replaced the hand picking of corn and the stationary corn shredder on North America farms.

To some degree, the expected revolutionary change did greet the introduction of the mechanical cotton picker.  The cotton picker had swept the state of California by storm.  Although, in 1949, only 12% of the cotton in California was harvested by machine, this figure mushroomed to 35% in 1950; then to 52% in 1952; to 60% in 1953 and up to 67% in 1956.  Cotton growers in California recognized that mechanical picking of cotton cost only about $7.00 per acre, on average, as opposed an average of about $40.00 to have the same acre of cotton picked by hand.  As noted in the above-cited article, however, California’s experience with the cotton picker was not repeating itself in the lower Mississippi River Valley.  Statistics revealed that in 1957, while fully 67% of the cotton grown in California had been picked by machine, only 27% of the cotton of the lower Mississippi Valley was being harvested by machine.

Even more dramatically, cotton farmers in South Carolina appeared to be even more reluctant than the cotton planters of the lower Mississippi River valley to adopt the mechanical method of cotton harvesting.  Only 2% of the cotton raised in South Carolina in 1952 had been picked by machine.  This figure had risen to 8% in 1954.  However, since that time, use of the mechanical cotton picker had actually declined—to 4% in 1955 and 1957.  In last fall’s harvest, 1958, use of the cotton picker had fallen to only 1% of all the cotton grown in South Carolina.  Even those cotton farmers in South Carolina that had employed a mechanical picker in the past, now appeared to be reverting, once more, to hand picking of cotton during the 1958 harvest.

Still, despite the slowness of sales of the cotton picker in South Carolina, Deere and Company remained hopeful that the change to cotton pickers would occur in South Carolina.  Indeed, Deere and Company felt that 1959 might be the year when sales of mechanical cotton pickers “took off.”  The Company rationalized that the decline in sales of cotton pickers in 1958 may well have been the result of the recession that had gripped the United States economy from August of 1957 until April of 1958.  Thus, Deere and Company remained optimistic for the new year.

Cotton pickers continued to be produced in large numbers at the John Deere factory works in Moline, Illinois and the Company continued to send large numbers of the cotton pickers to their regional branch/warehouses in the south including the one  located at 5147 Peachtree Street in the Atlanta suburb of Chamblee, Georgia.  This branch/warehouse served the local dealerships in the southeastern United States including those in the state of Georgia and South Carolina.

The most popular cotton picker being offered by the John Deere Company was the Model 22.  The Model 22 was a single row cotton picker that was designed to be mounted on a narrow front-end—“tricycle”—style “row-crop” tractor.  The Model 22 cotton picker was only mounted on the tractor during harvest season.  The cotton picker could be removed from the tractor at the end of the harvest season.  Thus, the tractor would be free for other farm tasks throughout the rest of the growing season.

As part of the process of mounting the cotton picker, the cotton farmer was required to open up the transmission of the tractor and reverse a gear in the transmission.  This simple procedure would have the effect of allowing the tractor’s forward working speeds and road gear to act in reverse.  Once the cotton picker was mounted on the tractor, the operator would sit on special seat on the cotton picker above the normal tractor operator’s seat and facing the rear of the tractor.  The steering wheel, throttle, clutch and other controls of the tractor were modified and extended to be accessible from the new rearward facing operator’s seat on the cotton picker.  The same wheels that steered the tractor in its normal configuration, now steered the tractor and mounted cotton picker in its new configuration.  However, these wheels were now in the rear of the machine rather than at the front.  The large driving wheels were now in the front of the machine.

As noted in the previous article, the Model 22 cotton picker had been introduced by Deere and Company in the fall of 1956.  (Ibid.)  The Model 22 was designed to fit on any tricycle-style, row-crop version of either the John Deere Model 520, Model 620 or the Model 720 tractor.  The four-plow Model 620 tractor proved to be the most popular tractor of the 20 series.  During the two years of its production, 21,117 Model 620 tractors of the tricycle or row crop design, alone, had been produced and sold.  (Production Log of the John Deere Waterloo Tractor Factory 1929-1972, pp. 43-44.)  As noted previously, the Model 620 became the tractor that was most commonly paired with the Model 22 cotton picker.

