My maternal grandparents, Leonard Campbell and Ila Hamilton, were born in the bootheel of Missouri in the tiny town of Qulin in the 1930’s. The town was surrounded by farm fields with many that are planted with acres and acres of cotton. Annually, the United States produces more than $50 billion dollars in cotton revenue with Missouri adding to the that total. Southeast Missouri is currently harvesting over 350,000 acres of cotton that is generating over $100 million into that figure.
That’s big business for the Missouri bootheel today as well as it was in my grandparents time!
My grandfather Leonard was one of 6 children and my grandma Ila was one of 4. During the cotton harvest all of them were in the fields picking cotton. Missouri’s cotton harvest falls towards the end of summer and beginning of fall. The best time to bring in the crop is before the fall rains begin. This leaves a small window of time for the farmers to harvest their fields and its typically still very hot and humid. Not every farmer in the 1920s, 30s, and 40’s could afford multiple cotton picking machines and they depended on hand picking cotton for much of their production.
Every family, friend, and neighbor had their children in the fields picking cotton during harvest time in qulin.
Leonard said that as long as you could carry the burlap sack you would pick cotton – even if it was dragging on the ground behind you! Hand picking cotton benefited the farmer but it generated a great amount of money for the picker. It was typical that a child could pick 100 pounds a day and the farmer would pay around 3 cents per pound. That would total around $3 a day. With inflation that would be around $63.60 today.
Leonard and his siblings brought in an average of 18 dollars a day totaling $381.60. This was much needed money for his family.
The cotton harvest got families through the winter months and it had to spread through the entire year. Cotton stays in bloom for only 4 to 6 weeks! A family could make a lot of money during this time with their children picking as well as themselves. Adults could stay in the fields while their children were in school and could bring in 300 pounds a day. A bale of cotton weighs 500 pounds.
One bale of cotton can make: 215 pairs of jeans, 690 bath towels, 1,256 pillowcases, 6,436 pairs of underwear, 313,600 $100 bills, or 680,000 cotton balls!
Leonard would say the trick to cotton picking was to start really early in the morning. If you started well before the sunrise your cotton would weigh more with the mildew on the bloom. In other words, the more your sack weighed the more money in your pocket.
With a smile of his face he explained how you would pick fast and early and your sacks would fetch more cash!
In addition to more money it would also be much cooler to pick before the scorching sun would be high overhead. Another part of the picking process, as he explained, was that the bloom shell of the cotton was hard and sharp. When you went to pluck out the cotton you had to reach into the shell and it would prick and slice your finger tips. He said they would wrap their fingers and thumbs to prevent the sharp plant pricks.
He said those injuries hurt so bad and could even puncture under your nail bed if you weren’t careful. Injuries to your hands would get blood on the cotton and the fibers from the plant would hurt unsticking them from your wound. They would keep extra wrap on hand when sweat and heat would make them become loose or fall off. There is an art form to picking cotton!
The children in my grandparents households would each get to keep some of the profit. It was never a lot but they would get a few dollars at the end of the season for their own spending money. Not all the families in their area would do this. Many neighbors and friends would work solely for their households. If the cotton crop was bad one year it would economically hurt the entire region. Families depended on the farmers to have a good crop to keep the households going another year.
Do you have any family stories about the farm fields or child labor? I want to hear about it!
I wrote about Leonard and Ila’s secret wedding. Read about it here!
Have an idea to turn a modern item into a family heirloom? See what I did here!
How does a bowl of creamy macaroni and cheese sound? Delish! Get Ila’s recipe here.