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). 

Like all Model 630 tractors, No. 6301691 and No. 6301692 were rated as delivering 48.68 horsepower (hp.) to the belt and 44.16 hp. to the drawbar.  Like many other Model 630 tricycle row crop tractors, No. 6301692 was fitted with the optional Roll-O-Matic front-end, power steering, an optional electric fuel gauge, the Float-Ride operator’s seat, the hydraulically controlled rockshaft, a “live” dual hydraulic system and the optional “live” power take-off shaft.

From Dubuque, the train with the flat car bearing the two Model 630 tractors, continued to make its way across Illinois and arrived in the huge rail metropolis of Chicago, Illinois (1950 pop. 3,620,962).  There the railroad flat car was disconnected and joined with a train of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad system.  This C.& O. or Chessie train was making its way out of Chicago and southeast across the entire state of Indiana.  The train crossed over Indiana-Ohio border near Richmond, Indiana (1950 pop. 39,539) a short distance from the train’s destination in Cincinnati, Ohio (1950 pop. 503,998).  In the Cincinnati, rail yard the flat car bearing No. 6301691 and No. 6301692 was again detached and joined to a train of the Southern Railway for the final leg of its journey.  The Southern train rolled across Kentucky and Tennessee and over the Allegany Mountains into North Carolina and moved on to St. Mathews, South Carolina (1950 pop. 2,351) where the two Model 630 tractors were to be delivered to the Guess Hardware Implement dealership.

This dealership was originally founded by Samuel and Eleanor Guess in 1917 as the Guess Hardware Company in the small town of St. Mathews, South Carolina, county seat of Calhoun County.  Born on January 30, 1873, Samuel Marvin Guess had begun selling John Deere Mule plows in his very first year in the hardware business–1917. This made the Guess Hardware Company, only the fourth retailer of John Deere farm equipment in the entire world, at that time.

Samuel and Eleanor had four daughters—Ellen born in 1908; Hazel born in 1910; Ethel born in 1912; and Francis born in 1916.  Ellen grew up and married John Keitt Hane and gave birth to a son John Keitt Hane, Jr.  In 1933, upon the untimely death of Samuel Guess, it was Samuel’s son-in-law and eldest daughter, John and Ellen Hane, that took over the day-to-day management of the Guess Hardware Company.  In 1937, the hardware entered the farm equipment business in a big way when they sold their first farm tractor—a John Deere Model A tractor.  From that point on, the dealership side of the hardware business began to mushroom in growth.  In 1957, John Kiett Hayne was joined in the business by his son, John Jr.

Being located in the southeastern United States, the dealership was served by the large Chamblee, Georgia branch/warehouse.  The usual course of business would have been for Deere and Company to ship all tractors to the branch/warehouse in Atlanta.  There the tractors would be stored, until an order of a particular tractor was received from one of the dealerships in the sales district covered by the Georgia branch/warehouse.  Only on those occasions when a customer ordered a specifically designed tractor, did a local dealership submit an order directly to the Waterloo Tractor Works.  However, by 1958, the Guess Hardware Company had become the largest John Deere farm equipment dealer in the southeastern United States and, thus, unlike other dealerships, Guess Hardware would regularly take delivery of tractors directly from Waterloo.

As noted in a previous article, cotton prices had been depressed since 1953.  (See the article called “Cotton Farming on the Mississippi Delta” contained in the November/December 2007 issue of Belt Pulley magazine.)  In cotton growers faced two big problems in the late 1950s.  Like farmers all across the nation cotton growers were facing low prices because of the large surpluses of farm commodities that had piled up since the end of the Second World War.  This problem of surpluses was compounded in late 1957 by a recession that settled over the whole United States economy.  This recession may actually have begun in the cotton area of the agricultural sector of the economy.

To be sure, by 1958, the agricultural sector of the economy was shrinking in relation to urban and industrial sector of the United States economy.  However, the agricultural sector was still large enough that economic decisions made by farmers still exerted a major influence on the economy of the United States as a whole.

As noted in the article in the previous issue of Belt Pulley, the continuing low cotton prices had led many cotton producers across the nation to change their minds regarding the purchase of new farm equipment or at least postpone such purchases.           (See a decision made by at least one cotton producer in Mississippi in early 1957 to not purchase or at least delay the purchase of a cotton picker and a new tractor contained in the above-cited article in the previous issue of Belt Pulley.)

