Heritage, Volume 11, Number 1, Winter 1993 Page: 8
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intact, with all the machinery, personnel
and business records, tools, and even the
ubiquitous cotton lint around the gin
stands. Second, local efforts to preserve
the historic gin have led to the formation
of a highly motivated and productive nonprofit
group called Operation Restoration.
The organization has made the gin a rallying
point for programs leading to National
Register designations, the formation of a
Cotton Gin Festival, plans for a research
center on cotton production, and assistance
from such groups as the National
Trust for Historic Preservation, the
Smithsonian Institution, and the Texas
Historical Commission. In addition,
Baylor University, The University of Texas
at Austin, and Texas A&M University
have joined with Operation Restoration
by providing technical expertise.
The Baylor University Institute for Oral
History became associated with the project
in 1991, when it began recording memoirs
of individuals representing various aspects
of the cotton industry in western Washington
County. Cotton is the common
thread of the oral history project, binding
together the stories of farmers, sharecroppers,
teachers, merchants, bankers, and
gin workers. Without exception, those
who grew up in the cotton culture have
never forgotten the intensity of the associated
labor, the uncertainty of the market,
or the common struggle of the community.
The sharpness of their remembered
images is equalled only by the eloquence
of their spoken words.
BG rover Williams, an AfricanAmerican
farmer raised in the Flat Prairie
community near Burton, recalled both
the pain and the family discipline associated
with the stoop labor of picking cotton:
"If they did catch us on our knees,
we'd get up and say, 'Mama, my back's
hurting.' You know what they'd say, don't
you? They'd say, 'Boy, you don't have a
back, you've just got a gristle."'
Adversity was common in cotton production,
and Williams remembered his
father, working in a cloud of poisonous
dust, in a futile attempt to beat the scourge
of the boll weevil:
We used a Paris green, I think they call it.
It's something like arsenic. See, the old
man he must have been immune to all of
that: snakebites and arsenic and poison.
The historical marker at the Burton Farmers Gin
notes that it "is one of the few remaining complete gin
and mill complexes in the United States."
"If they did catch
us on our knees,
we'd get up and
say, 'Mama, my
You know what
they'd say..." Boy,
you don't have a
back, you've just
got a gristle.'"
See, he didn't have the equipment like the
affluent farmers had, you know, where they
go in there with sprayers and stuff, whatever.
He had to get him a long stick, just as
wide as the row, you know. The only
protection he had on, he had on maybe an old
handkerchief across his mouth. And he had
a little dust bag on each end of that pole. He
had to walk and he'd just jiggle it as he walked
down the row .... He'd come back to the
house looking like a dust bowl.
Eddie Wegner, a descendant of an early
German family, remembered the threat of
Johnson grass, an invasive weed he referred
to as "the plague." Speaking of a visit to a
neighbor's farm, he said:
I drove up and he was pulling Johnson
grass, and I said, 'What are you doing, Mr.
John?' He said, 'I'm trying to take care of
this Johnson grass.' I said, 'Don't you
know there's hardly any end to that?' He
said, 'I well realize that.' I said, 'How long
have you been fighting?' He said, 'All my
Wegner also spoke of the family cooperation
essential for economic survival.
Even the birth of a baby did not deter a
woman from joining her husband and children
in the fields. When Wegner was born,
his father fashioned a small, enclosed, frame
baby pen on skids.
Dad would hook old Dobbin to it and pull it
in that area. Because I know I was told
when I was just a squalling brat-my sister
was two years my senior-that I was a
'mama's boy.' And I would holler, 'Mama,
Mama, Mama, Mama,' until I couldn't
see her chop over the hill anymore. So when
she came back I was elated, of course.
I LA central theme in the oral histories,
especially with respect to the years
of the Great Depression, evolve around
"making do." With limited resources,
families adopted innovative forms of adaptive
reuse. Clothing made from feed sacks
was common, as were homemade picking
sacks, which some coated with creosote for
prolonged use. Children worked in the
fields without shoes and gloves from "can
to can't," or from sunup until sundown.
Grover Williams, however, spoke of one
notable exception, an older cousin who
attended Huston-Tillotson College in
Austin. When she came home, she seldom
went to the fields because the family placed
a greater value on her higher education
than on her contributions as a laborer.
When she did venture into the fields, her
parents made sure she wore a bonnet, a long
dress, cotton stockings, gloves, and a heavy
facial cream to prevent sunburn. He added,
"I didn't known, during that time, nothing
else to compare her with. ... I thought
that's the way college girls looked."
Despite the adversities and uncertainties,
cotton remained the primary crop in
the Burton area well into the depression
years. According to Wegner:
We made some money if we had surplus
pigs or hogs or chickens, fryers, eggs. . .
8 HERITAGE * WINTER 1993
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 11, Number 1, Winter 1993, periodical, Winter 1993; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45415/m1/8/: accessed June 29, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.