Cotton in Alabama:
A Brief History
By Thomas W. Oliver
130 Years, Alabama was a leading producer
of cotton. But the crop was hard on the soil
and hard on the people who grew it.
King Cotton, as it turned out, was a tyrant.
article is a reprinting of a piece that appeared in issue
35 (Winter 1995) of Alabama Heritage, pp. 16-27.
Copyright The University of Alabama. All rights reserved.
Click images to enlarge. ]
plant begins to bloom in June. The bud—called a "square" because
its tight leaves are arranged in a square pattern—opens into
a white bloom in early morning. Pollenization takes place by
noon. The flower slowly turns pink, then purple, and is shed,
leaving a tiny boll, which begins to open in early August, exposing
its snowy white locks of downy cotton. Because this beautiful,
delicate plant thrived in Alabama, pioneers poured into the state
in search of the riches they hoped the "fleecy white staple" would
bring. The plant would not disappoint them. In time, it would
ascend to the throne of Southern agriculture and become monarch
of the Cotton Belt, producing untold wealth for the state. But
as the years progressed, the king became a tyrant, and cotton,
once the undisputed producer of wealth in Alabama, became the
undisputed producer of poverty. The rise and fall of King Cotton
spanned some 130 years, from the 1830s to the 1960s.
demand for cotton and the means by which that demand could be
met had their origins in England in the late eighteenth century,
when inventors produced machinery—spinning jennies, spinning
mules, and power looms—that vastly increased production over
the primitive equipment then available, such as hand-carders,
single-thread spinning machines, and hand looms. When James Watt
of Scotland created a workable steam engine in 1765, the explosive
growth of the English cotton manufacturing industry was launched,
creating an unlimited demand for cotton.
took note of the fact that England's cotton suppliers, India
and the West Indies, could not begin to meet the needs of the
improved mills. Then, in 1794, Eli Whitney patented a practical
cotton engine or gin, which removed the seed, thus making the
cotton spinnable. This machine provided Americans with the technology
necessary to meet the world's demand for cotton. Alabama was
to play a major role in meeting that challenge.
the first white settlers in what later became Montgomery County,
Alabama, was Abram Mordecai, a Pennsylvanian who had served in the
American Revolution before coming south. In 1789 he established a
trading post about two miles west of Line Creek (now in Montgomery
County), where he conducted business for some twenty years. In 1804
Mordecai established the first cotton gin-house in Alabama, having
purchased the newly patented machinery in Georgia and transported
it on pack horses to a site at the confluence of the Coosa and Alabama
rivers. Mordecai proposed to grow and gin cotton himself and to gin
cotton grown by the Indians, but in 1805 Indians burned his gin,
which had operated profitably for only one year.
Mordecai never rebuilt, but he was not alone in his belief that money could
be made on cotton in Alabama. In 1816, following the Treaty of Fort Jackson
and the cession of Indian lands to the United States, thousands of "Cotton
Fever" pioneers poured into Alabama from Georgia and the Carolinas. In
an 1817 letter to a friend, James Graham of Hillsborough, North Carolina,
noted the exodus from his state with alarm:
The Alabama Fever rages here with great violence and has
carried off vast numbers of our citizens. I am apprehensive if it continues
to spread as it has done, it will almost depopulate the country. .
. . Some of our oldest and most wealthy men are offering their possessions
for sale and are desirous of removing to the new country.
During the next ten years, farms were feverishly cleared, cotton was planted,
and production soared. The population of Alabama rose from 127,000 in 1820
to 964,000 in 1860 (435,000 of these were slaves). Huge fortunes were made
almost overnight, and the voracious appetite of English and American mills
assured that the money would keep rolling in. A kind of cotton aristocracy
grew up among the leading planters, most of whom lived along the Tennessee
River and in the Black Belt, a band of deep, rich prairie soil reaching
through south-central Alabama. Some plantations became empires within themselves,
with many boasting carpenters, blacksmiths, tanners, cobblers, millers,
cartwrights, and numerous cooks and maids. Few Alabama growers, however,
reached plantation status. The majority of the state's citizens worked
small farms and only one in ten of those farmers owned as many as one slave.