A simple reduction in spending on “consumer” goods would have been bad enough.  However, cotton pickers and tractors were “capital” goods, that were intended to be used in the production of other goods.  As an index of “capital spending,” the softening of the sales of cotton growing equipment in 1957 was a sign that the economy was in headed into diffuculty.  It was a small sign that should have been noticed by the Federal Reserve Board when considering whether to raise or lower interest rates to guide the future course of the economy.  However the Federal Reserve missed this small sign of future trouble in the United States’ economy.

Founded in 1913, the Federal Reserve System was created as a quasi-governmental body, to set monetary and credit policy the United States’ to avoid wide swings in the economy.  (William Greider, Secrets of the Temple, [Touchstone Books: New York, 1989] p. 49.)  The Federal Reserve System bought and sold United States bonds.  In this way, the Board raised and/or lowered interest rates according to the needs of the economy.  As the Board sold bonds the interest rate would fall because of the additional money that was available for private loans.  This was the primary method by which the Fed would “ease” (lower interest rates) to stimulate economic activity.  On the other hand if the Fed purchased U.S. bonds, there would be less money available for loans in the private economy and the interest rates would rise.  This was how the Board would “tighten” (raise interest rates) to prevent economic growth from getting “overheated” and setting off a spiraling increase in inflation.  (Ibid.)  It was hoped that the Fed could avoid recessions on the lower end of the business cycles and avoid the inflationary spirals on the high end of the business cycles by acting at the appropriate times.  To act at the appropriate time, the Federal Reserve System was expected to anticipate the future direction of the economy by studying the whole myriad of small indicators of economic change in the United States economy and to predict the future course of the economy.

Under its most recent chairman, William McChesney Martin, the Federal Reserve Board had been pursuing an active, aggressive policy.  Indeed, it was the philosophy of Chairman Martin that the proper role of Federal Reserve Board was always to act counter to the directions of the business cycles—or, as he said, to always be “leaning against the wind.”  During times of economic expansion, Chairman Martin had joked that this put the Federal Reserve Board in the position in of the spoil sport who “took away the punch bowl just when the party gets going.”  Under the leadership Chairman Martin, the Federal Reserve Board had busy taking away the punch bowl all throughout the most recent period of expansion which had begun in May of 1954.  Since 1954, the United States economy had been in an extended period of expansion.  In 1956 and early 1957, the Board had continued its bias toward tightening to keep the economic expansion from overheating.

The reduction of capital spending in the cotton growing part of the economy should have caused the Fed “ease” slightly, or at least remained neutral.  However, this small sign of a slow down in capital spending slipped by unnoticed by the Board.  Therefore, as the Board continued its bias toward tightening, the reduction in capital spending among cotton farmers spread to other parts of the agricultural sector and then into the economy as a whole causing the recession.  Finally, the growing problem caught the attention of the analysts at the Fed.  Hurriedly, the Board voted to reverse itself and started to ease.  However, there is usually a six (6) month lag in time, between an action by the Fed and the impact on the economy.  Thus, by the time that the Fed reversed itself, it was already too late.  The whole United States’ economy had slid into a full-blown recession.  The recession lasted for a full eight (8) months until April of 1958 and caused 3.7% decline in the Gross National Product and left 7.5% of the population of the United States unemployed.      By April of 1958, financial experts were saying that the recession was over and the economy was expanding again.

Meanwhile, at Guess Hardware in St. Mathews, South Carolina, John Kiett was pondering the future.  Like all retail businessmen, John Keitt was well aware that it was one thing for the experts on radio and television to say that a recession was over and that everything was okay again, but it was quite another for the buying public to believe the recession was over.  Public perception is what caused people to go out and start purchasing again.  If the public perception was that the economy was still in recession, no amount of expert opinion would cause them to start spending again.  This is exactly what happened in late 1958.

In early October 1958, just as Guess Implement was taking possession of the two John Deere Model 630 tractors bearing the serial numbers 6301691 and 6301692 at their dealership in St. Mathews, South Carolina, the United States was in the midst of a hotly contested mid-term congressional election.  This election was hotly contested because the voters were upset about economic conditions in the United States.  The issues in the campaign were “recession, growing unemployment, (and) anger among farmers at President Eisenhower’s veto of a bill to increase farm price supports.”  (Robert Caro, Master of the Senate [Alfred A. Knopf Pub.: New York, 2002] p. 1015.)  The experts could say what they would about the recession having ended in April of 1958, but even as the voters headed to the polls on November 4, 1958, a majority of them still believed that the United States economy was still in a recession.  The public blamed the political party in power—the Republican Eisenhower Administration—for what they perceived as a continuing recession in the economy and the public spoke with a large voice.  The election results in 1958 were dramatic.  As a result of the 1958 mid-term election, the Democrats picked up 48 seats in the House of Representatives and 12 seats in the Senate based on popular economic discontent.  Following the dramatic election results, the Democrats had an overwhelming 283 to 153 edge in the House and a 64 to 34 majority in the Senate.

