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

Besides the 20% increase in power, another of the major selling points that John Deere expected to emphasize was the new “live” hydraulic system.  The live hydraulic system was independent of the power train and transmission.  This meant that when the operator pulled back on the large clutch lever located on the right side of the operator platform to disengage the clutch, the hydraulics would continue to operate.  This new hydraulic system also contained two additional new features—the Load and Depth Control feature and a new Custom Power Trol feature.  When the tractor was doing field tillage, the new Load and Depth Control system would automatically sense when more or less weight was needed on the rear wheels to avoid slippage.  If less weight was needed, the hydraulic system would slightly raise the tillage implement to allow the tractor to proceed at normal speed in the tilling operation.  When the normal speed was again achieved, the hydraulic system would automatically lower the implement to the pre-set level.

The hydraulic system on the new 620 was a dual hydraulic system.  The controls for the dual hydraulic system on the new Model 620 consisted on two levers on the right side of the operator’s seat.  The outer most of the two levers controlled the hydraulic rock shaft which raised the cultivator when it was attached.  The inner most lever next to the seat, was the Custom Power Trol control lever.  Power Trol was the name that the John Deere Company gave to the remote hydraulic system for raising and lowering pull-type trailing tillage implements.  Formerly, when the Model 60 reached the end of the row or crossed a grass waterway in the field, the operator would raise the tillage implement by pulling back on the Power Trol lever.  Then, when the tractor operator sought to lower the tillage implement with the lever on the right side of his seat he would push forward on the Power Trol lever, but would have to guess at the correct depth level.  The Custom Power Trol now available on the new John Deere Model 620 tractor had hand knobs on a quadrant on the hydraulic control lever.  The tractor operator could pre-set these hand knobs which would act as a stop point on the quadrant.  This would allow the tractor operator raise the tillage implement by pulling back on the hydraulic lever and be able to  lower the implement again to the same depth simply by pushing the lever forward to the point where the hand-knob stop was located on the quadrant.  The hand-knob stop actually prohibited any further movement of the lever forward on the quadrant.  Thus, the tractor operator could be assured that the tillage implement had returned to the exact same depth in the soil as previously set.

Power Trol was the hydraulic system that was to be used for trailing type tillage equipment fitted with hydraulics.  However, since the early 1950s, the integral hitching of tillage implements was being introduced to the farming public.  Although various tractor manufacturers had tried other types of integral hitch systems, by 1957, the three-point hitch system was rapidly becoming the standard to which all tractor manufacturers were turning.  Thus, the John Deere Company, in 1953, had introduced an optional Model 800 three-point hitch attachment for use on the either the Model 70, Model 60 or Model 50 row crop tractors.  Now for 1957, the Company introduced the new, improved Model 801 three-point hitch for the 20 series tractors, including the Model 620.  This new three-point hitch featured more flexibility and convenience than the old Model 800 three-point hitch.

Another improvement of the 20 Series tractors over their predecessors was the optional “live” or “independent” power take-off (PTO) which was available on the 20-series tractors.  Although this was an option, (adding $125.00 to the suggested retail price of the Model 620), live power was such a popular option that it might as well have been standard equipment.  Like live hydraulics, “live” PTO operated while the transmission clutch was disengaged.  This feature was a real advantage when the tractor was powering implements, like combines or cotton pickers in the field.  In heavy crop areas, the live power feature would allow the tractor operator to stop all forward travel of the tractor and implement without stopping the operation of the power implement.  In this way, heavy crops would be less likely to clog the harvesting equipment.  On the Model 60 John Deere tractor, the power take-off had not been independent of the drive train.  The power take-off on the Model 60 was disengaged together with the entire drive train when the clutch lever was pulled back.

