Editor’s note: Jay Cooper’s wife, Maggie, wrote today’s The Garden Spot column.
Many of my earliest childhood memories happened in the backdrop of a cotton field. I was raised in rural Arizona, near Tucson, where cotton was a big crop and bringing irrigation water to cotton farmers was how my father, Pat Garrett, made his living.
My dad’s real name wasn’t Pat; it was Wilmer. Wilmer was a common southern name in Texas in the early 1900s. As you might guess, my dad was less than thrilled with his surname — especially when the Southern drawl of his Texas relatives would make his name sound more like “Wilma.” As an adult, when friends and co-workers nicknamed him Pat after the famous Marshal Pat Garrett who shot Billy the Kid, he didn’t fight it.
There was a huge cotton field behind our house, and to me, watching it sprout, produce and yield crop every year was just part of the scenery. I was not impressed. What I didn’t like about the cotton field was the massive population of frogs that hatched during summer’s irrigation. I fell asleep every summer night to the sound of those frogs.
I didn’t know until I was grown that cotton was not only a large part of my dad’s life, it had been the livelihood of his parents in Texas as well. Haiward and Maggie Garrett were sharecroppers in middle Texas. Maggie was one of 13 children born to a plantation family in the late 1800s. By the time she and Haiward had a family, the big plantation was gone and they were eking out a living in the cotton fields.
My dad started picking cotton in the Texas fields, with his 6 siblings, as soon as he was old enough to drag the burlap bag behind him. He grew up surrounded by other families who also picked cotton. Some of them were descendants of slaves who had chosen to remain on the plantation after to earn their living from cotton, and they were paid a fair wage by my great grandfather. My dad told many wonderful stories about him and his friends of color during those tough times in Texas.
When dad was 10, his family decided to leave Texas in 1924 and to venture out west where the promise of good jobs and wide-open spaces beckoned them. Maggie and Haiward never grew cotton again. Grandpa went to work in an underground mine in Miami, Arizona, and later was disabled by a cave-in that left him with a broken back. He survived, but was never able to work again. They eventually moved to California. Their children settled mostly in Arizona where my dad met my mother and thus, began my history. Haiward and Maggie lived a good life; Maggie passed at age 98!
As an Arizona native, moving to Utah was a big change for me. But after nearly 17 years here, I’ve become a diehard Utahn. Utah’s climate isn’t conducive to cotton crops, so you might be asking why this article is about cotton. Since I’ve recently begun to get more in touch with my ancestry, I’ve found the cultivation and production process, along with the vast uses for cotton, to be fascinating. It’s easy to miss the part that cotton comes from a plant. It’s interesting to remember that it all starts with a seed.
Cotton farmers today plant seed with mechanical planters that cover as many as 10 to 24 rows at a time. The planter opens a small trench or furrow in each row, drops in the right amount of seed, covers them and packs the earth on top. The seed is planted uniformly either in small clumps or singularly. Large cultivators are used to uproot any weeds and grass that competes with the cotton plant for soil nutrients, sunlight and water.
About two months after planting, flower buds called squares appear on the cotton plants. In another three weeks, the blossoms open. Their petals change from creamy white to yellow, then pink and finally, dark red. After three days, they wither and fall, leaving green pods called cotton bolls (now you know where the term “boll weevil” comes from!). A boll is simply a football-shaped protective case that grows around the cotton plant’s seeds. Cotton fibers start to form inside the bolls and wrap around the seeds.
The moist fibers continue to grow and eventually the boll ripens and turns brown. Finally, the fibers split the boll apart and the fluffy cotton bursts forth like white cotton candy. This brings back many memories for me, driving past mature cotton fields with my mom on our way to school or a friend’s house. I imagined it must be what snow looked like, since I had never seen any.
Cotton and its uses date back to prehistoric times. Cotton fragments from 5000 BC have been excavated in Mexico. While cotton has been around since antiquity, its widespread use didn’t explode until the invention of the cotton gin, which lowered the cost of its production.
A cotton gin is where the cotton fiber is separated from the cottonseed. The first step is to vacuum the cotton fibers off the bolls. These fibers are then carried to a dryer where moisture is reduced. The fibers are then run through a cleaning process to remove leaves, sticks and other foreign matter. The raw fiber, called lint, makes its way through another series of pipes to a press where it is compressed into bales. Each bale is banded, sampled for classing, wrapped and loaded onto trucks for shipment to storage yards, textile mills and even foreign countries. Today, cotton is the most widely used natural fiber cloth in the world. It is estimated that cotton production worldwide is now about 25 million tons annually.
Just think of all the things you have in your home that contain cotton, like clothing that’s either 100-percent cotton or made from a cotton-blend fabric, and most underwear, socks, and T-shirts. Bed sheets are usually made from cotton due to its naturally soft feel. Cotton yarn is used for knitting and crocheting. There’s also super absorbent terry cloth that’s used to make bath towels and washcloths.
But what happens to all those cottonseeds that are extracted from bolls during the ginning process? Do they go to waste? Not at all!
Cottonseeds are used in cattle feed and are also crushed to make cooking-grade oil. Cottonseed oil contains high amounts of antioxidants, is high in Vitamin E, low in cholesterol and helps enhance the flavor of food rather than hide it. Cottonseed oil is great for baking because of its light texture and is often found in salad dressings. Its nut-like flavor is hard to miss and is an ingredient in many snacks as well. But its uses don’t end with food. You’ll also find cottonseed oil in products like soap, emulsifiers, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, rubber and plastics. And, after the oil is extracted from the seeds, the leftover material (called cake or meal) is used to feed poultry and other livestock.
Overall, the cotton industry creates more than 340,000 jobs and generates over $60 billion of business annually in the United States. It is one of the largest crops we produce.
Still, my mind goes back to those humid Texas days when tired fingers picked hundreds of cotton bolls until dark, placing them in a dusty burlap bag. What a heritage I have of hard-working, dedicated people, who did whatever they had to do to provide for their family. It was a time in our history when every family member contributed — not because it was fun, but because it was needed. Here’s to you, Haiward and Maggie, and to all of your 7 children who are in heaven with you today. I am so proud!
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his channel at youtube.com/dirtfarmerjay for videos on the hands-on life of gardening, shop and home skills, culinary arts and landscaping.