Nonetheless, John Keitt Hane and his son remained cautiously optimistic about the national economy and expected that soon the public perception would catch up with the realities of the national economy as described by the economic experts.  Indeed, this long range optimism had led John and his son to order No. 6301691 and No. 6301692 and some other John Deere farm machinery and added this to their business inventory.  No. 6301692 was cleaned up and was put on display at the dealership.  The tractor was displayed for the walk-in public.

Unbeknownst to John Keitt Hane and his son, there were already signs, in October 1958, that the public perception regarding the national economy was changing.  About 60 miles straight west of the small city of St. Mathews, lays the city of Aiken, South Carolina (1957 pop. 12,109).  Near Aiken was located the cotton farm of John Dunbar.  By the fall of 1958, John Dunbar had already decided that he would purchase a mechanical cotton picker.  He settled on a John Deere Model 22 cotton picker.  Along with the new cotton picker, John Dunbar had decided to purchase a new John Deere Model 630 tractor.  The purchase agreement was negotiated and signed with a local John Deere dealership in the city of Aiken.  However, the Dunbar family did not purchase the Model 630 out of the inventory of the dealership.  Instead, the Dunbar family ordered the Model 630 directly from the John Deere Tractor Works in Waterloo, Iowa.  The Dunbar family were confident enough about the future of cotton farming, that they were willing to invest in the mechanical means of harvesting cotton.

Accordingly, on Thursday, October 15, 1958, a mere 12 days after No. 6301691 and No. 6301692 left the Tractor Works in Waterloo, Iowa, another Model 630 tricycle-style row crop tractor was started for the first time and rolled off the assembly line under its own power.  This Model 630 bore the serial number 6302069.  Pursuant to the order that had been received from Aiken, South Carolina, No. 6302069 was, that same day, loaded on a flatcar which was connected to a train headed down the tracks toward South Carolina.  The Deere and Company Production Register reflects that No. 6302069 was sent to a Post Office Box in Aiken.  Having, been ordered through the local dealership, No. 6302069 the tractor was actually being “mailed,” as it were, directly to the buyer of the tractor—John Dunbar on the Dunbar farm in rural Aiken, South Carolina.

Both a Model 22 cotton picker and No. 6302069 were part of the same sale agreement signed by John Dunbar.  Arriving on the Dunbar farm in the fall of 1958, the tractor and the cotton picker were used in the cotton harvest of 1958.  However, over the winter of 1958-1959 the Model 22 cotton picker was removed from the tractor and No. 6302069 was put to work performing other tasks.  Aiken County, South Carolina, traditionally, produced two main cash crops, cotton and corn.  However, by 1959, soybeans had been making important inroads as a third and alternative cash crop for Aiken County planters.

Field work in Aiken County, South Carolina, normally begins in March or April of each year, as soon as the ground became dry enough for the tractor and tillage equipment to get into the fields.  Of the three main staple crops in Aiken County, corn was planted first, because corn requires a soil temperature of only 55° Farenheit (F).  Depending on the variety of corn planted, corn would require 90 days to 120 days to reach maturity.  Soybeans should be next in the annual planting schedule as they required a slightly warmer soil temperature of 55° to 60°F.  Soybeans would reach maturity in about 130 or 140 days—again, depending on the variety of soybeans planted.

Cotton on the other hand required a minimum soil temperature of 60°F.  However, to be precise cotton planters are advised to measure the temperature of the soil in the mid-morning down at a level of 2 to 3 inches beneath the surface and to avoid planting the cotton seed until the soil temperature has reached 65°Farenheit for three to five days in a row.  (From a web-document called Cotton Production in Tennessee by Paulus P. Shelby, Professor of Plant and Soil Science at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.)  Even in Aiken County, South Carolina the soil reached this degree of warmth only in April or May each spring.  Cotton required around 165 days to reach maturity.  Such a long growing season, naturally, means that cotton raised in the United States, can only be raised in the southern region of the country.  It is the long growing season of the southern United States and not the hot weather of the South that makes the South mandatory for raising cotton.  To be sure, cotton does not like temperatures below 60ºF.  However, it is a myth that growing cotton requires very hot weather.  Indeed, when the temperatures get above 95ºF, the heat itself can reduce the size of the cotton bolls or reduce the number of bolls that form on the average cotton plant.  Even though cotton is self-pollinating, very hot weather can interfere with the pollination of the plant altogether.  A range of 74ºF to 90ºF is regarded as being the ideal range and 82ºF is the perfect temperature for growing cotton.