Like all the major national farm equipment manufacturers of North America, the John Deere Company had 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.  When the small combine had finally been 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 as the small combine did away with the stationary thresher in a period of a very few years.  Similarly the introduction of the corn picker had done away with the hand picking of corn and the stationary corn shredder in short order.  Indeed the introduction of the cotton picker in California had followed this trend.  The cotton picker had swept the state by fire 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; and to 60% in 1953.  Last year, in 1956, 67% of all cotton raised in California was picked by machine.  However, California’s experience with the cotton picker was not repeating itself in the lower Mississippi River Valley.  Statistics revealed that even now, a full eight years after the introduction of the cotton picker into the farm machinery market, still only 27% of the cotton of the lower Mississippi Valley was being harvested by machine.  Planters of the South appeared to be hanging onto their old way of hiring workers to hand pick the cotton as opposed to harvesting their cotton crop by machine despite the proven cost efficiency and savings that machine harvesting of the cotton could bring them.

Still, despite the slowness of sales of the cotton picker in the South, the John Deere Company remained hopeful that the change to cotton pickers would occur in the cotton belt of the South.  After all, even though, only 27% of the 1956 cotton crop had been harvested by machine, this figure actually represented an increase over the previous two years.  In 1954, this figure was only 15% and in 1955, the figure had been 25%.  To the John Deere Company this upward trend represented slow steady progress.  The company expected that another increase in the percentage of cotton harvested by machine would occur in 1957.  Thus, 1957 might be a very good year for selling more cotton pickers in the lower Mississippi River Valley.  This might be especially true, given the fact that the particular cotton picker being offered by the John Deere Company, in 1957, was the new and improved Model 22.  Accordingly, the Company sent a good number of Model 22 cotton pickers to their Lantham Avenue warehouse/branch house in Memphis Tennessee, anticipating that all those local dealers served by the Memphis branch house; across the tri-state area would soon be requesting numbers the new cotton pickers for use in the 1957 harvest season.

Accompanying these Model 22 cotton pickers south to the Memphis branch house were a good number of new 20 Series John Deere row crop tractors, which were expected to be sold together with these cotton pickers.  Most common among these row crop tractors inventoried at the Memphis branch house for this purpose, was the new Model 620.  One of these Model 620 tractors bore the serial number 6210752.  Number 6210752 had rolled off the assembly line in Waterloo, Iowa, (1950 pop. 65,198) on April 22, 1957.  The same day the tractor was loaded onto a railroad car and attached to an Illinois Central Railroad train which was headed east out of Waterloo headed to Dubuque, Iowa (1950 pop. 49,671).  No. 6210752 was fitted with the optional Roll-O-Matic front end, power steering, an optional electric fuel gauge, the optional Float-Ride operator’s seat, the hydraulically controlled rockshaft, a “live” dual hydraulic system and a “live” power take-off shaft.

From Dubuque, the train bearing No. 6210752 crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois.  Then, continuing on the Illinois Central tracks south east to Decatur, Illinois (1950 pop. 66,269), the train with the flat car bearing No. 6210752 picked up the fabled route extended from Chicago to New Orleans.  Along this route ran traveled the passenger train which is called “The City of New Orleans.”  (This Illinois Central route is the was most widely popularized by the 1970 song called “Ridin’ on the City of New Orleans” written by Steve Goodman.)

Once the flat car bearing No. 6210752 was parked safely on the railroad spur next the John Deere Company Lantham Avenue branch house facility in Memphis, No. 6210752 was unloaded from the railroad car and parked on the inventory lot of branch house to await an order from one of the many local dealerships served by the Memphis branch house.  The suggest retail price for No. 6210752 with all its optional equipment was $3274.00.

Meanwhile, during that same spring, a green 1953 Chevrolet with a white top was traveling north toward Memphis on U.S. Route 61 up from Coahoma County on the Mississippi Delta.  A particular planter and his wife were actually on their annual business excursion to Memphis to sell their 1956 cotton crop.  The crop had been harvested on their small plantation just outside the small settlement of Lyon, Mississippi (1950 pop. 396), the previous fall.  At the same time it had been ginned and baled up into 500 pound bales.  Then it had been transported by truck to the warehouses in Greenville, Mississippi (1950 pop. 29,936).  The cotton bales been sitting in the warehouses in Greenville all tagged and identified, just waiting on this trip to Memphis when the sale of the entire crop would be consummated.

