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Cotton Picking in South Carolina with a
John Deere Model 630 Tractor
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