In the spring of 1959, the Dunbar family put No. 6302069 to work listing and bedding the entire field which was to be planted to cotton.  Listing was the process of hilling up the rows where the cotton would be planted.  Bedding was the process of leveling the top of hilled up row in preparation for the planter.  Listing and bedding assured that the soil around the roots of the cotton would remain well drained.  Any excess water would settle in the lower space between the rows of cotton rather than directly on the roots of the plant.  While the tillage work was being conducted in the field, the John Deere Model 490 corn planter was pulled from the shed where it was kept.  The Model 490 could plant seeds in three different ways—“wire check” planting, “power check” planting or “drill” planting.  Corn was planted by either wire checking or power checking to keep the hills of corn far enough apart to promote the best yield per acre.  Wire check planting involved use of a wire which is stretched across the field.  Wire buttons located every 40 inches apart along the wire would cause planter to trip and plant seed corn in hills located at the same lateral position all across the field.  Thus, wire check planting created a pattern across the field which allowed the crop to be “cross cultivated” as easily as the crop could be cultivated lengthwise.  Lengthwise cultivation controlled the weeds between the rows of corn.  Cross cultivation allowed the corn farmer to also control the weeds between the hills of corn located within the rows.

“Power  checking” of the corn allowed the corn planter to drop seed corn every 40 inches within the row without regard to a pattern.  While power checking of corn provided spacing of the hills of corn, power checked planted corn could not be cross cultivated because of the lack of a consistent pattern across the whole of the field.  Both cotton and the relatively new cash crop, soybeans, were row crops that did not need the wide spacing required by corn.  Although cotton and soybeans are row crops and were planted in 40 inch rows just like corn, cotton and soybeans were “drilled” in rows by the planter rather than “check” planted like corn.

Cotton differed from soybeans, however, in that, whereas, soybeans were drilled at a depth of an 1½ to 2 inches deep, cotton required that the Model 490 planter be re-set to drill the cotton seed to a depth of only ½ an inch to 1 inch in depth.  Planters in Aiken County liked to get the cotton entirely planted by late April.  Planting before the middle of May was necessary, because, as studies have shown, planting after May 20 causes a significant reduction in cotton yield per acre at harvest time.  Once planting was started on the Dunbar farm, the Model 490 planter (planting four rows at a time) soon had the cotton crop in the ground.  In 1959, the cotton was in the ground by the end of April.

During the first week in May, 1959, tiny shoots of the cotton plants started to appear above ground all over the field.  Just like the soybeans, drilling of the cotton with the 490 planter had resulted in a seed being planted or “sown” every 1½ inches along each row.  Soybean plants were left to grow at this population density.  However, cotton plants needed more space.

Now was the time, John Dunbar and other cotton planters all across the south, headed to the cotton fields with a simple garden hoe to “chop” the cotton.  Chopping is the task of thinning the number of cotton plants per row so that the individual cotton plants were six inches apart within the rows.  Thinning the cotton plants would avoid over-population which would reduce the cotton yield at harvest time.  Plants thinned to a spacing of about 6 inches apart would assure the maximum possible yield per acre.

Chopping cotton was a long, labor intensive chore.  The tool used was a simple, common garden hoe.  The blade of the common garden hoe was about six inches wide.  Thus, John needed only to make one chop on along side the first cotton plant in the row to remove all the seedlings for the next six inches of the row.  Then he would skip the next individual cotton plant and chop once with the hoe on the other side of that individual plant, then on to the next plant and so on down the row.  He would repeat this over the entire length of the row and then continue with all the rows of the field until the whole cotton field had been properly chopped.  It was a lengthy process filled with long days walking in the field.  By the time the whole field was chopped, John could be assured that the population of the cotton field was about 39,200 individual cotton plants per acre.  This figure was within the recommended range of 30,000 to 60,000 plants per acre that would assure the maximum possible yield.  (“Cotton Production in Tennessee” from the Internet.)  As soon as the chopping of the cotton was complete it was time to get into the field with the cultivator.

The John Deere Model 4 four-row was now mounted on No. 6302069.  Originally purchased for use on a John Deere Model G row crop tractor some years earlier, the four row cultivator fit the Model 630 tractor with very few modifications.  Cultivation of the cotton from a tractor seat was much more enjoyable than the slow task of chopping the cotton on foot.  Still it was a continuing task that occupied a great deal of time in the month of June.

 

Holes in the base of the cotton bolls in the field is a sure sign of a weevil investation in the cotton crop.
Holes in the base of the cotton bolls in the field is a sure sign of a weevil investation in the cotton crop.