In the years since their children had become adults and moved off the plantation, this traditional annual business outing had become more of a vacation for the two of them.  They had reserved a room at the Peabody Hotel for a couple of nights.  After arriving at the hotel, they checked into their room and had their car parked in the garage at the hotel.  They then took the opportunity to walk to one of their favorite restaurants—the Rendezvous, located in the basement of the building at 52 South Second Street.  The main entrance to this famous barbeque restaurant is actually located in the alley behind the building.  (Founded in 1948, the Rendezvous restaurant still exists in the same location.)  They enjoyed the famous “Memphis-style” dry barbeque of the restaurant.  Completely oblivious to them was the fact that two blocks behind the Peabody Hotel was the famous Beale Street where W.C. Handy had popularized the Delta Blues for the nation.  (Although run-down and dilapidated for most of its life, Beale Street under went a rebuilding and face lifting as part of the Black Renaissance of the 1980s and today Beale Street is a restored historic district and a major tourist site of Memphis.)

Tamer than in its" wild" past, Beale Street is now a major tourist destination in Memphi, Tennessee, which is alive with Blues music all night long just as it was during its colorful past.
Tamer than in its” wild” past, Beale Street is now a major tourist destination in Memphi, Tennessee, which is alive with Blues music all night long just as it was during its colorful past.

The next morning they were scheduled to see their cotton merchant.  Following an early breakfast at one of the restaurant’s in the ground floor of the Peabody the next morning, they walked out the front door of the Peabody, turned left and walked three (3) short blocks west along Union Avenue to the corner of Union Avenue and Front Street to where the Cotton Exchange was located.  The Cotton Exchange was closed to all but their own merchant/members.  Our Lyon town planter and his wife, along with the rest of the general public, could only look through the revolving door of the Exchange to the cotton merchants making deals on the floor of the Exchange.  (In the early spring of 2006, the state-of-the-art Cotton Exchange Museum located in the Cotton Exchange Building was opened to the public.  At last the general public can finally enter the Cotton Exchange Building, though the trading floor is still off limits.  The Museum has become a very popular tourist site).

DSC07309
An example of the signs of the various cotton buyers and cotton “graders,” whose offices used to line Union Street in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, near the old Cotton Exchange. These signs are now part of the exhibits of the Memphis Cotton Museum now located on the floor of the old Cotton Exchange.

Ever since its inception in 1878, the Memphis Cotton Exchange has operated only as a “spot” market.  The buying and selling of cotton at the Memphis Cotton Exchange was limited to cotton that already existed.  There was no buying and selling of “futures” in cotton as there was in the New York and New Orleans cotton markets.  In 1878, this provision was made because the founders felt that the dealing in cotton futures invited stock manipulation or “rings” which would, artificially, control the price of cotton.  The founders of the Memphis Cotton Exchange wanted to deal only with the cotton as a “real” product “held in hand” as it were, rather than dealing with a questionable product in the abstract.

Cotton buyers on the floor of the Memphis Cotton Exchange looking up at the prices of various cotton markets listed on the wall over their heads.
Cotton buyers on the floor of the Memphis Cotton Exchange looking up at the prices of various cotton markets listed on the wall over their heads.

A variation of this same desire for concrete products had led the framers of the Constitution of the State of Mississippi to include in that state constitution a prohibition against the selling of bonds or other forms of deficit for the purposes of building of roads and other public projects. Financing these public projects was to be financed on a “pay as you go basis” with no public indebtedness.  Nearly all other state governments were allowed to incur debt to allow the road construction or public project to be completed and paid for over time.  Our Lyon town planter shared in this dislike of deficit financing.  He did not like the idea of paying taxes to cover the mere “interest” on a public debt.  He knew that in his own business operation, incurring debt was a necessary evil, but he hoped to get to the position some day where he would pay cash for all his purchases.  Besides the financial issues involved in cotton speculation, he felt a religious objection to gambling.  Speculation in the future prices of cotton seemed to be a uncomfortably close to gambling.  Accordingly, he and many of his neighbors preferred to trade only on the Memphis Cotton Exchange rather than the cotton markets in New York or New Orleans, because both of the latter two exchanges dealt in cotton futures.

