Historic Farming: Cotton Pickin' In South Texas

Courtesy of the Pioneer Museum, Fredericksburg, TX

Courtesy of the Pioneer Museum, Fredericksburg, TX

Dear Readers,

This is a photo of a photo (and not a very good one at that, sorry!)  I encountered it in a rather unlikely location--the (very nice) ladies' restroom at the Pioneer Museum in Fredericksburg, TX.  Of course I forgot to ask the nice folks who run the museum more about it, but I was excited to spot it because it basically captures my maternal grandmother's childhood down here in South Texas in the 1920s-30s.  

This is exactly the way my Grandma Bess (1919-2015) described her growing-up experience in the San Antonio region.  Her parents were sharecroppers and would move from farm to farm, picking cotton.   From the way Grandma Bess told it, you'd never guess that they basically had nothing (the kids often went without shoes.)   The things she focused on were the family memories--funny little stories that always made us laugh. 

If you look at the child at the far left side of the photo, you can see the big burlap sacks that they would wear to pick cotton into.  Grandma and her siblings would have competitions to see who could pick the most cotton the fastest. They had to wear thick clothing to protect themselves from the barbs on the cotton, or their legs and arms would get cut. Grandma never mentioned if they wore gloves to protect their hands, but according to a resource I found, cotton picking was arduous and painful.  A full bag could weigh up to 100 pounds--imagine a kid hauling that around in the Texas heat!   These were details that Grandma never stressed--she always considered herself very lucky to have a Mom and a Dad who loved the family, loved God, and made sure they had enough to eat.  

Food was up there with faith at Grandma's.  When we went to visit as kids, it was three solid meals a day, her way of showing us love by making sure we packed on a few pounds during our visit.  There were her famous sour-cream pancakes and bacon & eggs for breakfast, always some kind of soup for lunch, with cornbread or buttermilk biscuits and Paul Harvey blaring on the radio, and for dinner a resplendent batch of dumplings, or steak, accompanied with a pistachio jello-mold salad (with marshmallows) and fried okra and more cornbread.  Grandma taught me that the heart of the home is the kitchen, and I spent many happy hours there watching her make bread, or biscuits, or her coveted Butterhorn Cookies (which I still have yet to master!)

My sister's in the pigtails, I'm in the braid. Whipping up something tasty with Grandma. 1990-something, our kitchen in Denver

My sister's in the pigtails, I'm in the braid. Whipping up something tasty with Grandma. 1990-something, our kitchen in Denver

Grandma and her siblings worked long hours in the fields, which probably had rattlesnakes and scorpions if it's anything like the memories other Texas residents recorded in Harder Than Hardscrabblewhich is a great read if you're looking for more on this subject.  They walked miles to school when they could be spared from the fields, and the big social events in their lives were tent revival meetings (Grandma once said that the best thing that happened as a kid was when her father found Jesus and abandoned alcohol, although I think drinking might have been my recreational activity of choice too, had I been trying to raise six kids in South Texas during the Depression, picking cotton. Luckily I will never have to put that theory to the test!)  

I was so thrilled to spot this black & white photo of a family in the cotton field and be reminded of what life was like for Grandma--how things have changed (San Antonio is rapidly working on paving itself over) and how they haven't (every time I make Grandma's Cornbread, I think of her.)  You can click here for the recipe.

Yours Truly,


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