My father had left us when I was eight and disappeared when I was nine years old. He left my Mom to raise my two younger sisters and me by herself. We lived in a two room clap board house on a twenty acre cotton farm that my father’s brother operated. Because we had no transportation to get to the other fields where our relatives were working, my uncle left the twenty acre field where we lived for my Mom and me to work. After he had planted the field in cotton Mom and I would chop the cotton, usually three times. Once to thin the crop and get the first weeds out then the other two times to keep the weeds out of the field. Clean fields yielded cleaner cotton which brought a better price. So going up and down those quarter mile rows three times a season was important even though we were only paid forty cents an hour. We worked ten hour days so we made four dollars each a day. Even though I was only eight when I started working the cotton fields I was paid the same as a full field hand and did the work of an adult. At least I tried and Mom of course made up the difference.
When I was nine my sisters were two and three years old so we could not leave them at the house which sat on the front edge of the field. There was a big old cypress tree near the center of the field. My mom had gotten a length of woven wire fence from grandpa; the kind you would use to fence a barn yard or field to keep live stock in. We kept the weeds cut down under the cypress tree and she had made a circle about twenty feet in diameter under the shade of the tree with the wire. Each morning during chopping and picking season mom would take quilts and spread them inside of the wire fence then come back to the house and take the two girls back to the cypress tree and put them inside the fence. My job was to carry diapers, toys and a water bucket with a dipper to put in the fence area. When the girls were settled we would start either chopping or picking depending on the season. Since the tree was in the center of the field we could work half of the quarter mile rows of cotton at a time instead of having to work the entire quarter mile length all at one time. Mom would start from the cypress tree and work toward one end of the field. I would wait until she was about half way and then I would start. By doing it this way there was always one of us within a relatively short distance from the girls at all times in case we were needed. Any one can hear the cry of a child from as close as a hundred yards. Believe me when I tell you that an eight or nine year old boy does not want to work alone in the cotton field with his Mom but there was not another choice.
When the season turned from summer to autumn we would start picking the crop. The cotton rows were a quarter of a mile long and there were eleven row to an acre so there were 220 quarter mile long rows for us to keep clean and harvest. It was a boring, hard job but it kept food on the table so we were grateful that we had it. Cotton chopping was a hot boring job but cotton picking is one of the things I grew to hate.
You had a three inch strap for a nine foot long canvas sack around your shoulders and you drug the sack behind you and picked each cotton bowl by hand while dragging the increasing weight of the sack as you added cotton to it. A full sack of dry cotton could weigh up to seventy pounds for an adult picker, smaller weights of course for someone my size and age. It was not a lot of weight but when you are dragging it on the ground for a quarter of a mile in the heat of the autumn sun it seemed much heaver. We were paid three cents a pound for the cotton we picked. In later years when I was older I regularly picked two hundred fifty pounds a day so you do the math. OK, don’t bother with the math, when I was older I made an average of seven dollars and fifty cents a day. We never had the hope or a chance to become wealthy. When I was nine years old the amount I could pick was much less, closer to a hundred pounds a day or just about three dollars a day. However, my body size was much smaller so it was probably about the same difficulty then as when I was older. You would stand up and bend over to pick the cotton bowls while pulling the sack behind you until your back felt like it was going to break then you would crawl on your knees until they got tired then you stood back up and repeat the cycle again, repeat it all day long.
To this day I seldom see a cypress tree that I don’t think of those times. The amount of work I was able to do as an eight and nine year old child was small compared to an adult but I understood even at that early age that my contribution was important. Perhaps my share was just a couple more beans in the pot but it made a difference. I also learned that this type of work was not something I wanted to spend my life doing so in later years when my mom stressed education as a way out for me I didn’t argue with her. I had learned the lesson she was teaching from an early age.
The most important lesson I learned was that you take the best care of those you love the best that you can even when it makes things harder for you.
A story from my early youth.