Wednesday, October 13, 2010

In the land of cotton

Cotton! I was on my way to an errand in a small town nearby – China Grove – when I came around a curve and saw this. At first I thought it was snow, but the temperatures (still in the low 80s, despite the calendar reading October) obviously ruled that out.

My excitement about seeing cotton growing just a few miles from my house makes it obvious that I am a Yankee living in the South. I’ve now lived more of my life in southern states than in northern ones, but my accent (and my excitement about seeing cotton, I suppose!) will always reveal my roots. 

Cotton used to be a common crop in North Carolina. It is one of the reasons that this state was a center for textiles. Today, most of the textile plants are closed, and the jobs gone, mostly to Asia. That’s where the majority of our lovely cotton quilting fabrics are printed these days.

There is an storefront in the historic center of Mooresville with faded old lettering on its door that has a name and “cotton broker” on it. The railroad tracks that run right through town used to carry cotton in and out of town, and straight to the door of Burlington Mills in Mooresville. The mill manufactured denim into the 1990s, when it shut up its doors and the company – and hundreds of jobs – left town.


Nowadays, you seldom see cotton crops while driving through North Carolina. It is a fascinating sight this time of year. The plant itself is prickly and scraggly:

…but the hull where the cotton fiber comes out is a lovely shape:

Picking it by hand must have been incredibly back-breaking and hand-bloodying work.

I am reminded of this song I learned as a child, probably from my mother:
Jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton,
Jump down, turn around, pick a bale a day.

O Lordie, pick a bale of cotton,
O Lordie, pick a bale a day.

Me and my gal can pick a bale a cotton
Me and my gal can pick a bale a day. 

And of this one – “Dixie Land,” of course:
O, I wish I was in the land of cotton
Old times there are not forgotten
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
In Dixie Land where I was born in
Early on one frosty mornin’
Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.
O, I wish I was in Dixie! Hooray! Hooray!
In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand
To live and die in Dixie
|: Away, away, away down south in Dixie! :|

NOTE: Ann Marsh, a woman I met at Barnful of Quilts who read my blog today, just wrote me to tell me that folk/blues singer Huddie Ledbetter poplularized the song “Pick a Bale of Cotton.” She sent me the link to this interesting website that details his extraordinary life. You can hear Ledetter singing the song here: Pick A Bale Of Cotton by HUDDIE LEDBETTER