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Chopping Cotton Job Cut Down by Small Cotton Farmers

I was born in the south. I live in the south and will die in the south. This is only a small part of the memories I share.

Another view of the hoe.

Another view of the hoe.

Chopping Cotton Examined

by the outsider, would most-assuredly claim that these workers had it made. Not so. The person who was taught the proper way to chop cotton was to look at each "hill" or "stand" of cotton that the farmer planted and the cotton choppers were to thin the amount of cotton plants that came up.

Too many cotton plants and some would not live to fruition. So this was not an easy job. This was a very important task.

In Today's Cotton Fields

there is no such thing as cotton chopping. The big cotton farmer in 2017 takes his expensive planting systems and plants in the areas between the cotton rows called the "middles." This practice helps conserve soil and keep in the vital minerals inside the soil as well.

If you or Anyone Should

ask what would be the best-known activity that all farming families in the South would do each year when their cotton seed had been planted, you can answer: Chopping cotton. This is no joke. As early as the 1930s on through the 1960s, sharecropping families as well as cotton farmers (who owned their farmlands) looked to the common implement, the hoe, as the standard tool of each family member whose responsibility fell to chopping the lenghty rows of cotton that was harvest and sold to the local cotton gin.

Chopping cotton in common terms is simply taking a hoe, which has a wooden handle and has a blade-type end that is always kept sharp so cotton can be "weeded" as well as thinned by the farming families in order to have several bales of cotton for the fall. This operation of chopping cotton may look easy to the onlooker, but it takes skill in the hands of a sharp hoe to thin out a certain number of cotton plants leaving just enough in the hill to produce a good stand of cotton.

Agriculture fed and clothed farming families in these years when "cotton was king." But many families left the South to travel northward to Detroit, Michigan where the auto industry was in its infancy to gain employment as a way to make their wages quicker and easier than standing for hours in the hot sun while these farming families and those that the bread-winner, the father, hire to help chop the cotton then pick the cotton and ship it via trucks to the nearby cotton gin to sell it for the needed-money that these families needed to live.

NARA record 5307166 Harmony Community Putnam County Georgian chopping cotton.

NARA record 5307166 Harmony Community Putnam County Georgian chopping cotton.

The common hoe was probably the most-used tool by small scale cotton farmers.

The common hoe was probably the most-used tool by small scale cotton farmers.

The Cotton Choppers' Routine

to the farming families table of organization for the family was the father who was the leader of this family and manage set tasks to family members (for their children) per their ages. The dad made tough decisions when to chop the cotton, when the wife (or mother) could keep the meals for the family and in some cases, she would do double-duty as helping chop the cotton in the fields.

The older male children were tasked to chopping the cotton and looking after the younger kids who were not financially-able to attend school. Even the girls helped with the sometimes tedious job as chopping the cotton and then in a few weeks, pick the cotton for the family to take it to the market.

In any farming family there was no such thing as easy jobs. Every family member worked and worked hard many times enduring a sickness that almost put them into the bed to be cared for by a doctor. Chopping cotton was in no way a playground for anyone.

Many men, women, and families made money for food and other  necessities for chopping cotton for themselves or someone else.

Many men, women, and families made money for food and other necessities for chopping cotton for themselves or someone else.

was a nearly event called a "hoe down." This was when all of the cotton fields were finished chopping by the farmer, his family, and hired hands, all went to town or maybe in his barn on one Saturday night and danced the night away while some of the guys would sneak a nip or two of choice moonshine.

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Thus the meaning "hoe down," in laymen's terms when all of the hoes are laid down for next year's cotton crop.

Inside the Cotton Field,

the farming families went to their fields near daylight each day and worked until noon when the family went home to eat their dinner (lunch in city terms) and rest for a half hour or hour before taking to the cotton patch to finish out a tough day of chopping cotton that only stopped when the sun went down. Some families would take their food to the field which included several jars of cold water that was stashed in the cool shade of the nearest tree near their cotton patch.

While the family was resting after their dinner was eaten, the menfolk took a thing called rat tail files and took each hoe and sharpened each blade to make the tool that much sharper.

When the day was mercifully over, the family went about their various chores and the family worked like a well-oiled watch for the children knew that if they did not do a good job, a stern hand by the father or mother would be their reward for being slack in their duties.

Dangers in The Cotton Field

were always present. In the early South, cotton fields were not grown or managed by the huge agribusiness corporations that are known in America. The cotton farmers of the early 1930s and throughout the 1960s, were independent cotton farmers.

But this piece would not be complete unless the facts about the dangers concerning cotton field work was mentioned. Most cotton field lay near thick wooded areas and when a cotton farmer had his fields near to forestlands, there was the ever-existing danger of poisonous snakes such as rattlesnakes, cotton mouths, and copper heads. The snakes would hide in the rows of the thick cotton and strike at the first movement it detected.

At the cotton field's ends and sides there were poison plants that bore stopping to see if it was poiso ivy or poison oak. Even in the early times of cotton farming, a farmer, his family and those whom he hired to help with the farming had to be on their game to avoid being bitten by a poison snake or afflicted with poision ivy or oak.

But all and all and througout these early years of cotton farming, these strong-willed men, women, and children of this era stood their ground and never gave in to the broiling sun or the dangers because cotton fields were not a luxury that was bought for a fanciful whim, but for the sheer life of the farmers and friends.

© 2017 Kenneth Avery


Jim Ford on August 12, 2020:

I sent an email noting that the "hill" should be interpreted to mean "row", as in hard row to hoe. That was when I thought I had read the whole article.

I admit your posting is from the perspective of small farmers who apparently owned their farms. The only difference from my personal expereince in the 1960s was we lived in shacks free, provided we would work the cotton fields as needed and would be paid the going rate. I first "made a hand" at the age of 12. My Mama would fix dinner right while she was fixing breakfast. I remember fried chicken and cream style corn along with biscuits in the nearest shade during our "lunch break" in the fields. But then I ate my first McDonalds burger when I was 19.

Funny to me is the fact that the 1930s and 1940s you describe were duplicated for me except the "hoe down" never happened. We never celebrated when field work was not available and our family income was seriously reduced. I would miss the first month of school to pick cotton to buy school clothes.

I killed a lot of snakes myself. In retrospect I am not sure all of them were poisonous. I killed every snake that crossed my path.

I thought you might have understood your subject until you said "rat tailed file". I laughed because just last week I sharpened my garden hoe. It is very similar to the ones I used to labor with. I laughed at the notion of using a "rat tailed" file to sharpen anything other than a chainsaw was laughable. You see "rat tailed" files are round and the only file I ever saw used in the cotton fields was a flat file 14 to 16 inches long. It was not rare to cut yourself while sharpening your hoe but using a round file would increase the odds of injury tremendously.

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