The heart of the cotton industry in Alabama was the growing supply of laborers,
largely slaves. The entire process of making the crop fell on the field
workers, who prepared the land each spring with hoes, bedded up the soil,
and planted the seed. As the plants grew, workers thinned them to the proper
spacing. In the summer, they hoed down the weeds, and in the fall, they
picked the cotton.
of the steamboat in the 1820s greatly facilitated the shipment of cotton,
and almost all large plantations maintained private steamboat landings.
River cities, such as Decatur, Montgomery, and Selma, profited most from
the cotton traffic, none more so than the port city of Mobile, where most
of the population was intensely involved in the cotton business. A traveler
to Mobile several years before the Civil War wrote:
Slaves loading bales of cotton. Steamboats were efficient
carriers of cotton, but they were also dangerous. Only a few
sparks could turn a cotton-filled wooden steamer into a floating
inferno. (Courtesy Alabama Department of Archives and History)
Mobile is a pleasant cotton city of some thirty thousand.
. .where the people live in cotton houses and ride in cotton
carriages. They buy cotton, sell cotton, think cotton, eat cotton,
drink cotton and dream cotton. They marry cotton wives and unto
them are born cotton children. In enumerating the charms of a
fair widow, they begin by saying she makes so many bales of cotton.
It is the great staple—the sum and substance of Alabama.
To many plantation owners in the South, it must have seemed that profitable
times would never end—an unlimited supply of labor, seemingly endless acres
of land, and a world hungry for their product. By 1849 Alabama was producing
22.8 percent of the nation's cotton crop, more than any other state in
the union. But hard times lay ahead. Already the farming practices of the
cotton planter were taking their toll on the land, as farmers worked an
area until the soil was depleted of nutrients and then moved on to new
land. Already the labor force on which the cotton industry relied was looking
North to freedom. And the war looming on the horizon did not bode well
for international trade.
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After Union gunboats closed Southern ports in July 1861, shutting off
shipments to England, cotton production plummeted. For every
fifteen bales of cotton grown in 1861-62, only one bale was grown
in 1864-65. And prices soared—cotton jumped from eleven cents
per pound in 1860 to about one dollar a pound in 1864. Many feared
that other cotton-growing countries would break the profitable
monopoly that Southern states had developed with English mills.
When the war ended in 1865, Alabama was left with a broken economy, a disorganized work force, a dearth of work animals, and a legacy of careless farming which had worn out the land. To correct the excesses of previous generations, farmers replenished their soil with chemical manures or guano, which furnished plant food at a small cost and guaranteed a fair crop even from the poorest soil. Most encouraging of all, cotton remained a crop in great demand worldwide, and prices were good. For Alabama's farmers, the way to prosperity was clear: Plant more cotton. The production of grain, livestock, and domestic animals was all but abandoned as Alabamians plunged headfirst into a one-crop economy. Nevertheless, Alabama did not regain pre-war cotton production levels for close to thirty years.
Central to the success of the South's post-war cotton industry were the new working relationships which plantation owners struck with the workforce. Although slavery had been abolished, the plantation system remained in place, as many former slaves, needing money to live, returned to the fields as share–croppers or tenant farmers. Many poor whites also entered into these arrangements.
A typical sharecropper would work a small farm on a plantation owner's land for a share of the crop. The owner usually provided the farmer with a house, ten acres of cotton land, fertilizer, seed, and the use of a mule in exchange for one-half of the crop. Tenant farmers paid the plantation owners rent for the land and financed their own crops.
In theory, sharecropping and tenancy were practical solutions to a very real post-war problem: Landowners needed workers but had no money to pay them; landless whites and newly freed slaves needed employment but had no land. In practice, however, as the workers quickly learned, the crop-sharing and lien-financing systems were forms of bondage. The workers still traded hard labor for bare subsistence, with little hope of improving their situation. Sharecroppers and tenants had the freedom to quit, but most were too deeply in debt to leave, even had other jobs been available. The system made many merchants, cotton factors, and warehousemen wealthy, but it laid the burden of poverty upon the producers, who were locked permanently into a fixed and ruinous system of agriculture. Indeed, by the time the Great Depression arrived in 1929, most small cotton farmers in the South barely noticed. For them, debt and hard times were a way of life.
