Evolution of cotton production witnessed by area residents

Sunday, November 17, 2002
The McGee Street Production Company used the Portis Gin in Lepanto for the ginning scenes in "A Painted House." (Tribune photo/Laura Jane Glover)

The local production of "A Painted House" has made area residents aware of the significant progress in cotton production in the last 50 years.

On a set built by McGee Street Productions, south of Lepanto, movie characters spent long hot days picking cotton by hand. Many area residents can remember picking cotton by hand, then watching one-row, two-row and finally six-row cotton pickers take on that burden.

The cotton gin in Lepanto, though no longer in operation, was used for the filming of the ginning scenes for the TV movie. The days when every small town had its own cotton gin are long gone; those small operation gins have been replaced by large area gins with enormous capacities. At the height of its operation, the Portis Gin in Lepanto ginned 10 to 12 bales per hour. Currently, the E. Ritter Gin in Marked Tree gins 30 bales per hour.

Dr Fred Bourland, Director of the Northeast Research and Extension Center, said, "International Harvester (IH) developed the first successfully used, spindle-type cotton picker. It was a one-row, tractor-mounted cotton picker and was first manufactured in 1941. By 1950, only five percent of American cotton crop was machine harvested; in 1960, it was 50 percent and by 1963, it was 72 percent.

"As I recall, the percent in this area mushroomed between 1960 and 1965, probably going from about 10 to over 90 percent mechanical harvest. This change is still evident by the number of vacant stores in towns throughout the Delta today.

"The first pickers were one-row, tractor-mounted - with the cotton picker header mounted on the rear end of the tractor. The gearbox on the IH tractors had to be changed so that forward and reverse gears were reversed then the machine was always operated from the cotton picker seat. With the less-successful one-row John Deere pickers, the driver would pick in reverse gear. When going down a road, the picker would appear to be going in reverse since the operator would drive from the original tractor seat.

"The self-propelled two-row pickers were introduced into this area in the mid-1960's. They soon replaced the one-row pickers. The four-row picker became available in the late 1980's and the six-row in circa 2000."

The module system has also made a dramatic impact on the cotton harvest. The steel module builder consists of a box large enough to hold 15,000 pounds (10 to 12 bales) of seed cotton, a cab and a hydraulic tramper. Cotton from the picker is emptied directly into the box, and is compressed with the tramper. When the box is full, a tractor pulls it forward, leaving on the turn row a "loaf" of cotton that is eight feet high by eight feet wide by thirty-two feet long. The module is covered with a tarp and marked for identification. A specially designed module mover, a modified flatbed trailer, picks up the module and carries it to the gin, where it is unloaded into the cotton storage yard or directly under the suction telescope for ginning.

"The first work on the module system was done by Ag Engineers at the University of Arkansas. They developed what was called a "cotton caddy," which included the basics of the module system, but without the hydraulics. The system was perfected at Texas A&M in the early 1970's.

"Recently the module system was named by the Society of Agricultural Engineers as the third most important invention associated with cotton production (behind the gin and mechanical picker). The system was introduced into this area in the 1980's, but did not become near universally used until the 1990's.

"An economic study done prior to development of the module system indicated that the cotton trailer was the most costly piece of equipment associated with cotton production when considered on a per bale production bases. Farmers had to maintain a high number of trailers because gins would get behind on ginning and the trailers would often stay at gin for long time - sometimes picking would have to be stopped to wait on empty trailer. The greatest advantage of the module system is that pickers never have to wait on a trailer. Additional advantages include the increase in speed of unloading, no tromping of cotton by people, grower does not have to haul cotton to gin and return empty trailer, and seed cotton will condition in module if moisture is correct to provide better cleaning during ginning," Bourland said.

The McGee Street Production Company had to build the cotton trailers used in "A Painted House," because trailers from that era are no longer common. The production crew also had to put trash' into the cotton that was used, because the cotton pickers now filter most of the debris from the field.

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