 

In mid-June, five (5) or six (6) weeks after planting the flower buds or “squares” start to form on the individual cotton plants.  At this time in the late spring a traditional dangerous foe of the cotton arose from its wintertime slumber or “diapause.”  This was the boll weevil.  The adult weevil was a brown or grayish brown beetle of only about ⅛ of an inch to ½ an inch in length.  (“Boll Weevil” by the Entomology Dept. of Clemson University found on the Internet.)  However, the weevil can cause damage far out of proportion of its own size.  Adult weevils spend their winters in the trash of a typical cotton field.  In the late spring of each year, just about the time that the flower buds or “squares” are forming on the various individual cotton plants flocks of adult weevils awaken from their winter diapause and feed for about 3 to 7 days to gain back their strength.  Then the females begin to look for a place to their eggs.  The female weevil finds the newly formed square or flower bud on the cotton plant, the ideal place to feed and lay her eggs.  The eggs hatch into larvae within 2½ to 5 days.  The larvae feast on the flower and the small bolls that form following the flowering stage.  With their long snouts, weevils who arrive at a cotton field where the bolls have already formed can easily drill holes in the tough outer shell of the average cotton boll to feed on the inside of the boll.  The female weevils also can drill holes in the bolls of the cotton crop and lay her eggs inside the boll. When hatched, the young weevil larvae will also feed on the boll.  (Ibid.)

The boll weevil in the process of eating a hole in a cotton boll into which to lay their eggs.
The boll weevil in the process of eating a hole in a cotton boll into which to lay their eggs.

One generation of the boll weevils laying eggs and hatching into destructive larvae would be bad enough.  However, the whole process can repeat itself as many as eight (8) to ten (10) times during a year in a continuous summer climate like California.

After the hole in the boll has been eaten out, the weevil proceeds to lay its eggs in the hole.
After the hole in the boll has been eaten out, the weevil proceeds to lay its eggs in the hole.

 

In South Carolina there is at least a mild semblance of a wintertime season.  Thus, the boll weevil infestations are generally limited to only five generations of new larvae and beetles each growing season.  Whereas, the first generation of weevils eats the squares or flower buds, later generations would feast on any flowers that remain and then attack the bolls that happened to survive the previous generations.  A boll weevil infestation can easily destroy an entire cotton crop.  The cotton grower could be left with absolutely no cotton crop at all for all the time and money he had invested.

It is the larvae of the boll weevil that is the true destructive element of a weevil infestation in a cotton crop, The larvae hatch out from the eggs of the weevil and proceed to eat the whole of inside of the boll as they grow.
It is the larvae of the boll weevil that is the true destructive element of a weevil infestation in a cotton crop, The larvae hatch out from the eggs of the weevil and proceed to eat the whole of inside of the boll as they grow.

Since its arrival in the United States from Mexico in 1892, the boll weevil has caused an estimated $14 billion dollars worth of damage to the annual cotton crop in the United States.  Over the years, cotton growers had tried a variety of weapons to fight the boll weevil.  At first the weapons were crude.  Arsenic powder was used for years.  (Following a full day of dusting cotton with arsenic and inevitably breathing some of the dust, it was said that the mules pulling the duster would be unsteady on their feet at the end of the day—like a drunken man.  It was also said that the mule team driver was, typically, no better at the end of the day, after dusting the cotton.)

A fast way of applying either insecticide or herbicide to cotton fields was by use of a "crop duster" aircraft. This "by-wing" is part of the exhibits at the Memphis Cotton Museum.
A fast way of applying either insecticide or herbicide to cotton fields was by use of a “crop duster” aircraft. This “by-wing” is part of the exhibits at the Memphis Cotton Museum.

Since the Second World War, however, a wonderful new chemical called Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane had been developed.  This new wonder chemical was more commonly known as DDT.  DDT controlled the boll weevil almost entirely—killing everything—the beetles, eggs, larvae and all.  Unlike other chemicals which needed to be re-applied to the cotton after a few days, DDT did not need to be re-applied to destroy the later generations of boll weevils.  DDT had “persistence.”   Once applied, DDT continued to kill every thing—the weevil itself, its eggs and any larvae that might hatch out up to two weeks after the application.  (Indeed it was this “persistent” quality of DDT that Rachel Carson most strongly objected to in her 1962 book called Silent Spring.  The DDT compound was found to remain intact in the environment for up to twenty [20] years and to pass through the food chain to higher life forms.  As a result, DDT caused the near extinction of many species of birds including the Bald Eagle—the very symbol of the United States of America.  As a result, agricultural usage of DDT was banned in the United States of America in 1973.)