Throughout the nineteenth and the first four decades of the twentieth century, most cotton was hand-picked. Green bolls, burrs, and leaf-trash were not tolerated in the pick-sack because early
gins could not process trashy cotton and because the cotton's grade—its cleanliness and brightness—was one of two key factors determining its price. The other factor—staple, or the length of the fiber—was important because the longer the staple, the finer the thread that could be made from it. As every farmer knew, the skill and dedication of the ginner had a great deal to do with the cotton's final quality and price.
Until well into the twentieth century, all cotton was hand-picked. Green bolls, burrs, and leaves were unacceptable because early gins could not process trash-filled cotton. (Photo by J. C. Coovert, courtesy Continental Eagle Corporation, Prattville)
Members of the gin crew were the elite among the employees of any plantation. Most gin crews consisted of five men: the vacuum operator, the ginner, two pressmen, and the gin foreman. If the gin was powered by steam, there was also a fireman. The gin crew reported for work at daylight each morning. While they cleaned and lubricated the machinery for the day's run, farmers driving wagons loaded with cotton arrived from the countryside and took a place in line.
When starting the plant, or "pulling off," the gin foreman sang out a roll-call to be sure that every member of the crew was clear. As the machinery began to turn, the noise level increased to the point at which conversation was impossible. The process started when the vacuum operator jumped into the wagon and began to vacuum the approximately fifteen hundred pounds of seed cotton into the gin machinery. A wagon-load of this size would be likely to produce the ideal five-hundred-pound bale of lint (ginned cotton free of seed) and one thousand pounds of cotton seed. The seeds were blown into a separate seed house for shipment to a cotton oil mill.
The ginner operated the controls of his gin so as to get the most cotton from the seed without "gin-cutting" it or reducing its staple length. When the cotton was ready, workers pressed it into a bale. As each bale came out of the press, the foreman weighed it and, using a gentian violet solution and a stiff round brush, put the bale owner's initials and gin permit number on the bagging with a great deal of flourish.
Ginning was dangerous and exacting work. The atmosphere in these old gins was foggy with floating lint that settled on the hair of workers, turning it white. Lint drifted into workers' eyes and was inhaled into their lungs. Fires, which could quickly destroy a gin, were frequent occurrences. Without guard rails or shields for moving machinery, gins were also the scenes of terrible accidents. Mutilation, dismemberment, and death were all too common. For example, the Montgomery Advertiser carried this rather flippant article on October 13, 1892:
A year ago, Planter Wolf had an arm pulled off while showing a negro how to operate a cotton gin. Yesterday he was instructing another negro and lost his other arm. Mr. Wolf’s instruction is now at an end and he is out of arms. But then, Mr. Wolf’s way of operating a cotton gin was not a good one.
Despite the dangers inherent in the process, cotton-ginning season was an exciting time. A trip to the gin was a big event for the small farmer, and sometimes the entire family climbed onto the wagon for the trip. Farmers discussed crops and hard times while waiting for their cotton to be ginned. The women would sit in the shade and talk while the children played. After the cost of ginning had been deducted, the farmer received the balance of his pay for his seed. This called for a trip to the commissary and soft drinks and candy for all the children—quite an occasion for these underprivileged youngsters.
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Few events had greater impact on the history of King Cotton in the South than the invasion of the cotton boll weevil from Mexico in the early 1890s. After crossing the Rio Grande near Brownsville, Texas, the weevil wreaked havoc on cotton crops as it ate its way northeastward through the cotton belt, entering Alabama in 1911.
Court Square in Montgomery's downtown business district bustled with cotton trade at the turn of the century. (Courtesy Landmarks Foundation, Montgomery)
A highly specialized insect, the boll weevil can survive only on cotton. The female deposits eggs in the cotton square or bud, which the plant then sheds. The larvae develop in the "struck" squares, transform into pupae, and finally emerge as adult weevils, the entire process taking about three weeks. At the end of the summer, swarming or migration occurs. Adult weevils, which are about a fourth of an inch long, migrate several miles in all directions. If cotton is found, the weevils establish themselves and begin the process anew.
