Cherokee was once a land of cotton
by Juanita Hughes
columnist
October 24, 2012 12:00 AM | 1198 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Juanita Hughes
Juanita Hughes
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An inquiry in the Q & A in an area newspaper caught my eye — and my interest. A Cherokee County resident asked if Georgia is a cotton state. She did not know there are cotton fields in Georgia until she saw them on her way to Florida.

This has to mean she did not grow up in Georgia or else she missed a few chapters in the Georgia history textbook. And she didn’t read “Gone With The Wind” or see the movie.

As many historians have written, the inventor of the cotton gin, Eli Whitney, hatched his idea after a visit to a Georgia plantation. (I’m as dumb as the next one. I never knew that “gin” was short for “engine” until a few short years ago. Much like “still” as in whiskey, short for “distillery.”)

It was this invention that catapulted cotton to the forefront, soon causing the escalation of slavery, and eventually bringing about the Civil War.

If there had not been tons of cotton to be picked, by hand, there would have been no need for slaves. And if machinery had not made the removal of the cotton seed from the fiber faster and better, the industry would likely have died.

Cotton may have been King for many years all over the Southland, but the boll weevil eventually took its toll.

The comeback wasn’t easy, but as our neighbor discovered, there are still cotton fields, although machinery now does the picking … and planting and fertilizing, the ginning and baling.

You won’t see many, if any, cotton fields in Cherokee County today. Like neighboring counties north of us, the lay of the land does not lend itself to cotton farming, and the farther north one goes, the less favorable is the climate for growing.

But once-upon-a-time, Cotton was King, not only in South Georgia, but in Woodstock, Canton, and similar communities even across Georgia’s northern counties.

That blossom you see on the mural at Towne Lake Parkway and Main Street in Woodstock is a cotton blossom. It was included in the mural to acknowledge the importance of cotton in Woodstock’s history.

Cotton was the main crop for many decades, and the Rope Mill was a vital element in the city’s economy, producing cotton rope and tents. With the advent of the railroad, everybody benefitted … the farmers, the merchants, the mill workers. Just up the road, Canton Cotton Mill was the main employer in Canton.

After the boll weevil paid his unwelcome visit leading up to and including the 1920s, cotton was no longer the economic engine that it had once been.

But the boll weevil died, cotton survived, and Texas is the only state that now produces more cotton than Georgia.

While the hills and mountains in north Georgia don’t boast of cotton crops today, there were some cotton fields when I was growing up in the valley between the Fort /Grassy Mountains east of Chatsworth, and the Dug Gap range of Civil War fame west of Dalton.

I picked cotton for my Uncle Jay, a true farmer who supplemented his meager income from farming by working at the Crown Cotton Mill in Dalton.

He paid a penny a pound to nieces and nephews, but I never knew if he paid his own children. I doubt it.

These chilly mornings remind me of those mornings in the field. It was not easy to pluck the cotton from the prickly bolls when your hands were freezing.

A few years ago granddaughter Samantha gave me a very special birthday gift … tickets for her and me to go to a one-woman show featuring Joanna Maddox as Rachel Clark, the African-American neighbor of President Jimmy Carter who is listed by Carter as one of the five people who most deeply affected his early life.

Her cotton-picking abilities are legendary. While Carter achieved a maximum of 150 pounds of cotton picked in one day, Rachel Clark’s 350 pounds dwarfed his record.

In Carter’s book, “An Hour Before Daylight,” he relates that “men avoided picking cotton when possible, partially because the women’s more dextrous fingers gave them an advantage and they excelled at this task.” (Yeah, right.)

Actress Maddox convinced me. As she told her story, filled with insights into life in Plains, and life as a friend and neighbor to the Carter family, her fingers deftly moved in concert with her words.

It was easy to imagine this remarkable woman moving through the cotton rows, stripping the plants of their precious cargo.

And the answer is … Yes. As Georgians we are in “the land of cotton.”

Juanita Hughes is retired head of the Woodstock Library.

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