Prices on the overhead blackboards on the wall in the Memphis Cotton Exchange. Prices are adjusted being adjusted by a worker of the Cotton Exchange. The future dates listed on the blackboard are for delivery of currently held cotton only. There was no "futures market" operating in the Memphis Cotton Exchange during the existence of the Exchange.
Prices on the overhead blackboards on the wall in the Memphis Cotton Exchange. Prices are being adjusted by a worker of the Cotton Exchange. The future dates listed on the blackboard are for delivery of currently held cotton only. There was no “futures market” for cotton still in the fields operating in the Memphis Cotton Exchange during the existence of the Exchange.

There was definitely nothing abstract about his 1956 cotton crop, it was concrete, all right, and definitely “in hand.”  Since last fall, the cotton bales embodying the whole of his 1956 cotton harvest had been stored in a warehouse in Greenville, Mississippi.  Our Lyon town planter had not sold the cotton at the end of the harvest last fall.  He had held onto the cotton in hopes of getting a better price.  Now here he was with his wife in Memphis trying to get that better price.

Telephone booths under the black boards in the Memphis Cotton Exchange connected cotton traders on the floor of the Exchange with cotton markets in London and around the world to allow the Memphis traders to get the best price for their clients' cotton.
Telephone booths under the black boards in the Memphis Cotton Exchange connected cotton traders on the floor of the Exchange with cotton markets in London and around the world to allow the Memphis traders to get the best price for their clients’ cotton.

Two blocks on either side of the Cotton Exchange up and down Front Street were street level office fronts of many individual cotton merchants and classing offices.  These cotton merchants were members of the Cotton Exchange who could enter the trading floor of the Cotton Exchange.  They made their living by representing buyers and/or sellers of cotton on the trading floor.   Consequently, our Lyon town planter and his wife turned at the corner at Front Street and walked north to the office of the cotton merchant they had used for years to sell their cotton.

Cotton traders take a break in the bidding on the floor of the Memphis Cotton Exchange to engage in pleasantries.
Cotton traders take a break in the bidding on the floor of the Memphis Cotton Exchange to engage in pleasantries.

A few doors down from the cotton merchant was a “classing” office.  This was a separate independent business that specialized in the testing and classifying of cotton to be sold by the cotton merchant.  Since the cotton merchant was expected to sell cotton that he rarely, if ever, saw himself, he needed good information as to the condition of the cotton.  Accordingly, the cotton merchant relied on the classing office for this information.  The classing office made a determination about the condition of the cotton based on representative samples collected from the cotton bales.  Weeks before, the staff at the Greenville warehouse, where our Lyon town planter’s cotton was being stored, had collected representative samples of cotton from his bales stored in the warehouse.  The staff then mailed the samples the particular Front Street classing office designated by our Lyon town planter.  These representative samples of cotton were inspected for the amount of trash they contained, for the length of the fiber and for color.  The actual person who inspected the cotton samples was highly skilled and could identify a great deal about the cotton just by looking at the sample.  It took years of apprenticeship to become a full-fledged inspector of cotton.  Color was a very important part of the classification process.  In order to accurately determine the actual color of the cotton, the light in the classing office had to be uniform with all the other classing offices.  Thus, classing offices were fitted with north facing skylights to provide a uniform type of natural light so that the classification of all classing offices would be done under the same type of light.

Color told the inspector just how soon the cotton had been picked.  When the ripe bolls first burst open to expose the cotton—the cotton was as white as it would ever be.  Over the days that followed, the cotton would begin to take on “reddish” hue.  This hue was visible only to the trained inspector.  The darker the red hue of the cotton, the longer the cotton had been left in the field before it was picked.  “Red cotton” would not accept dyes well and, therefore, if the red color was pronounced enough, the grade of the cotton would be reduced and the planter would receive less money for his cotton.  The classification that was most sought by the planter was “middling or better.”  When our Lyon town planter and his wife entered the door of the office of his cotton merchant, the cotton merchant already had the report from the classing office on hand in a file in his office.