After the invasion of the boll weevil, Southern farmers adjusted their growing practices in an effort to reduce the weevil's damage. Early planting produced good results in some parts of the South, but in other sections the practice was unworkable. The soil in Alabama's Black Belt, for example, was not suitable for early planting. As a result, cotton growing was abandoned in the Black Belt within a few years after the boll weevil's arrival.
The weevil's effect on the cotton industry brought economic misery to many Southern
towns and was particularly devastating to sharecroppers, tenants, and small-farm
owners at the bottom of the agricultural ladder, many of whom were compelled
to migrate to other parts of the country in search of work. With the dangers
of relying on a one-crop economy all too apparent, Southern farmers became more
receptive to new crops and industries, and the inhabitants of at least one Southern
town decided to acknowledge the insect's role in forcing them to diversify their
economy. In 1919 the town of Enterprise, Alabama, erected the Boll
Weevil Monumentto honor the pest that gave rise to an economic boom locally and dramatically
altered Southern life.
Not all Southerners gave up cotton readily, of course, and many turned to insecticides to control the weevil. Paris green was one of the first insecticides tried against the boll weevil in Alabama in 1918. By the 1930s, the cotton fields were being dusted, ineffectively, with calcium arsenate. In 1946, at the end of World War II, aerial application developed rapidly. War-related research had resulted in the development of DDT, toxaphene, and benzene hexachloride, affectionately dubbed "Benny Hex" by cotton growers. These chemicals were initially effective.
Crop-dusting received a further boost after the war because of the tremendous surplus of the dependable Stearman Trainer, an aircraft which had been used to train pilots. This husky, fabric-covered, two-seater biplane, with its powerful air-cooled radial engine and ample lift, was ideally suited for the task of crop-dusting. Hundreds of Stearman Trainers were equipped with metal hoppers capable of holding five hundred pounds of insecticide dust where the front seat had once been.
Cotton plants in blossom, outside Monroeville, Alabama. The purple flower soon sheds, revealing a tiny boll which opens in early August, exposing its snowy white locks of downy cotton. (Photograph by Robin McDonald)
Crop-dusting was exciting and dangerous, and many ex-airmen who had risked their lives in the skies over Europe or the Pacific took to agricultural aviation eagerly. Fields were dusted by air every three to five days until late in the summer. Effective crop-dusting had to be conducted at an altitude of about four feet and under calm wind conditions. It was necessary for the plane to stay down on the crop until the last instant, then make its pull-up over the trees at the end of the field. Power lines, difficult to see, were the worst hazard. Due to recklessness and poor maintenance of the aircraft, crop-dusting became fraught with accidents.
In the 1970s, after DDT and the chlorinated hydrocarbon family of cotton insecticides were banned because of their effect on the environment, Alabama cotton farmers switched to other chemicals, including methyl parathion, which gave virtually a 100 percent kill of adult weevils within a few hours of application and quickly broke down into harmless elements. The chemical was extremely hazardous to humans, however, because the material was deadly in small amounts and, unlike earlier poisons, was readily absorbed through the skin. Nasty accidents occurred due to carelessness involving protective clothing and respirators. Today, newer and safer insecticides are being developed, but the boll weevil remains the single worst enemy of the cotton crop.
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After World War II, cotton production began to move westward into the hot, arid regions of the country, where the boll weevil was little or no problem. Large corporate producers developed in Oklahoma and California. Because there was never ample rainfall in the region, western growers irrigated regularly, assuring optimal water content of the soil at all times. In these conditions, cotton flourished.
By the 1950s, cotton in Alabama had begun to give way to diversification and better land use. Beef cattle, poultry, soybeans, and timber began to provide both employment and independence for former small cotton farmers. Gradually, cotton became a specialty crop for large plantations with plenty of rich, flat land and capital.
Mechanical cultivation of the soil for the destruction of weeds and grass has been displaced largely by the judicious use of a broad array of effective herbicides. The hoe is unknown on the farm. Bib overalls have disappeared. Harnessing a mule is a forgotten skill. Crab-grass and Johnsongrass are readily controlled. The use of high-speed, cotton-picking machines has become universal. Defoliants, applied by air, now remove the leaves from the plants and force all the cotton to open at once, a procedure that enables mechanical pickers to harvest the crop in one pass.
