Cotton Culture

At the end of the nineteenth century, cotton production increased for several reasons. A special plow made it easy to break up the thick soil. Good prairie soil often produced one bale per acre. Immigrants from the Deep South and Europe came to Central Texas and grew cotton. Some of the newcomers bought small farmsteads, but most worked as tenant farmers or sharecroppers for landowners who controlled farms as big as 6,000 acres.

Increased cotton production led to technological improvements in cotton ginning, the process of separating cotton fibers from their seeds, cleaning the fibers, and baling the lint. Cotton compresses were constructed alongside railroads to reduced bales to about half their ginned size for shipping. Farmers could sell their crops directly to buyers who sent the cotton to the mills by rail rather than by ship. The fibers were sold, the cottonseed was crushed for cooking oil, cotton hulls were made into cattle feed, and part of the plant was even made into an early type of plastic.

In the 1890s, boll weevils affected crops throughout Texas. Farmers used pesticides to reduce the damage. A high demand for cotton during World War I stimulated production. However, a drop in prices after the war led many tenants and sharecroppers to leave farming for the city.

After the 1920s cotton production fell as a result of three factors: the federal government’s control program cut acreage in half, competition from foreign cotton production increased, and synthetic fibers were developed. After World War II, farmers began to mechanize their methods of planting, cultivating, and harvesting, eliminating the need for tenants and sharecroppers. Mechanization led fewer but larger farms, widespread irrigation, better pest and weed control methods, more mechanical harvesting, and greater cooperation among farmers for marketing.

In 1971 Lambert Wilkes created a cotton harvester. His steel module builder consists of a box large enough to hold ten to twelve bales of seed cotton, a cab, and a hydraulic tramper. Cotton from strippers is emptied directly into the box, and an operator in the cab compresses the cotton with the tramper. When the box is full, a tractor pulls it forward, leaving a huge “loaf” of cotton. A special mover picks up the module and carries it to the gin.

Source: Cotton Culture
Copyright © Texas State Historical Association

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