The cotton merchant reported happily that the samples had shown very little trash.  “They ought to”, replied our Lyon town planter, “its all hand picked cotton.”  Hand picking required labor cost of about $40.00 per bale, but this is where hand picking was to pay off over machine picking.  Machine picking might be as cheap as $7.50 per bale, but inevitably resulted in more trash in the cotton and this would lower price for the cotton picked.  The classing report also noted that the cotton was of not red cotton and the fibers were long and of a uniform length and strength.  Thus, the class of the cotton was middling or better.  Although the price of cotton had been in decline over the last few years, the cotton merchant indicated that the class of the cotton plus a recent upturn in the price since the first of April, all indicated that our Lyon town planter might do better than expected in selling his cotton at this particular time.  Accordingly, our Lyon town planter and his wife signed an authorization for the cotton merchant to sell the cotton at the best price he could obtain on the trading floor.  Then, he and his wife left the merchant’s office to go back to the hotel lobby of the Peabody.  There, they gathered near the elevator to witness the traditional daily ritual of the Peabody Duck March.  Every morning at 11 AM a bell hop at the hotel would ride the elevator to the roof of the Peabody and retrieve the famous Peabody ducks from their quarters and bring them down the elevator to the lobby where they would walk (march) across the lobby on a special red carpet used just for the ritual.  The ducks would follow the red carpet past the crowd of spectators gathered for the ritual, climb a small series of steps and glide into the large fountain located in the center of the hotel lobby.  There the ducks would spend the day swimming around the large pool of the fountain until at 5 PM the bell hop would round up the ducks for another red carpet march to the elevator and their trip back up to the roof.  Observing the Duck March was part of the annual ritual of their stay at the Peabody.  Following the Duck March, our Lyon town planter and his wife had dinner and spent the rest of the day shopping in the stores in downtown Memphis.

Late in the afternoon, the cotton merchant called the Peabody and left a message at the front desk for our Lyon town planter.  Our Lyon town planter had received 33.9 cents a pound for his cotton.  It was not a great price, but it was a better price than our Lyon town planter might have received even as little as a month prior.  The cotton was sold to a buyer for a textile mill in England.  Next morning, our Lyon town planter and his wife would visit the cotton merchant to sign papers finalizing the sale and then they would check out of the hotel and head back home to Coahoma County.  Winter was slow in leaving in the spring of 1957.  The cold wet weather had already delayed planting of the 1957 cotton crop.  However, he hoped that field work could finally begin as soon as he got home.

Our Lyon town planter had been toying with the idea of purchasing a new cotton picker from his local John Deere dealer—Wade Hardware in Clarksdale, Mississippi.  Clarksdale was the county seat of Coahoma County.  He was still thinking about the cotton picker as he drove the Chevy down Highway 61 toward home.  The price he had received was not bad as compared with the price of cotton over the last year.  However, it was far from a price that suggested that it would be a rational business suggestion to purchase a cotton harvester, at a cost of around $17,000.  That amount of money for a machine which would be used only one time a season and stored for the remainder of the year.

Furthermore, the price of cotton over the last few years did not bode well for the future of raising cotton, such that he could economically support a cotton picker in his business.  Cotton planters were suffering as victims of their own success.  Fertilizers, and insecticides had greatly increased the cotton planters yield per acre of cotton.  In the late 1930s the average nation-wide annual cotton yields was generally just above 200 pounds per bushel.  During the Second World War, yields were consistently above 250 pounds per acre.  In the post-war era the average nationwide yield continued to set new all time records—reaching 311.3 pounds on average per acre for the year 1948 and reaching 417.0 pounds per acre in 1955.

Since at the end of the Korean War in 1953, government purchasing of cotton for the military had dropped and surplus inventories of cotton had soared.  The price of cotton had fallen in response to the growing inventory.  As a result the amount of acreage planted to cotton in the United States had been in decline.  Thirty years earlier, in 1926, 45,839,000 acres cotton had been planted across the nation.  By 1956, this figure had fallen to only 17,077,000 acres.  Indications were, in the early spring of 1957, that even less acreage was going to be planted to cotton for the coming growing season.

