Cotton Culture

Several factors contributed to the increase in cotton production during the last years of the nineteenth century. A specially designed plow made it possible to break up the thick black sod, and the fertile prairie soil produced as much as one bale per acre in some areas. Beginning in 1872, thousands of immigrants from the Deep South and from Europe poured into the Blackland Prairie of Central Texas and began growing cotton. Some of the newcomers bought small farmsteads, but most worked as tenant farmers or sharecroppers for landowners who controlled spreads as large 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 for shipment to market. Cotton compresses that reduced 500-pound bales to about half their ginned size for shipping were constructed along railroad rights-of-way in many towns. The relocation of compresses from port cities such as Galveston to interior cotton-growing areas allowed farmers to sell their crops directly to buyers from textile mills on the East Coast, who sent the cotton directly to the mills by rail rather than by ship. As telegraph lines spread westward, cotton could be bought and sold on the world market faster than ever before. Not only were the fibers sold, but also the cottonseed was crushed for cooking oil, hulls were converted to cattle feed, and portions of the plant were used to make an early type of plastic.

Nature dealt a blow to cotton farmers, who first saw the ravaging effect of the boll weevil in the 1890s. Within a few years, boll weevil damage affected crops throughout Texas. Farmers used pesticides to reduce the damage from boll weevils. A high demand for cotton during World War I stimulated production, but a drop in prices after the war led many tenants and sharecroppers to abandon farming altogether and move to the cities for better job opportunities.

After the 1920s cotton production fell as 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, thus eliminating the need for tenants and sharecroppers. Mechanization led to a cotton culture characterized by fewer but larger farms, increased use of machines, widespread irrigation, better pest and weed control methods, alterations to the cotton plant that make it easier to harvest mechanically, and greater cooperation among farmers for marketing.

In 1971 Lambert Wilkes of College Station came up with the concept of harvesting cotton by module. 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 on the turnrow a “loaf” of cotton that is eight feet high by eight feet wide by thirty-two feet long. 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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