Cotton Picker


A Missourian and graduate of the University of Missouri, DOROTHY OTIS WYREnow makes her home in Conway, Arkansas. She is the author of “Hunting,”which appeared in the October, 1952, Atlantic.

EVERY year since I’ve lived in Arkansas I’ve had the urge to pick cotton. Everyone I know picked cotton in his or her youth, and speaks with nostalgia of the good times and the fun. “You never picked cotton?” is asked in a “You poor thing. What kind of childhood did you have?” voice. My miserable, deprived childhood barely even hinted that cotton grew anywhere except in the medicine chest.

I just had to pick cotton. I was afraid if I didn’t satisfy this urge soon, it would be too late. I read that cotton farmers were plagued by surplus, foreign competition, increasing use of synthetic fibers, boll weevils, and droughts. As if that wasn’t enough, “An economic revolution in Arkansas is changing the face of the cotton industry. One fifth of the Arkansas cotton crop is expected to be harvested mechanically this year. The mechanical cotton picker has become a familiar sight, and the picturesque, sunbonneted cotton picker, although still present, is on the decline.”

But it still wasn’t too late for me to pick cotton. “All available persons are needed to pick this year’s crop.” I was ready, willing, and available, and a little crazy, according to the man at the employment office who told me to drive down the river road, stop wherever I saw cotton and a lot of cars, and ask the boss if he needed another hand.

Pulled off to the side of the road in a field were the cars, and a truck with scales, and seven or eight pickers weighing their cotton. I said that I would like to pick cotton. A man who reminded me of my grand father replied. “Girlie, you’re hired.’

Just like that. “Girlie, you’re hired.” No questions about previous experience, employment, social security card, age, or anything. And he called me “Girlie.” I guess I did look sort of young in my jeans, shirt, and pigtails. Then Grandpa asked, “Where is your cotton sack?” For the last time I had to admit that I had never picked cotton. The only sack I had, contained my lunch. The usual “You never picked cotton before?” was followed by a friendly “We’re glad to have you.” I was told to go back to town and buy a 9-foot sack. “Don’t get a 7½-foot one, because the larger sack won’t pull down on your shoulders.”

After I bought my sack the salesman told me not to get discouraged the first few days. “Keep at it and you’ll be earning $5 a day easy.”

Oh boy, $5 a day. I bet I’d be the only cotton picker in Arkansas paying for a wool suit that was in layaway.

In ten minutes I was back in the land of cotton, twenty acres of it, to be exact, with my 9-foot, $2.50 sack, manufactured by a tent and awning company. I pulled off the attached card, “Volteese Autes de Usarse — Turn sack before using,”which I didn’t understand in English either. Grandpa turned the sack inside out, dropped in a green thing, and tied a wire to it. He looked at me kind of funny when I inquired about the name of the green thing.

“Girlie, that’s a green cotton boll. Don’t pick the green ones like that. The wire? We can weigh the cotton sack easier that way. ”

“What is the pay?” I asked.

“Two dollars a hundred,”said Grandpa.

“A hundred what?”

“Girlie, a hundred pounds. But it will go to $2.50 and $3.00, because the boss is a nice fair man.”(I found out later that the boss was Grandpa’s son-in-law.) I also found out that the average picker picks 200 or 250 pounds a day. Grandpa used to pick 350 pounds, but he couldn’t do that any more.

A woman called over to me and suggested I use both hands at once. She added that some found it faster to straddle one row, but she preferred to pick two rows at a time. So I tried that. By now it was eleven on a hot day in the middle of September. The hot dry weather may have been ideal for picking cotton, but it was too darn hot for Girlie. Maybe I needed a sunbonnet. My baseball cap didn’t seem to help much. But I stuck it out until noon, and I do mean stuck. The bolls stuck and pricked both hands at once.

The others, of course, were way ahead of me, but their happy conversation about the huge ironing already done this morning, or the number of cows already milked, not to mention last night’s television programs, drifted back to me on the heat waves.

The others bent over all the time while they picked. If I bent down for even five minutes, it would take the others to straighten me up. So I sat down on the ground and scooted. Then I sat down on my cotton sack, which was somewhat softer, and scooted. My packing the cotton down might make it weigh more, but I was too tired to care if I was doing something wrong. At noon the others gaily carried their sacks over to the truck to be weighed. I dragged mine over, and waited hopefully with the others, and drank the cold water provided by nice boss.

Some weighed in with 33 pounds. Mine weighed 14 pounds, and I was thinking that wasn’t too bad. Then the boss deducted 3 pounds for the weight of the sack. So I had only picked 11 pounds, but Grandpa said that was pretty good for the first time. After lunch I managed another II pounds: then I left the others out in the hot sun still gaily talking.

The next day I didn’t really have the urge to pick cotton, but I made myself return to the land of cotton at 6:30 A.M. The others had said they didn’t like to pick cotton when it’s damp, but that seemed preferable to me, instead of the hot sun. Besides, maybe the cotton would weigh more when damp. With the help of gloves I was rapidly scooting up my row in the peaceful, wet field. The others arrived at seven and the sun was as hot as ever. I was soon left behind, but not before learning that I had picked in the wrong row, and that there was a difference between pulling and picking cotton. We were picking the stuff. I had been pulling, snatching, grabbing, jerking, and sometimes picking; anything to remove the cotton from the tenacious, prickly bolls. I was told that the trick was to grasp the cotton in such a way as to pull it all out at once. That was picking it, and that was a good trick. I never mastered it. All up and down my row there were little bits of cotton slicking to the nasty bolls.

By now, the others had reached the end of their rows, and one shouted back to me, “All right for us to help you out?” Help me out? Chances were they would have to help me up, too. After two hours of snatching and grabbing I weighed in at 25 pounds. Grandpa had 28 pounds, and we were both a little surprised at my success.

While I was debating whether to tell him that I sat on my sack, and probably made it weigh more, he told me to soak my fingers in turpentine that night to keep them from being stiff and sore. He didn’t tell me what to do to keep them from dropping off. Anyhow, I thought turpentine would remove the rest of my fingers that hadn’t, already been pricked off. One of the sturdy, picturesque, sunbonneted ladies told me that I would probably be stiff all over the next day. It was 9 A.M., so I ate my lunch. Two hours and 20 pounds later, Girlie went home almost too tired to crawl up on the bed.

I figured out that I had picked 67 pounds. I no longer had the urge to pick cotton. Maybe I could make myself pick 100 pounds, and the urge would be satisfied for the rest of my life. If I picked much more than that I would be laid away in my wool suit. As it was, I would be too lired and bent over to wear it anyhow.

On the third day 1 did not spring out of bed. I was stiff all over, and my fingers were numb. The day was made brighter when the boss showed me my first boll weevil, the little bug with the long snout that was causing so much trouble. The boss said he wasn’t going to raise cotton next year. What with the expensive spraying and other troubles, the pickers were making more profit than he was. I knew one picker who wasn’t making any profit. Had he considered using a mechanical picker? Yes, he had, but the mechanical ones sucked up everything, including green bolls. I hadn’t picked any green bolls; but plenty of green leaves, and dead ones, too, had been sucked into my sack.

I finally explained to the boss that I just didn’t seem to have the knack for picking cotton, and I thought I’d quit. It seemed to me that he gladly, almost eagerly, paid me my

earnings— $2.38. That was $0.12 less than the cotton sack had cost. I went home to bed. I was one cotton picker definitely on the decline. But at least in the future I too can speak with nostalgia, if not authority, about picking cotton.