Friday, November 6, 2009

Day 39: The land of cotton

Highway 61 and Route HH to Conran. 21.3 miles/630 total

Friday, November 6, 2009

I'm at U.S. 61 and Route HH, headed south to just outside the village of Conran, Missouri, by an abandoned roadside stand, going through the city of New Madrid. Although some regard the whole southeast corner of Missouri, including Sikeston, as part of the bootheel, today I will officially reach the bootheel, which is, strictly speaking, the area below the rest of the border between Missouri and Arkansas, at the 36-30 parallel. Conran is just about at that parallel.

Cotton. You pick up a piece from the side of the road, where it looks like a bunch of cotton balls. But when you manipulate it you realize it contains seeds, about the size of small peas, deep inside the fibers. The fibers cling to the seeds, and it requires persistence and digital dexterity to remove them. The fibers are nature’s way of getting the seed to blow around to various places and propagate itself, I suppose, like the fluff of a dandelion.

It was the problem of how to efficiently remove these seeds that preoccupied a Connecticut inventor by the name of Eli Whitney. Whitney had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale, and was hoping to become a lawyer, but he didn’t have enough money. So he accepted a position as a tutor down south, and while there, he became interested in the process of separating the seeds from cotton. His invention, the cotton gin, was patented in 1794. (Whitney also invented a musket with interchangeable parts, which he manufactured under contract with the U.S. government.)

Machines to separate cotton seeds from the fibers had been in use for centuries, but they were relatively difficult to use. The Chinese and the Indians had them. Therefore, it is not technically accurate to say that Whitney invented the cotton gin; he invented a cotton gin that was mechanically more elegant and effective than those in existence. In any event, since it obviated the manual separation of seeds from fiber and greatly increased the amount of cotton that could be processed, it revolutionized the agriculture of the south, with some attendant social consequences. Instead of decreasing the need for manual labor, the cotton gin greatly increased it. As far more land was given over to cotton cultivation, the need for people to plant, pick, and process cotton skyrocketed. Between the time of the invention of the cotton gin and the year 1808, over 80,000 new slaves were brought over from Africa. By the time if the Civil War, about one in three persons in the south was a slave.

Without a doubt it was cotton, and the cotton gin, that most seriously affected the agriculture and economy of the south, and caused the greatest increase in the number of slaves. After the Civil War the continuing need for manual labor in connection with cotton led to the development of share cropping, a quasi-feudal form of peonage that persists to the present day.

So how important is cotton today? Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m wearing blue jeans, which are made of denim, which is cotton. The shirt and t-shirt I’m wearing are 100% cotton. My underwear and socks are all cotton except for the elastic parts. In fact, everything I’m wearing except for my shoes is made of cotton.

Many of the dead of New Madrid lie interred in Evergreen Cemetery, just to the north of the city. I take a walk inside a have a look around. They’ve got folks named Robbins, O’Bannon, Hedgepeth, Ransburgh, and Hunter. Hubard Eugene Croach lived less than a year and a half, from 1933 to 1934. I sit down on his tombstone to rest, and think about what this boy—this baby—might have become. He would be 76 now if he’d lived. In all likelihood very few people have though about little Hubard in many decades. His mother and father, Nellie May and Hubard Lee, are long gone, lying here on either side of him. They’re all together now, and I’ve joined them for a moment of rest and solitude.

I arrive at the city limits of New Madrid, population 3,334. I’m taking a detour from Highway 61 on Old Kingshighway in the direction of downtown. Years ago U.S. 61 probably went right through the city center. I visit the New Madrid County Courthouse, built in 1915. It’s a handsome limestone building, but nothing special. It has a polished black and white tile floor inside leading to a rotunda that looks up at a second floor and a small dome and stained glass skylight above. The Higgerson School is a one-room schoolhouse that was floated over from Higgerson Landing, wherever that is, and restored and placed in the middle of town.