In mid-July, some three (3) to (5) weeks after the squares or flower buds started forming, the cotton field suddenly came alive with splashes of white as squares suddenly blossomed into a multitude of dainty little flowers.  Each flower lasted only three days.  However, during its short life the flower changed color from the purest of white to a dark pink or almost red color.  (Consistent readers of Belt Pulley magazines will recognize from the previous article that cotton fibers behave the same way.  When the cotton boll first bursts open, the cotton fibers inside are the purest of white in color.  However, the longer the cotton remains on the plant unpicked, the cotton fibers take on the faintest of pink or red color.  The color change of the fiber is so slight that it is visible only to a trained eye of a cotton “classing” expert.  The degree of red of a sample of cotton observed by a classing expert under the proper light will reveal how long the cotton hung on the plant stalk before it was picked.  [See the article called “Cotton Growing on the Mississippi Delta” contained in the November/December 2007 issue of Belt Pulley.])  The short three-day life of the cotton flower is summed up in the children’s rhyme: “First day white, next day red, third day from my birth I am dead.”

Both during the flowering stage in July and during the “fruit” stage that followed when the cotton bolls developed, the cotton plants required a great deal of moisture.  In 1959, the weather cooperated with rains during this crucial time.

Cotton growers needed to have the DDT applied and have all the cultivation completed prior to the time when at the squares of flower buds appeared.  Even the mild disturbance to the cotton plants of the cultivator or the sprayer passing down the rows threatened to knock off a significant number of squares, or dainty flowers.  Every flower lost would mean one less cotton boll and would result in reduction of yield come harvest time.  Indeed by this time, and continuing through to harvest time, the cotton field was left pretty much to nature—as intervention by persons could only do more harm than good at this point.

After the flowers on the cotton plants had died off, the small ¼ inch cotton bolls could be seen.  The real purpose of the cotton boll is to serve as a “seed pod” for the cotton plant.  The cotton fibers are really a by-product of reproduction process of the average cotton plant.  In the weeks following the flowering of the cotton plants each cotton boll swells up under the pressure of the 30 growing cotton seeds and the growing mass of cotton fibers contained in each boll.  By early August, about three (3) weeks after the flowering, all 500,000 cotton fibers contained in the average cotton boll has reached their maximum length.  (As noted in the previous article, the average length of fibers of “Upland Cotton” [the kind of cotton grown in Aiken County] measures from 7/8 of an inch to 1-5/16 inches in length.)

Over the next four (4) to seven (7) weeks or until late September the boll continues to swell as each cell in every cotton fiber took on more cellulose.  Each individual cotton fiber gained thickness and strength during this process.  During this time, the cotton plant used a great deal of carbohydrates.  This was another crucial stage of in the development of cotton.  Excessively hot weather, during this period of time, could interfere with the cotton plant’s ability to process carbohydrates and thus, limit the strength and endurance of the individual cotton fibers.  Generally, in South Carolina, the weather begins to cool by mid-September and 1959 was no different in this regard.  The cotton crop appeared to be headed for another record yield.  However, off the South Carolina sea coast, far down in the Caribbean, a unpleasant surprise awaited.  In the sea just north of the island of Hispaniola, the island divided between the countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, a tropical depression developed, headed west-northwest toward Cuba.  Weather radars began tracking the depression on Sunday, September 20, 1959, afraid that the depression might become a hurricane.  On September 21, the storm changed direction and headed out of the Caribbean out into the Atlantic.  Over the open sea, the depression gathered more strength and, on September 22, was upgraded to a tropical storm.  (“Storms of 1959” on the Internet.)  Later in the evening of the 22nd the weather service reclassified the storm as Hurricane “Gracie.”  Gracie immediately changed direction and appeared now to be headed for the Florida coast.  (Ibid.)  Weather forcasters, however, breathed a collective sigh of relief on Friday, the 25th, when Gracie abruptly changed direction again in favor of the northeast and the open sea.  However, on the Sunday, September 27th, Gracie once again did an about face and headed right for the South Carolina coastline, making landfall at Beaufort, South Carolina on September 29, 1959.  Gracie hit South Carolina with 140 mph. winds which cause $14,000,000 worth of damage (with about half the damage occurring in Charleston, South Carolina) and killing ten (10) people in Georgia and South Carolina.  After damaging the southern coast, the storm moved inland and passed right over Aiken County, South Carolina.  Hurricane Gracie quickly lost most of its power over land.  However the remnants of the storm still caused heavy damage to the crops of Aiken County as she passed over the county and the harvest revealed the results.  The average yield of corn in Aiken County was reduced by 30.2% to only 18 bushels per acre.  Enough cotton in South Carolina, may have been ruined, that the national average yield, which had been headed for another record in 1959, was actually down slightly to a nation-wide average of  461.0 pounds per acre—a slight reduction from the 1958 nation-wide record yield of 466.0 pounds per acre.