Immediately, following the Korean War, the situation with regard to agricultural surpluses had became so bad that in 1954, Ezra Taft Benson, the Secretary of Agriculture in the Eisenhower Administration, (and no believer in the government interference in commodities/financial markets) had been forced to re-introduced a program of cotton allotments for the 1954 growing season.  This allotment program restricted the number of acres of cotton that each planter was allowed to raise.  However, the continuing increase in yield per acre soon outstripped the effectiveness of this program to reduce cotton inventories.  The cotton inventories continued to rise and even now in 1957 the surplus inventory was having a depressing effect on the price of cotton.  Indeed, as the summer of 1957 went on, the price continued this general long term decline—sliding to 33.2 cents per pound as an average for the whole month of September, 1957.

In the week that followed he sale of the our Lyon town planter’s 1956 cotton crop,  a bill of lading was sent to the warehouse in Greenville, Mississippi where the actual cotton crop was stored.  Now that the paperwork of the sale was complete, the cotton bales would be loaded on an Illinois Central train to travel to shipping port in New Orleans, Louisiana.  There the cotton would be loaded on aboard a ship destined for Liverpool, England.

The cotton crop of our Lyon town planter was following a time honored route.  In long past, after the paperwork had been completed at the Memphis Cotton Exchange, the cotton, held in Greenville, Mississippi warehouses would have been loaded onto steam-powered paddle-wheeled river boats for the trip to the port of New Orleans.  Since the 1840s, England had purchased a great deal of raw cotton from the southern United States for its own textile mills.  This link was so important that, during the American Civil War, England risked good relations with the northern states by entering into illegal blockade-running trade with the Confederacy.  The cotton belt of the south produced more than enough raw cotton for all the United States textile mills in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, North Carolina and Georgia etc.  England was the most important trading partner of the cotton south because, English textile mills tended to by up all the rest of the cotton and prevent surplus inventories from growing so large that they depressed cotton prices.  Consequently, anything that threatened to obstructed this trade link with England had traditionally been strongly opposed by the cotton south.  For this reason our Lyon town planter and his neighbors were believers in “free trade” and tended to be opposed to any and all tariffs.  Tariffs on any product in trade would invite retaliation.  Eventually such retaliation would reach the cotton trade and ruin cotton prices that the cotton grower in the United States would receive for his cotton.

Currently, there were no tariffs on the horizon, threatening cotton prices.  Indeed, the late planting of cotton in the spring of 1957, indicated that the cotton crop in the fall would be a relatively poor crop.  This fact should have caused cotton prices to rise in anticipation of the shortage of cotton on the market in the coming fall, but there was no reversal of the continuing decline in cotton prices.  Nor was the government cotton acreage allocation program helping bolster the cotton prices by restricting production of cotton.  Despite all these conditions which should have raised the price of cotton to the point where raising cotton would have been profitable in relation to other farm crops, still the price of cotton remained in the doldrums.  Given this continuing depression of cotton prices, our Lyon town planter had no compelling reason to expand his investment in the cotton raising part of his business.  Indeed there was perhaps a more reasonable economic basis for actually deceasing his cotton acreage allotment and growing another crop on his plantation.  There was another cash crop available, ready at hand for his to plant as alternative and this alternative  cash crop was attractive because of its recent upward tending price and because of its promising future.  This alternative crop was soybeans.

Since the Second World War, soybeans had become a emerging competitor for the staple cash crop of the Midwest—corn—and for cotton in the South.  Since 1940, nationwide production of soybeans had grown from 78, 000,000 bushels of soy beans to nearly 500,000,000 bushels in 1956.  The acreage devoted to soybeans, right here in Coahoma County, had grown from 37,100 acres to 43,000 acres in 1955 and to 58,000 acres last year in 1956.  Indeed it probably made more economic sense to invest in another combine for harvesting soybeans to invest in a cotton picking machine.