Now in the summer of 1958, Deere and Company was introducing the new 30-series tractors which were to replace the 20-series tractors.  By October, 1958, the retooling of the Waterloo plant was complete and the factory was turning out 162.17 tractors of all models (Model 830, Model 730, Model 630 and Model 530 tractors) and styles (tricycle row crop or standard “four wheel” tractors) per day.  However, fully a third, or 31.2%, of all the tractors that were produced at the Waterloo facility were Model 630 tractors of the tricycle or row crop design.  (Ibid.)  Every day an average of 50.65 Model 630 tractors of the tricycle design rolled off the assembly line at the Waterloo plant. (Ibid.)

Although there were substantial cosmetic differences between the 20 series tractors and their corresponding models of the 30 series, the tractors, underneath these cosmetics changes, remained almost identical.  Once again, it was expected by Deere and Company, that the four-plow Model 630 row crop tractor would be the tractor most often sold together with the Model 22 cotton picker.  Accordingly, the Company continued to ship a large number of Model 630 John Deere tractors the cotton raising areas of the southeastern United States.

On Friday, October 3, 1958, two Model 630 tractors bearing the serial numbers 6301691 and 631692 were making their way along the final part of the assembly line in the Waterloo plant.  Both tractors were of the tricycle configuration and had gasoline-powered engines.  (Production Register: The John Deere Waterloo-Built “30”Series Tractors [Two-Cylinder Pub.: Grundy Center, Iowa, 2000] p. 71.)  At the end of the assembly line, the tractors faced their most important test.  The two tractors needed to start and be driven off the assembly line under their own power.  Accordingly, a worker at the end of the assembly line jumped up into the operator’s seat of No. 6301691 and switched on the ignition and stepped down on the starter button with his right foot.  Like magic the two-cylinder 321 cubic inch engine, with a 5½ inch bore and a 6 3/8 inch stroke,  popped a couple of times and came to life.  Giving the engine a little more gasoline by pushing the throttle ahead with his left hand, the worker shifted the tractor into gear and then grabbed the large clutch lever with his right had and eased the lever forward to engage the clutch.  No. 6301691 moved ahead smoothly off the assembly line and directly out of the factory building.  Right behind this tractor on the assembly line, No. 6301692 also passed its “test” and that same day both tractors were loaded up on a railroad flat car to be combined with an Illinois Central Railroad train which was headed east out of Waterloo toward Dubuque, Iowa (1950 pop. 49,671).  Continue reading Cotton Picking in South Carolina

Cotton Farming on the Mississippi Delta

Cotton Growing on the Mississippi Delta

by

Brian Wayne Wells

(As published in the November/December 2007 issue of

Belt Pulley Magazine)

            Though grown only in the southern regions of the United States, no other crop, grown in the United States, has had the impact on the history of the nation as has cotton.  In colonial days, cotton was regarded as involving too much hand labor at all stages of its production to be considered a profitable cash crop.  However, development of the cotton gin, in the 1790s, finally mechanized one stage of the raising and processing of cotton.  The cotton gin provided a rapid process for the removal of the seeds the cotton bolls.  Although Eli Whitney is most often given sole credit for development of the cotton gin, he had had a great deal of help along the way.  In 1788, Joseph Eve developed a two-roller device to remove the seed from Sea Island cotton.  Sea Island cotton derived its name from the fact that it was originally grown on the islands of the Caribbean.  Sea Island cotton is a beautiful “long staple” cotton with fibers which vary from 1 ¼ inches to 1 9/16 inches in length.  It is used for making fine cotton fabrics.  However, since this “long staple” cotton could only be successfully cultivated on the 30 or 40 mile stretch of coast in South Carolina around Hilton Head, cotton planters over the rest of the state of South Carolina turned to growing “short staple” cotton, particularly Upland cotton.      However, Upland cotton, with fibers measuring from 7/8 of an inch to 1-5/16 inches in length, was much harder to gin.  The Eve gin did not work on Upland cotton.  However, some un-named African slaves in South Carolina came up with a comb that greatly improved the hand process of removing the seeds from Upland cotton.  Hodgen Holmes also developed a saw-tooth designed ginning device to clean Upland cotton.  Eventually in 1793, Eli Whitney introduced his cotton gin which worked successful in Upland cotton.