John Dunbar mounted the new Model 22 cotton picker on No. 6302069 to harvest what he could of his cotton in 1959.  There was not much of a crop following the residuals of Hurricane Gracie which passed over Aiken County.  However, in the more normal cotton raising years that followed, John Dunbar watched the cotton mature during the ten (10) weeks following the flowering of the cotton.  During this time the bolls swelled up as the cotton fibers inside thickened and matured.  As efficient as they were, mechanical cotton pickers were not as clean at picking the cotton as were human hands.  Inevitably, a certain amount of leaves and trash ended up in the cotton baskets together with the cotton “lint.”  To eliminate as much trash from the cotton basket of the cotton picker as possible, it would be ideal if the picking could be delayed until a “killing frost” killed the cotton plants and all the leaves had fallen off the plants.  However, waiting for such a killing frost was not an option in Aiken County, where the first “killing frost,” if it ever occurred, may occur around Christmas time.  To imitate an early killing frost prior to harvest, modern cotton growers used a chemical defoliant to initiate a “leaf fall” in preparation for harvest.  By 1959, a chemical herbicide called “2, 4-D” had become popular for the defoliation of the cotton plants in preparation for mechanical harvesting.  It was proving itself to be another “wonder” chemical.  Within seven days after the application of 2, 4-D on any cotton field the “leaf fall” from nearly every cotton plant would be complete.  (Later 2, 4-D would be used as a military defoliant during the War in South Vietnam, where it would gain unfavorable notoriety under its military name “Agent Orange.”)

Accordingly, about a week after the 2, 4-D was applied the cotton plants had thoroughly died down, the swollen bolls on the plant dried out and burst open under the pressure of the cotton fibers inside.  All over the field the leafless dried brown stalks of the cotton plants became spotched with clumps of soft white cotton from the opening bolls.   Picking of cotton could occur as early as October.  However, it would usually extended into November and could extend into December.  John might make more than one pass over the fields to pick all the late blooming bolls of cotton.  Usually, the soybeans were ripe and could be harvested ahead of the cotton.  Nonetheless, harvest season was a busy time of year.  Barely had the last of the soybeans finally been combined before it was time to modify the transmission on No. 6302069 and mount the Model 22 cotton picker on the tractor and head to the cotton field.

As the operator drove the tractor from his seat on the cotton picker, No. 6302069 actually moved in reverse of its usual direction of travel.  The cotton picker and tractor straddled two rows of cotton, yet as a one-row picker the Model 22 cotton picker picked only the row on the operator’s right side.  The row on the left slipped unharmed through the shielding of the cotton picker which covered the large drive wheel of the tractor on the operator’s left.  On the right side of the cotton picker, the cotton plants were squeezed as they passed between the revolving spindle drum and the compression plate.  Spaced around the drum from the bottom to the top of the three-foot (3’) high drum were turning spindles.  As the drum and spindles squeezed the cotton plants against the compression plate, the turning spindles would snag the cotton fibers and pull the cotton fiber cleanly out of the hulls of the dried boll.  The revolving drum carried the spindles full of cotton bolls inside an enclosed area of the cotton picker, where a “doffer” would un-snag the fibers from the spindles.  A fan inside the cotton picker acted as a vacuum cleaner to draw the cotton fibers or “lint” up a pipe and would eventually deposit the cotton in the basket located over the engine of No. 6302069.  After nearly every round which No. 6302069 and the Model 22 cotton harvester made across the field and back, John Dunbar was required to empty the large basket full of cotton lint into a waiting wagon.  When the cotton wagons were full they would be taken for the short trip down the country road the cotton gin located at New Holland Road and Highway #302.

Each cotton boll contains about thirty cotton seeds.  At the gin, the cotton seed would be removed from the lint.  Usually, the gin owner would remove the seed and keep the seed as his “commission,” or payment, for ginning the cotton and baling it up into 470 pound bales.  The gin would then sell the cotton seed.  The cotton seed could either be crushed to make cotton seed oil or could processed in other ways to make animal feed.  The grower could then store the cotton until he could receive a favorable price.  The grower would then have to pay for the cotton to be classified and then pay a cotton merchant to the cotton on an exchange.  (This process was explained in the prior article in this series contained in the November/December 2007 issue of Belt Pulley magazine.)  Another method of selling the cotton was to sign a contract with the local cotton ginner to have the cotton ginner purchase the cotton from the grower .  (The conclusion of the 1984 movie Places in the Heart shows just this type of sale being negotiated.)  Of course at this stage the cotton has not yet been “classified” by a classer judge.  (See the prior article in this series for a description of the classing process and the classer judges.)  By purchasing the un-classed cotton, the ginner is accepting the risk that the cotton may not be “middling or better” when the classing is performed.  Therefore, the ginner will be offering a lower price than the grower might receive if he stored the cotton, paid for the classing of the cotton and sold the cotton himself.

