Remember When: Picking cotton

Lewis Wickes Hine’s shared an imaged of town children from ages four to six years old who came out to pick cotton after school with the grown-ups.

Editor’s note: Phil Robinson is a member of the Kingsburg High Class of 1961.

KINGSBURG – The last time I was in Kingsburg was two years ago for my father’s memorial service. Dad had lived on 20 acres near Kings River Elementary for the past 45 years.

Since my adult children were in town to say goodbye to Grandpa George, I wanted to take them to New London, or just London as I think it is now called. They seemed amazed that I had spent my formative years in this small village. I told them that I had loved it here, that it was a great place to grow up. We did the same things that kids in the bigger towns did. We rode our bikes, played seasonal sports, swam in the canals, and picked grapes and cotton.

“Picked cotton,” they laughed.

“Yes,” I said.

In the fall, we would come home from school, grab our cotton sacks and head to a nearby field. We liked to work for Reverend Smith. He was a black preacher who had a very small church in London. He was also a farm labor contractor who hired the pickers, weighed your sack of cotton, and paid you on the spot. His wife had an old house trailer they had converted into what now is commonly known as a food truck. She sold candy, soft drinks, hot soup, and other goodies. So often, most of our earnings would go from Reverend Smith’s tackle box where he kept his money, to his wife’s food trailer.

On Saturdays, we would usually pick all day. My dad could easily pick 400 pounds in one day. At my young age I don’t think I ever picked over 100 pounds in a full day. But at three cents a pound that was three dollars, which sounded like a small fortune to my 10-year-old mind.

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I miss those halcyon days of autumn, the smell of the cotton, the sound of the sack being pulled along the ground, climbing the ladder and emptying your full sack into the white, fluffy cotton below, dreaming of how you would spend your earnings, and the anticipation of stopping for lunch.

As I look back on it, lunch was weird when I picked with my dad. We would drive to the nearest little grocery store and dad would buy a loaf of white bread, five or six wieners, and soft drinks. Lunch would be a piece of white bread wrapped around a cold wiener with a Pepsi chaser. It doesn’t sound very appetizing now, but actually tasted pretty good after a morning of picking on a warm autumn day.

Of course, those days are long gone now. The small amount of cotton that is grown in the area, if any, has been picked by machine for more than 50 years.

My relatives, the “Arkies and Okies” that populated London in the 1950’s have been replaced by our hard-working Mexican friends. In a few years, they will probably be replaced by another immigrant group trying to find their place in this land of opportunity.

As I sit on my deck near Seattle, looking at Mt Rainier, I wish I could go back in time for just one more day. I’d love to drag my heavy sack along a row of cotton, listen to the conversations of the other pickers, and have a bowl of Mrs. Smith’s hot soup. After climbing the ladder to the top of the trailer, I might even “accidentally” fall into the soft cotton, like we used to do.

Readers may submit memories of bygone eras for the “Remember When” series by sending entries to editor@selmaenterprise.com. Include any photographs of the occasion.

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