The mechanization of ginning Upland cotton created a revolution.  Whereas, a single person working by hand, all day, could tear the seeds out of about two pounds of Upland cotton, that same person operating a small gin could clean 50 pounds of Upland cotton in an average day.  Replace the hand crank on the gin with water power or animal power, and the production capacity of the gin was increased to 500 pounds in an average day.

Suddenly, cotton became very profitable for planters all across the South Carolina and Georgia.  Within four years after he completed development of his power gin, Eli Whitney had 30 copies of his gin working in the state of Georgia.  Whereas, in 1790 only 1,567,000 pounds of cotton were raised in the whole of the United States, by 1795, just five short years later, 8,358,500 pounds of cotton were raised and that was just beginning.  By 1800 cotton production reached 36,572,500 pounds, then 73,145,000 pounds in 1805 and 104,493,000 pounds in 1815.

Westward expansion of the United States brought settlers to new Mississippi Territory which had been formed in 1798 from lands stretching from Georgia’s western border to the banks of the Mississippi River.  Settlers flowed down the “Natchez Trace,” a trail through the woods starting in Nashville, Tennessee and ending it the small Mississippi River port town of Natchez.  Although, part of the overall “westward migration” across the North American continent,  the settlement of the Mississippi Territory actually began in Natchez on the west side of the Territory and spread east and north within the Territory.  The settlement became a torrent and by 1817 the Mississippi Territory was divided almost in half and the western portion of the Territory entered the union as the State of Mississippi.  The eastern half soon followed in 1819, entering the union as the State of Alabama.

Settlers coming to Natchez were craving more land on which to plant large amounts of cotton.  To the north of Natchez, Mississippi, the settlers found that the topography of the new state changed a great deal.  The southern piney woods which seemed to cover the entire rest of the state of Mississippi, gave way to the alluvial plains of the northwestern part of the state.  This area, called the Mississippi Delta, was so flat and treeless that a person could see for miles in all direction.  The Mississippi Delta covers the entire northwestern part of the current state of Mississippi—picturesquely described as extending “from the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis, Tennessee to Catfish Row in Vicksburg, Mississippi.”

On the Mississippi Delta, early cotton planters found everything they needed for growing cotton on a large scale—everything, that is, except for the large amounts of labor.  They needed large amounts of labor for the planting, chopping, cultivation and picking of the cotton.  Although the invention of the cotton gin had brought about the mechanization of the processing of cotton, neither the cotton gin nor any other modern invention had done a thing to mechanize these aspects of the cotton plantation.  To fill this need for labor the cotton planters turned to a vast expansion of the institution of slavery.

This large scale expansion of slavery depended on the sale and exportation of human beings on the coasts of Africa and their importation and re-sale in the United States.  Planters on the Mississippi Delta used slave labor to cultivate wide areas of the Mississippi Delta.  There was another explosion in the production of cotton in the 1830s as cotton plantations sprang up all across the southern United States.  Nationwide, cotton production mushroomed from 365,726,000 pounds in 1830 to 530,355,500 pounds in 1835, then to 673,116,000 pounds in 1840 and finally to 902,111,500 pounds in 1845.  The boom in cotton production was also accompanied by a large scale increase in the enslaved population of the United States.  In many of the counties of the Mississippi Delta the number of African slaves out-numbered the free whites.

Slavery create wealth for the planters, but the institution of slavery had a catastrophic effect on the relations between the individual states of the United States and lead directly to the War Between the States from 1860 through 1865.  Following the Civil War, the legacy of slavery continued to have a corrosive effect on the social relations between the white and black Americans in the north as well as in the south.  Just as, before the war, some counties of the Mississippi Delta contained more black than white people.  Taken as a whole, the Mississippi Delta contained nearly as many black citizens as white citizens.  In the post-war era, the plantation/slave labor system of cotton raising, was replaced plantation/share cropper system.  The share cropper system was also exploitative of the free black families living on the Mississippi Delta.  Rather than being bound to a plantation by the laws protecting slavery, the black families were bound to the plantation by economic ties, including a debt for living supplies at the local general store which may be owned by the same plantation owner for whom they sharecropped.

