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Out On The Mudline

Cotton Remains A Bonanza For Mississippi

By W. P. Sissell


Why did I head this column today with Panola? If you look in the book of Indian names, you will find that Panola is the Indian word for cotton. The county is very different from one side to the other. It is almost halved (not quite) by the Tallahatchie River (another Indian word). I probably should have used bonanza for the cotton plant was truly a bonanza for this section of the state.

When I look at the breakdown of the parts of the products of cotton (I still use our old set of encyclopedias rather than stopping and printing what I can get from the on line part of this computer). Of course, fiber is the one probably most important product of the plant. Fortunes have been and still are made in the trading of this fiber.  

Many of you, especially if you grew up on a farm, remember the name of some “cotton buyer.” There is a series of pictures on the wall of our den of wagons loaded with bales of cotton on the main street of Water Valley, when the cotton buyers came to town in old days. The invention of the cotton gin (Eli Whitney) made it possible to quickly separate the fibers from the plant. We had a meeting at our home Sunday with an acquaintance, who told us about getting a whipping from Grandma with a cotton stalk at age three when he rebelled against picking cotton because the spines on the cotton bolls were tearing his three year old fingers.  

Within my lifetime the cotton picker has been developed—I can remember the first one I saw—and note that I do not say perfected.  Have any of you seen the newest one that make big round bales (this one is a “wow” machine”?  It will make all those giant trailers obsolete.   

When I helped Mr. Ingram at the gin in Water Valley, the gin was ginning about 3 bales per hour – when I helped Bob Elliot at the gin in Crowder he regularly got 4 bales per hour—on our Taylor gin, in which I was involved, Earl Gibson came in one night to tell me, “We’re running 8 per hour,” I told him to slow it down so it wouldn’t break down.  All that increase in ginning speed is due to innovations in the gin stands.

Nannette tells me that her mother, “Miss Nettie Lou” to me, always had to have enough cotton seed (usually the seed from two bales (about 1,600 pounds) to feed her milk cow.

For many years the cotton seeds were waste products.  The outgrowth of this was the development of methods of removing the oil from the kernel in that seed (the Oil Mills—there are two types). When this problem was overcome, it was found that cattle could do with just the hulls along with some oil meal. That oil meal came from the crushed, pulverized residue of the kernel and from some areas may run as high as 43% protein.  

When Lee Rowsey gave me the clipping about the “bonanza” crop he didn’t tell me anything about the many different things we get from that “once throw away” part of the cotton plant. I tried to count them accurately and I got eighty something every time.  Half that number is associated with some cloth product. The rest contain many different items—that comb you combed your hair with this morning may have been a part of a cotton seed at one time.

As each bale of cotton is ginned, the money for the seed, after the per bale cost of ginning, is taken by the gin, is divided between the landlord and the tenant, settled on at the ginning—there’s an old saying at ginning time in the cotton country:  “Boss, get the lint of off my seed.”

And Sadness

The sad part of the story is that old Eli was not given complete protection of the copyright law.  Eli did not have the money to go to college.  After teaching for five years at seven dollars per month, he entered school at Yale.  Graduating in 1872 he went to Georgia to teach and study law.  When the lady he roomed with heard a discussion about getting cotton lint from cotton seed she told the group that her roomer, Eli, could very likely solve their problem.  Eli did just that.  He and a partner began production of his machine (the gin).  They were tardy in their application for a patent and a court finally ruled that he had protection only one year longer.  This allowed others to get into competition on the production of gins.  Incidentally our present day gin stands basically run on the same principle as Eli’s.  We do have sophisticated differences in the cleaners attached to those gin stands.

It’s almost cotton planting time.  One spring, it was dry enough in the flatland to get all the cotton land ready for planting in February.  My starting date was always April 25 (as long as it wasn’t “bloom day”) so we disked all the bean land and then went fishing for most of two weeks.

Thank you for your encouragements. Do have a great week.  You can reach me most of the time at 23541 Highway 6, Batesville, MS, 38606. or 662-563-9879

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