New Madrid is on the Mississippi River. But unlike up in Iowa or Minnesota, where there are bluffs overlooking the river, here the land is flat and low, and you can't see the river from downtown because of the levee. So I walk up onto the levee to take look. The mighty Mississippi stretches a mile or more over to Kentucky on the other side. And it's a good thing this levee is here, because from the looks of it the river is as high as the town is.

Up on the levee there’s a historical marker that tells some of the New Madrid story. It says New Madrid was the first American town in Missouri, founded in 1789 by George Morgan, a Princeton graduate and Indian trader, on the site of the trading post of the LeSieur brothers, Francois and Joseph, called L’Anse a la Graise. Morgan left, but after that American settlement began in earnest. The New Madrid earthquake, one of the world's largest, was centered here. It took place in 1811. (I read somewhere else that it was thought to have been about a 9.0 on the Richter scale. That’s big.) Aftershocks continued for over a year. It could be felt as far as 1100 miles away. But few lives were lost because the area was so sparsely settled. In 1862 Union forces took over New Madrid.

As I'm buying a drink at the gas station/convenience store/catfish restaurant, I pull out a beat up nickel and penny in partial payment, which the guy at the register has to look at closely to determine what they were. I say to him, “That’s found-on-the-road money,” and he replies, “Ah kin tay-ull.”

A sign in front of somebody’s house says, “I’ll keep my freedom, my Bible, my guns, and my money. You can keep ‘The Change.’” That sums up quite neatly the distinction between the conservatives and the progressives in this country. The conservatives don’t want things to change—they want to keep them the same as they were at some time in the past when they imagine that things were really good. It doesn’t matter how old these people are, or what precise year they’re thinking of. It’s always some time when they were about ten or twelve years old. They yearn for the past, hate the present, and fear the future. Progressives look forward to change, and to a future that improves on the present. Nowhere is this contrast as neatly showcased as in the attitudes of the Confederacy and the Union during the Civil War, reflected in their marching songs. For the south, it was “Dixie,” which is all about the past:

I wish I was in the land of cotton,
Old times there are not forgotten,
Look away, look away, look away, Dixie land.
In Dixie land where I was born,
Early on one frosty morn,
Look away, look away, look away, Dixie land.

Then there’s "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which is about a future full of change, albeit a sort of apocalyptic one, in which justice marches in at last:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword,
His truth is marching on.

This stark contrast illuminates the reasons why people were fighting on both sides of that war. In the south it was to keep things the way they had always been. In the north it was to change things for the better.

I enter Howardville, population 342. Not a lot to distinguish it as I walk through. However, later I read that the town was founded by Travis Howard, father of Elston Howard, the great Yankee catcher, and the first African American to play for the team. How fitting, as I continue to celebrate the victory of the Yankees over the Phillies in the World Series. Howardville’s population, by the way, is over 92% African American.

The next village I enter, at about 17 miles, is Marston, population 610. Marston is a cotton town. Cotton fields surround it, and in the center of the town is the Richardson Gin. Huge semi-truck-sized rectangular blocks of just-harvested cotton, eight by eight by thirty feet, sit in a lot across from the gin, covered on the top and halfway down with green plastic. These blocks are called modules. As much cotton as litters the sides of the road out in the country, there’s much more in this town, along the road, in ditches, in parking lots, up against fences. They are awash in cotton here.

At last, about three miles down from Marston, the motor home comes into view, at the intersection of Highway 61 and Routes M and F, just outside the village of Conran.


Anonymous said...

I missed the daily weather report. ddIt helps the imagination get a sense of awhat the day feels like.

Peter Teeuwissen said...

Oh, sorry. It was sunny and in the high 50s, with a strong breeze blowing in from the south southeast.

Billie Bob said...

You know, that comment you made in "Day 38" about cotton being "white as hell", it got the two of us thinking(always a dangerous thing). Is hell going to be so white because of all the white people residing there, kind of like suburbia? Or were you referring to the temperature? I might be able to handle red-hot, but white-hot? Maybe I better rethink some things…