Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at at time.

Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at a time.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Cotton is the fabric of Texas lives

My earliest, and about the only memories I have of my paternal grandfather involve cotton. Stanley Casstevens was a cotton farmer until the day he died. I remember, albeit vaguely, flatbed trailers enclosed with chicken wire full of harvested cotton. I remember sitting in a pile of the stuff and the feel of soft cotton and scratchy, dried bolls in my hands and on my bare legs. I was probably barely three years old at the time.

Texas, according to the AgriLIFE Extension of Texas A&M University, is first in United States cotton production, and cotton is the leading cash crop for the Lone Star State. Every now and then, while driving through the state, I’ll see cotton ready to be harvested.

Cotton fed my family for generations. Not literally, of course. It was the crop they raised from the middle of the 19th century up until about 1969. My father used to tell me stories of how he and his brothers hoed cotton until their hands were blistered. “Go to college,” my grandfather told the boys. “If you go to college, you won’t have to be a farmer.”

All three boys and their younger sister heeded that advice.

Probably just about every Texas family who has been here for three or more generations has a cotton story to tell. Cotton, as the slogan goes, really is the fabric of our lives. A friend of mine once told me her grandfather died in a cotton field off of Highway 84. He was an entomologist checking a cotton field for bugs, and had a heart attack right there in the field.

The “Cotton Belt” was the name of a railroad line (St. Louis Southwestern Railway) that ran through Arkansas, Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri and Texas from 1891-1992 was based in my hometown, Tyler.

The Cotton Bowl in Dallas is, you guessed it, based on the crop and its importance to Texas.

The earliest known evidence of cotton production dates to 5,800 B.C. in the Tehuacan Valley in Mexico. Cotton is believed to have reached Texas in the early 1800s. There were cotton plantations along the middle Brazos River, the first of which were near Washington-on-the-Brazos, the birthplace of Texas independence.

The Texas Cotton Ginners’ Association is one of the oldest cotton organizations in the U.S. It was founded in Waco in 1897. Some interesting facts about cotton in Texas from the AgriLIFE folks:

*Cotton generates $1.6 billion for farmers, with a state-wide economic impact of $5.2 billion. *Cotton is grown on five million acres in six different regions.

*Insects that affect cotton include the boll weevil, bollworm, fleahoppers, aphids and something called a thrip. Also on the list, budworms, cutworms, beet armyworm, spider mites and whiteflies.

A thrip, by the way, is a tiny, slender insect with fringed wings. They’re also called thunderflies, thunderbugs, storm flies or corn lice.

Yep, that pretty much put me off my lunch too.

Cotton requires a minimum of 180-200 sunny, warm days and dry weather for harvest, which is why Texas is king when it comes to cotton. A crop started in March or April should be ready for harvest in September.

When it comes to Texas, most people think about oil and cattle. While those do constitute a large part of Texas economics and legend, for Texans, cotton is the feel of the Lone Star State.

I have the hay hook my grandfather used to hoist bales of cotton. My Aunt Susan remembered using it as a teenager. “Nearly hooked my own leg with it a time or two,” she told me.

My ex-husband tried to throw it away once. “What do you want with that old thing,” he asked. “It’s old and useless.”

“That’s a part of my family history. It’s a part of our daughters’ history. That old hook represents who we were and where we came from. That’s 125 years worth of Texas and Casstevens right there,” I said. He never understood, but then he’s from New Jersey. I think it’s only a Texas/Southern thing to care about who your people were and what they did to get you where you are now.

So while the rest of the world sees cattle and oil as something unconditionally “Texan,” for me, it will always be cotton. It’s the fabric of our lives and the history of our people.

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