Sunday, June 17, 2012

When Cotton Was King.

King Cotton was taken off it's throne in the South by the Boll Weevil before 1922. My cousin Aubrey Simms told me a family story in 1995 about remembering the very evening in 1922 when my father told his father that they were moving off the farm. The boll weevil had destroyed their cotton crop and basically another whole years income.

Aubrey recalled: "Uncle Wilson said to Papa, 'Jay, I've decided to go to Porterdale and get a job in one of the mills there.' " Jason was the son of Papa's sister Margaret (called Maggie) and her husband Ben Simms. They and my folks lived on neighboring farms in the Oak Hill (Georgia) community.

Aubrey said his father replied, "Uncle Wilson, I will never do that. I will go to sharecropping before I will raise my children in a mill town."

Aubrey said that Cousin Jay was very much opposed to them getting a job in the mill and especially living in a mill town. (It was a"step down" in the world of class and race. ) Apparently, Papa thought this his only option. Mama always said that "the boll weevil ran us off the farm."

The farm was in the community of Oak Hill. (Oak Hill is in Newton County near the Henry County line and also near Rockdale County

Cotton had been king in the South, and farmers made their living by raising cotton. When the tiny boll weevil infested the cotton plants, King Cotton forever lost its mighty throne in Southern farms. Many farmers lost their whole year's wages.

My father was in failing health when he got a job in one of the textile mills in Newton County (Porterdale) and moved his family into that “model mill town” in the fall of 1922. I was born the next year.

The first house our family lived in after moving to Porterdale was on Laurel Street which is a street behind the Osprey Mill Plant. However, it had the advantage of being near a lush woods and the Yellow River.

Osprey Mill was a large brick building and one of the three textile plants in Porterdale owned by Bibb Manufacturing Company. One of the buildings was called simply, “the Old Mill” and the other, “The Welonie." I am told my father worked in "the Old Mill."

The Bibb Company also owned the houses in Porterdale and kept them in good repair. They were generally considered “nicer” than the houses in some other “Textile Towns.” It was "parternalistic" but after Sherman's march through the South and the destruction of the Civil War, most of the people in the South (Caucasion and African American) had few educational or economic opportunities.

It was Laurel Street where I was born and where Leon (my three-year old brother)
died in a measles epidemic. Leon became sick with measles as did I. I was about 2 months old and had a mild case. Leon's ended in pneumonia and death.

I recently was emailed a copy of Leon Baird's' death certificate by a cousin who does family research. As I read it, I cried for my brother and my parents in their great sorrow over the death of their three year old son. I decided to publish his death certificate in memory of James Leon Baird ( October 4, 1919- April 28, 1923) whose life was short but always celebrated.

We must have lived on Laurel Street several years. My brother Charlie (about 7 at the time) told me he remembered the family's grief at Leon's death and Mama being put to bed (she had a 9 week old baby) and her heart- breaking sobbing.

I have one memory of being in the kitchen of that house on Laurel Street when I heard a crash coming from the front of the house. I remember going into a front room (I was about 2 or 3) and seeing my doll (a doll with a china face and stuffed body) broken on the floor. I looked out the open door to see a little girl, one of my playmates, running across the road to her house.

I do not remember the little girl's name. She may not have been a regular playmate. Apparently breaking the doll was traumatic for her. In my mind's eye, I see her running away wearing a light-colored dress and bloomers. Bloomers were much like some of the playsuits children wear today - a roomy undergarment with elastic not only in the waist, but also at the legs, which came down nearly to the knees with a somewhat shorter dress over it. I do not remember any reaction of the family over the broken doll on the floor on Laurel Street.

I also have a vague memory of walking in the woods behind Laurel Street holding my father's hand and picking wild flowers. Wild flowers were the only ones I would pick.

My mother told me that in our late afternoon walks down the street when I was a tiny child, I would always stop, bend over, and smell all the flowers near the sidewalk but I never picked one. We were taught not pick flowers from gardens not our own.

I suppose I learned then what I was to write about in a poem about flowers later, we do not have to own flowers to enjoy the sight and smell of them. "All that I see, belongs to me."

1 comment:

Carol said...

So sad about Leon. Mama Baird must have been so heartbroken.