As a result of this decision not to purchase, or to delay the purchase of a cotton picker until another year, there was no order arriving at the Lantham Avenue branch house from Wade Hardware in Clarksdale for an additional  John Deere Model 22 cotton picker.  Thus, the cotton picker remained in the inventory of the branch house in Memphis.  Because there was no sale of a Model 22 cotton picker, there was no companion sale of a Model 620 tractor.  So it was that the John Deere Model 620 tractor bearing the Serial No. 6210752, also remained in the inventory yard at the Lanham Avenue branch house, all through the summer of 1957 and into the next fall.  Then during the winter of  1957-1958 when preparations were being made for the annual “John Deere Day celebrations and local John Deere dealerships all across the nation, a telephone call came to Lantham Avenue branch house for a Model 620 tractor.  The call came not from any of local dealerships of the Tri-State area which were served by the Lantham Avenue branch house.  Rather the call came from another branch house, the Deere and Weber branch house in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  The Minneapolis branch house needed a Model 620 for a sale that had been made by the local John Deere dealership in Preston, Minnesota, located in Fillmore County in the southeastern corner of Minnesota.

Thus, No. 6210752 was loaded up on Illinois Central train headed north. In Chicago, the flatcar bearing No. 6210752 was attached to a Milwaukee Road freight train headed to Minneapolis-St. Paul.  Along the way the train passed through Preston, Minnesota and the unloaded No. 6210752 at the depot for delivery to the service men from the John Deere local dealership.  After being “prepped” No. 6210752 was delivered to the small diversified farm located in Holt Township in Fillmore County.  Here, No. 6210752 spent the greater portion of its productive life.  In the mid-1970s, No. 6210752 was bought at auction by Paul Schultz of neighboring Amherst Township in Fillmore County.  Still later, on March 7, 1987, No. 6210752 was sold again at an auction by Paul Schultz.  The buyer at this auction was Fred J. Hanks of Beaver Township of Fillmore County, who paid $1,700.00 for the tractor.  Fred Hanks was engaged in diversified farming on a 780 acre farm in Beaver Township with two of his three sons—Robin and Neil Hanks.  Their plans for No. 6210752 were to use the tractor on their farm and especially the dual hydraulic system on the tractor with a hydraulic rock picker.  In the years that followed the Hanks family used No. 6210752 periodically on their farm.

During this period of time, another addition was made to No. 6210752.  A Model 801 three-point hitch was purchased from a friend of Fred’s son, Robin Hanks, who lived at Hector, Minnesota and had first purchased the Model 801 hitch from a local implement dealership.  Robin had known this friend while he was a student at the University of Minnesota at Waseca, Minnesota from 1973-1976.  The Model 801 three-point hitch was installed on Model 6210752.  Later the idea of restoring and repainting No. 6210752 together with a 1959 Model 630 tractor was conceived.  The 1959 Model 630 had been purchased by Fred Hanks in 1972.  (This Model 630 has a story a good deal like No. 6210752 and will be the subject of an article in the next issue of Belt Pulley magazine.)  In 1988, No. 6210752 was painted by Arlo Erie of LeRoy, Minnesota.  During the summer of 1991 the restoration was finished and the tractor was properly decaled with decals ordered from Travis Jorde, nationally known distributor of historic John Deere decals.  Travis Jorde is a first cousin of Fred Hanks’ wife Donna Mae (Fossum) Hanks.   Next year in the summer, No 6210752 was shown at the Root River Antique Historic Power Show in Racine, Minnesota.  In the Fall of 1992, a picture of No. 6210752 together with the 1959 Model 630 was taken in the yard of the Fred Hanks home with an old box elder tree in the background.  In the summer of 1993 this picture was printed on the back cover of the Belt Pulley magazine.  An article called “Survivors” written by Fred Hanks and dealing with the old box elder tree and the two newly restored tractors was contained in the inside tof that same issue of Belt Pulley.

The story of No. 6210752 is a unique story—a story not only a story about the North American agriculture as it used to be, but also a story about what might have been.

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