The sharecroppers and their families supplied labor for working the fields of the plantation on a year-around basis.  However, in the busy times of cotton chopping and cotton picking, even more help was needed.  Thus, there arose a large group of persons lived on the Delta, who lived outside the sharecropping system and received their income only for this part-time employment as a farm laborer in the spring, summer and fall.  Both inside and outside the sharecropping system, life was full of poverty, disappointed ambitions and racism.  As a nostrum, for these problems, many workers sought comfort in the local “juke joint.”  A juke joint served intoxicating drinks.  The choice of drink was usually limited to whatever “moonshine” from whatever local distillery happened to be available at the time.   Drinks were served in pint or quart-sized fruit jars.  Accommodations of the juke joint were rustic and the typical juke joint was hidden away in some remote and inaccessible location in the most rural areas of the Delta.  Being located where they were, in a rural areas, the juke joint sought to avoid attention of local racial hate groups and local law enforcement.  Fights, knifings and shooting were not unknown in juke joints and were a mere reflection of the feeling of hopelessness that permiated the atmosphere of the Delta.

However, in this environment of seeming absolute despair something beautiful arose.  The juke joint became the birth place of a new form of music called “Blues Music” or the specifically that variant of the blues called the “Delta Blues.”  (A typical juke joint complete with blues music and a fight is portrayed in the 1985 movie The Color Purple.)  Only later, did blues music make it way north, first to Memphis, Tennessee, where W. C. Handy began transcribing, writing and orchestrating the Delta Blues.  (For this work, W.C.Handy became known as the Father of the Blues.)  Later, blues music made its way north to Chicago, Illinois; Detroit Michigan and Harlem in New York City.  These communities also became the favored destinations for the tide of of Afro-Americans seeking a better living than they had on the Mississippi Delta in the years following World War I.

Blues music of has long been the music of life in Memphis and the juke joints of the rural Mid=South region around Memphis.
Blues music of has long been the music of life in Memphis and the juke joints of the rural Mid=South region around Memphis.

There is considerable debate over whether the mechanization of cotton harvesting and the resultant loss of jobs on the Mississippi Delta forced Afro-Americans to move out of the Delta, or whether the reverse was true—that the huge out-migration of Afro-Americans from the Delta to northern cities caused the agricultural industry to seek a mechanical means of harvesting cotton.  (See the September 2001 article called “Technological Unemployment in Agriculture: Cotton Harvest Mechanization in the U.S.” written by Craig Heinicke and Wayne Grove located on the Internet.)  Whatever the truth of this chicken or egg problem, development of the cotton picker in the post-World Ward II period introduced vast changes in the demand for farm labor in Mississippi.  Early in the 1950s, it was the threat of these changes that created a real fear in some quarters of the South.  Worrying about the social upheaval that might be incurred by the introduction and widespread use of the cotton picker in the South, the Jackson (Miss.) Daily News editorialized that the cotton picker “should be run out of the cotton field and sunk in the Mississippi River.”

Several different cotton harvester designs were being used experimentally, in the 1930s.  However, only two designs were to successfully mass produced—the cotton stripper design and the spindle-type cotton picker design.  The cotton stripper combed the entire cotton plant with brushes to remove the cotton bolls.  Thus, the cotton stripper basically destroyed the cotton plant as it harvested the cotton bolls.   Therefore, the cotton stripper would make only one pass over the cotton field harvesting the cotton.  The spindle-type cotton picker on the other hand, removed the cotton bolls while leaving the unopened bolls unharmed. These unopened bolls would be allowed additional time on the cotton plant to mature and open for harvesting at a later date.  The cotton stripper has become popular in the western end of the cotton belt—Oklahoma, Kansas and west Texas—where growing season was too short to allow for any more than a single pass over the cotton field.

