I saw it the other day driving up I-85, in the countryside around Kannapolis and Salisbury. We’re a top-10 cotton-producing state – nearly a million bales last year – but most of the farms are way out East. Around here you mostly see little patches off the side of the road, looking like snowfields.
This area has such a tangled history with thread and string and yarn. Our towns and cities grew because of the cotton mills – shoot, Kannapolis was created from scratch as a mill town. Hundreds of thousands of Carolinians made a living in the mills. Then synthetic fibers took out a lot of the farmers. Later on, most of the textile companies went off overseas. We got left with beautiful old brick buildings with broken windows.
To so many families around here, cotton was a personal thing. They got the lint in their hair and the dust in their lungs. They dried themselves with Carolina towels and clothed themselves in Carolina denim. As the mills died out, so did the idea that you could get on with one company and work there the rest of your life. People still love the mills, and hate them, often both at the same time.
Cotton was personal in my family, too.
My mom and dad grew up in Georgia as sharecroppers. Both their families picked cotton in fields other people owned. My mom had to quit school in fourth grade and my dad in sixth. They spent every dry day in the fields. They dragged the heavy sacks of cotton down the rows. They picked until dark.
To this day, when we drive by a cotton field, my mama turns her head away.
But my folks climbed the ladder like so many others. They made it off the cotton field and into factory work. My dad went out on his own as a carpenter. We have always had those possibilities in this country for people who work with their hands. You could make your way through ever-better blue-collar jobs. You could set things up so your children wouldn’t have to work so hard.
That progression is so much different now.
It’s a combination of the economy and evolution. The world is evolving toward more high-tech jobs – jobs that require skill in math, science, computers, electronics. At the same time, our sagging economy is hitting blue-collar workers hardest. Jobs have been washed out from under them like sand around a piling.
A cotton field is a beautiful sight on an October drive. These days, it’s good to see a crop that will help a farmer put food on the table. And cotton belongs here, as part of our history. They even have machines to strip the fields now.
But I still get a little shudder when I look at a cotton field. It’s part of my inheritance.
Cotton is deceptive. It looks like you can just pluck the bolls like flowers. But the plants are low, and cotton hulls are as sharp as thorns. My folks, like so many others who picked cotton by hand, ended up with torn-up hands and bent-over backs.
It was awful work. The only thing worse would have been not having it.