Mules

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And then at last the crop could be laid by, cultivation ended. Laid by while the cotton blossomed, put on squares, made bolls, and finally started to pop white and open. Laid by, if all went well, by the Fourth of July. The hoe hands had done their all; the mules’ hard work was over. It was a time for people to go fishing and for some of the mules to be put out to pasture.

But that was when the boll weevils’ long snouts sought out the squares, punctured them, and so destroyed the nascent bolls. For part of the work force the battle to protect the crop began. (“We’re poisoning all along about then—boll weevil and army worm. The mule went down the furrow and the man had a stick across the croup with a bag of poison on either end, shaking it onto the leaves. Just before we started dusting by plane we used a windmill poison machine on the pommel. Two spouts, one to either side of the mule, and the black man in the saddle turning the crank.”)

It was also in these hottest weeks of the year that wood for winter’s fires had to be chopped and brought in. The mules were hitched to the wagons to go to the woods that skirted the fields. A cropper was entitled to what wood he would need for his fuel and his cookstove. (“We’d go to hauling wood the first of August. We’d let them have a load of wood. If a tenant left, he left his wood. In-coming tenants were mighty glad to get that wood. You couldn’t get wood in the winter—too muddy.”)

Cotton bolls bursting white brought men, women, and children back to the fields in midsummer. Along the rows the pickers bent, trailing six- or ninefoot-long white cotton sacks behind them, strapped over a shoulder, the open end at waist level on the left. Using both hands, they reached into the hard-shelled brown bolls, avoiding if possible the sharp edges, pulling out the white lint filled with seed. A man averaged up to three hundred pounds a day. Sometimes a woman could beat him.

The picker brought his filled sack to a waiting wagon or to the little tenfoot-square “cotton house” in the field if the wagon was at the gin. From the wagon or house extended a strong two-by-four from which scales were hung by which the pickers, paid by the pound, learned how much they had picked.

When enough cotton for another bale had been accumulated—fifteen hundred pounds or more—the wagon, drawn by two mules, was driven to the gin. The cropper or tenant from whose fields the cotton had been picked waited while the cotton w-as ginned to receive into his own hands the ticket recording the weight of the lint that had gone into the bale and how much seed had come out.

This was a happy time, the harvesttime, the cotton season. But no time for rest. Fast, while the cotton was at peak quality, before rain had damaged it, pick, pick, through September, through October, through November, fast, if rain didn’t come to stop the picking, and then start again, through December if cotton remained, in January, in February, in March in the bad years and if anything worth scrapping was left.

In the cornfields and hayfields another harvest was in progress in late summer and early fall, that of feed for the stock. Day hands—usually unmarried men living on the plantation- worked the corn crop ahead of the cotton in the spring, at the owner’s expense of seventy-five cents a day, using mules specially set aside for the feed crop or during the harvest using some of those available when the cotton was laid by. The tenant who worked ten acres of cotton would also rent an acre or two for hay and five acres for corn, for his family and his stock. (“That way we didn’t have to keep track of what they used. We took care of the croppers’ mules and we fed those at the barn along with ours.”)

But the cotton plantations’ sole mission was to grow cotton. The feed crop was incidental though vital—as vital as the gasoline delivered today to the plantations’ pumps.

The year ended officially on Settlement Day after all the cotton was in. But there was always at least a first settlement by Christmas. In a bad year there was little left after the crop year’s furnish advances were paid. In a good year there was money for bolts of cloth for the women, new overalls for men and boys, shoes, barrels of flour and cans of lard, coffee, chewing tobacco, Babv Ruths for the children, and a soda pop all around. The settlement, principally in paper money, included usually a few “Beau dollars,” the heavy silver cartwheels that gave a special feeling of well-being. (“We always paid the last five dollars or so in Beau dollars.”) By the late igao’s Settlement Day was when used-car salesmen shined up their wares and managed to bump over the rutted roads to the plantation. Joy rides to the next plantation began. (“We put a gallon in the tank and another in a can. When the tank ran out we poured from the can and headed home. If we went too far, everybody got out and pushed.”)

By 1931 some of the bigger planters were experimenting with all tractorcultivated cotton crops. Others watched and waited. Banks and finance corporations recognized mules, not tractors, as capital. (“I asked for a crop loan. They asked how many mules I had. I said I was going to farm with tractors. They turned me down. No mules, no loan.”)