Among all the competing designs for a spindle-type cotton picker, three patented designs drew the most attention.  The first was the Price-Campbell spindle-type design.  The second was the spindle-type cotton picker designed by brothers, James Daniel Rust and Mack Donald Rust.  Thirdly, there was the spindle-type cotton picker patented by Hiram M. Berry of Greenville, Mississippi.

Since 1880 Angus Campbell of Chicago, Illinois had been working on a spindle-type cotton picker.  In 1912, Campbell joined with Theodore H. Price to form the Price-Campbell Cotton Picker Corporation.  In the mid-1930s, the International Harvester Company purchased the Price-Campbell patents.  In 1940, Chief Engineer for the International Harvester Company changed the Price-Campbell cotton picker from a pull-type machine to a cotton picker which mounted on the rear end of a row-crop tractor.  The tractor and mounted picker was designed to move across the cotton field in reverse while picking cotton.  In 1942, the International Harvester Company successfully tested this spindle-type cotton picker.  Because of the wartime economic restrictions, the International Harvester Company could not get the cotton picker into production.  Finally, in 1949, the Company completed its new facility on the north side of Memphis, Tennessee and began mass production of the cotton picker.

Meanwhile, the Rust brothers who had been born in Texas moved to Memphis, Tennessee in the mid-1930s and began work on their own spindle-type cotton picker design.  All spindle-type cotton pickers removed cotton from the hulls of the cotton plant by snagging the cotton fibers of the boll with rotating spindles.  The rotating spindles on the Price-Campbell design and the Hiram M. Berry design were barbed spindles.  The barbs on these spindles snagged the cotton fibers.  The Rust brothers cotton picker featured smooth spindles which were slightly moistened as they rotated.  The moist spindles snagged the cotton bolls as effectively as the barbs.  In 1936, the Rust cotton picker was successfully demonstrated at a public exhibition at the Delta Experiment Station near Leland, Mississippi.  After the successful exhibition of their cotton picker the Rust brothers continued to make improvements to their cotton picker all through the Second World War.  In 1949, the Rust brothers signed an agreement with the Allis Chalmers Manufacturing Company to allow Allis Chalmers to mass produce a two-row cotton picker based on the Rust patents.  The manufacturer’s suggested retail price was  $17,500 for this two-row cotton picker.

Meanwhile, the John Deere Company had been working on various cotton stripper and cotton picker designs since the 1920s.  In 1931, the Company suspended all work on cotton harvesting equipment.  However in 1944, the company purchased the Hiram M. Berry patents and soon began manufacturing the single-row Model No. 1 cotton picker which could be mounted on any of the full-sized John Deere row crop tractors.  In 1951-1952, the John Deere Company built a warehouse/branch house at     2095 Lantham Avenue in northern Memphis, Tennessee (1950 pop. 400,000), specifically to aid in the distribution of the new cotton picker and the other John Deere tractors and farm equipment to all the local John Deere dealerships in Mid-South area—western Tennessee, eastern Arkansas and northern Mississippi.  In the fall of 1956, the John Deere Company announced that the Model No. 1 mounted cotton picker would be replaced with the new improved version, Model No. 22 cotton picker for the 1957 season.

Also in the summer of 1956, Deere and Company announced a new line of tractors for the 1957 season—the 20 series tractors.  These new 20 series tractors were, on average, 20% more powerful than their predecessors.  For an example, when the new Model 620 row crop tractor was tested at the University of Nebraska on October 10-15, 1956, the new tractor was shown to deliver a maximum of 48.68 horsepower (hp.) to the belt pulley and 44.16 hp. to the drawbar.  This compared with the 41.57 hp. to the belt and the 36.94 hp. to the drawbar of its predecessor—the John Deere Model 60 row crop tractor.  With this increase in horsepower, the Model 620 was advertised as a full four-plow tractor.  The suggested retail price of the basic Model 620 tractor without any optional equipment was $2,640.00 Continue reading Cotton Farming on the Mississippi Delta