Many years later John Dunbar retired and his son, also named, John Dunbar took over the farming operation.  In late July of 2004, the current author happened to be visiting relatives in Aiken and had the opportunity to meet the younger John Dunbar and was updated on the story of No. 6302069.  Both No. 6302069 and the Model 22 cotton picker which had been purchased by the Dunbar family had been sold to a person interested in restoring and repainting both No. 6302069 and the cotton picker. Restoration on the cotton picker and tractor is continuing to the present date.

Meanwhile, over in St. Mathews, South Carolina at the Guess Hardware, John Kiett and his son were selling more selling more tractors in 1959 than they had in 1958 as the cotton growers of South Carolina became more confident about the future of the economy.  However, the Model 630 tractor bearing the serial number 6301692, which was one of two Model 630 tractors that Guess Hardware had received in back in October of 1958 (as noted above), remained a stubborn part of the unsold inventory of the dealership, even now a year later.  If Guess had sold No. 6301692 to a local customer, the life story of the tractor would undoubtably have been very much similar to the story of the Model 630 tractor sold to John Dunbar.  However, only the relevant call that Guess Hardware dealership received in late 1959 in regard to N. 6301692, was a call from the Deere and Company branch house located at 1400 19th Street in Moline, Illinois (1950 pop. 37,397).  The Moline branch/warehouse served the eastern 2/3rds of the State of Iowa.  Currently, the staff at the Moline branch house were attempting to locate a Model 630 for H. & R. Dealership located in Riceville, Iowa (1950 pop. 962).  The H. & R. Dealership needed a Model 630 tractor to sell to a local farmer—“Cy” Stepp.  Josiah Walker Stepp  and his wife, Pearl (Reid) Stepp, operated a farm located 1¾ miles north of Riceville.  In answer to the call from the Moline branch house, the Guess Hardware dealership decided to send No. 6301692.  Thus, No. 6301692 returned to Iowa.  Delivery the tractor was made directly to H. & R. Dealership and from thence to the Stepp farm, where No. 6301692 spent a career working on a Midwestern row crop farm far removed from the cotton crops of the “deep south” of the United States.  In 1972, Cy and Pearl Stepp decided to retire from farming and on Monday, May 15, 1972 auctioned off all their farm equipment including No. 6301692.  Present at this auction was Fred J. Hanks of LeRoy, Minnesota, uncle of the current author, who was the highest bidder on No. 6301692 and ended up purchasing the tractor.  (Also purchased by Fred Hanks at the same auction was the PAPEC Model 127 silo filler which was the subject of the article entitled “The PAPEC Company of Shortsville, New York” contained in the January/February 1996 issue of Belt Pulley magazine.)  A couple of days after the sale, Fred made arrangements to have his eldest son, Darrell Hanks, drive No. 6301692 the 18 miles from the from the Stepp farm to the Hanks farm.  No. 6301692 was employed on the Hanks farm and in 1987 the tractor became one of two John Deere tractors on the Hanks farm that had originally been sent to the southern United States.  (The other tractor was the Model 620 tractor which was the subject of an article in the previous—November/December 2007—issue of Belt Pulley magazine.)  Both tractors had been envisioned, by Deere and Company, as ideal power sources for the Model 22 mounted cotton picker.  Neither tractor, however, was sold in the cotton country because very few Model 22 cotton pickers were being sold in the Deep South.  Very few cotton pickers were being sold in the deep south because of a combination of the economic conditions that were affecting cotton prices in the late 1950’s and because of the conscious reluctance of southern cotton growers to abandon hand picking of cotton in favor of mechanical cotton pickers.

By 1992, Fred J. Hanks had restored both No. 6301692 and the Model 620 tractor described in the previous article.  The tractors were displayed and paraded at the at the 1992 Root River Antique Historic Power Show in Racine, Minnesota.  Unlike, other restored tractors which are reminders of the working careers that they had in North American agriculture, the actual histories of these two John Deere tractors tell us more about the past by way of  the careers they did not have and the crops they did not help plant, raise and harvest.

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