During the 1940s, existing on an Ozark foothills farm in rural White County farm was dramatically different from 2020. Living conditions were very similar to “Little House on the Prairie.”
Before WWII rationing and federal crop production controls, cotton was our only fall cash crop. Other crops such as sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, sorghum and peanuts were fall crops but only the surplus that would not be consumed by our family was occasionally sold to neighbors to raise funds for special needs.
At my 1933 birth, growing cotton during the Great Depression resulted in a price of five cents per pound. Prices increased as WWII government rationing controlled most economic activity.
In 1940, at age 7, I was fashioned a cotton sack when Mother added straps to an empty fertilizer sack. She permitted “big bollin” (picking only the largest bolls) the rows that she was picking. I felt 9 feet tall by being permitted to contribute to our livelihood by doing “adult” work.
Mr. Boll Weevil destroyed most of the crop, although I rode a horse with porous cloth sacks of subsequently banned DDT attached to the ends of a limber hickory stick bouncing it up and down to apply poison to the wet-with-dew cotton.
Since Mother and Daddy kept meticulous records that revealed that our 4-acre federal allotment netted nothing to compensate us for our labor, they chose to cease growing cotton. That decision gained impetus after the meager 1948 harvest required buying 150 pounds of seed cotton from our neighbor, Mr. Harrison, resulting in barely enough to gin a “light” 475-pound bale of lint cotton.
We hired out to neighbors to help chop their cotton. To “chop” cotton meant to thin the plants to about 6 inches and remove the crabgrass.
When I was 12, we hired out to chop cotton for Mr. Eulis Smith. I was paid only $2 per day, but the adults were paid $3. The first day, I chopped more than most of the adults. I reminded Mr. Smith that I had helped him finish his row after completing mine so I should be paid $3, but he called me a whining “baby.” That was unfair.
While walking 1.5 miles home, Mother urged me to improve my productivity. How? She suggested that I take extra sharpened hoes. So, I sharpened three hoes. When we hoed a round, two short rows, we paused long enough to drink water and sharpen our hoes that had been dulled on the hidden small rocks that are prevalent in Ozark foothill soil.
I continued hoeing with my pre-sharpened hoe. I always helped Mr. Smith complete his row.
Mother was right. At the end of that day, Mr. Smith paid me $3, adult wages, without saying a word!!! That extra dollar made me feel 10 feet tall.
We picked for friends and neighbors during the annual school “cotton-picking vacation.” School terms were established to accommodate the need for children to help harvest strawberries and cotton.
School “took up” during the terrible heat of late July in order to “let out” 30 days for the cotton harvest. By graduation in 1951, the state Education Department had slowly reduced it to two weeks.
Most of all, we enjoyed picking for Mr. Shelby Hicks, although his Little Red farm was 10 miles away. His bottom land produced almost twice as much as most Ozark foothill farms.
Mother prohibited putting any leaves or burrs in our sacks, which hampered production. She always exceeded my production. She allowed that I had five thumbs on each hand.
At 14, I helped our neighbors, Roy and Dorothy Mae Ellis Bell, pick their above-average cotton. I picked one row while he picked two. He taught me how to “get” cotton resulting in my first 200-pound day that paid $4. His rule, “If it comes off the stalk, put it in the sack. The gin is equipped to separate the seed and the trash.”
I was eager for the school “cotton-picking vacation.” My earnings were invested in new shoes then winter clothing and basketball sneakers if enough remained.
One strawberry picker convinced me to come to Milligan Ridge with stories of cotton so plentiful that it would almost fall off the stalk into the sack.
When the the two-week school “vacation” arrived, I was eager for the adventure. At 16, I hitchhiked over 100 miles to Milligan Ridge community near Monette. Mother filled the old tin suitcase with my clothing and bid me farewell. I hitched a ride with a farmer to Bald Knob, which had only one stoplight, an excellent place for travelers to observe a 16 year old thumbing a ride.
As luck would have it, an empty 2-ton truck with three people in the cab offered me a ride in the back all the way to Jonesboro. Subsequent rides took me to the cotton farm. We had written the berry pickers to expect me. Mother pre-addressed a three-cent postcard to mail to announce my safe arrival.
The farm owner was a friendly child of God who worshipped at Milligan Ridge Missionary Baptist Church. I enjoyed worshiping with them since it was much like Providence Missionary Baptist Church.
Waiting for the dew to dry enough to pick, I grabbed his grease gun and began greasing his tractor and pull-type, power-takeoff, one-row combine. He was preparing to combine soybeans that he planted in the same row with harvested corn.
The inadequate combine had no bin for the beans but had facilities to catch them in bags. His hired hand did not arrive. Offering me almost twice my cotton-picking income prompted an easy decision to bag beans.
We combined until dark. The job was not difficult but I feared him getting hurt while he pulled corn stalks from the running combine.
After 10 days on the combine, I thought I was rich. He inquired about how I would protect my earnings from a robber? I planned to carry it in my shoe. Bad idea. He took me to the Post Office to buy a money order to mail home after retaining $1 for food plus the cost of a Greyhound bus ticket.
For youngsters growing up in the ‘40s, responsibility and hard work resulted in a valuable work ethic.