Modern cotton farming is engulfed in a sea of monster machines and ever-changing, highly sophisticated technology. Automated, computerized gins and complex cleaning and drying machinery designed to handle machine-picked cotton have changed the cotton ginning process from the community-oriented service of the 1920s and 1930s into a highly technical, capital-intensive industry. Not surprisingly, the word "farming" has given way to the word "agribusiness."
Although cotton now represents only a small fraction of the Alabama economy, the state still holds a position of importance in the cotton industry. Some of the largest world-market cotton merchants are thriving in Alabama, including Loeb and Company and Weil Brothers in Montgomery, and Hohenberg Brothers in Selma.Continental
Gin Company (now Continental Eagle Corporation) of Prattville, still the largest cotton gin manufacturer in the world, continues to sell its machines worldwide.
Cotton growing has virtually disappeared as a family affair in Alabama as the industry has become increasingly technical and sophisticated. But no technology has yet been produced to control the climate. The new Alabama agribusinessman makes good use of his complex and expensive equipment, but he still has the addictive thrill of gambling his all on the whims of the weather. He still has the satisfaction of knowing that he is creating something useful for mankind from the age-old elements of soil, sunlight, air, and water.
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The Continental Gin Company, Prattville
Daniel Pratt (Photograph courtesy Alabama Department of Archives and History)
Nearly all of the gin plants built in Alabama during the first half of the twentieth century were built by Continental Gin Company of Prattville. One could find an occasional Gullett or Lummus outfit, but Continental, the gin manufacturing company founded by Daniel Pratt (above), had the lion's share of the business.
Pratt (1799-1873), born in New Hampshire, was a carpenter's apprentice for five years before moving in 1819 to Georgia, where he eventually associated himself with Samuel Griswold's iron works in the manufacture of cotton gins. In 1833 he moved to Autauga County, Alabama, where he built a cotton gin factory on Autauga Creek and established the town of Prattville for his workers. His cotton gins were tremendously successful. In 1899, the companies of Pratt, Winship, Eagle, Munger, and Smith, all gin manufacturers in Alabama, pooled their patents and resources and formed Continental Gin Company at the site of Daniel Pratt's factory in Prattville. Continental, now known as Continental Eagle Corporation, still operates today and is the largest manufacturer of cotton gins in the world.
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The Old Alabama Town Cotton Gin
Built circa 1900 and operated in southeast Montgomery County,
this cotton gin was moved to Old Alabama Town and restored
in 1991. (Photograph by Robin McDonald)
Steam engine that powered the gin. (Photograph by Robin McDonald)
Cotton press. (Photograph by Robin McDonald)
Weighing cotton at the gin, c. 1908. To determine the weight of a load of cotton, gin operators weighed the wagon twice— once loaded with cotton, once empty. (Courtesy Landmarks Foundation, Montgomery)
The old plantation gins, once commonplace across Alabama, are gone, as are the sturdy men who crewed them. Very little physical evidence of this colorful part of Alabama's past has been preserved. The rare two-stand cotton gin and press, built on the Pratt and Munger patents of the 1880s and fully restored to its original condition at Old Alabama Town in Montgomery, may be unique.
Built in the first decade of the twentieth century by the newly formed Continental Gin Company of Prattville, this plantation gin was originally located in a once-thriving Montgomery County community known as Teasley's Mill. The gin was one of the first fully automated or "through and through" gins, meaning that the machinery could process cotton from wagon to finished bale in one building and in one continuous process without the intervention of human hands.
After the gin became obsolete in the 1940s, it stood idle for nearly fifty years before it was dismantled and removed to Old Alabama Town by Landmarks Foundation of Montgomery in 1990. Over the next two years, the machinery was carefully restored to its original condition and reassembled in a replica of the original gin-house. The restoration was finished in time for the bicentennial of the first patent on a cotton gin, granted to Eli Whitney in 1794.
Although the machinery was restored to running condition, this turn-of-the-century gin is not operated due to safety considerations, the necessity of a boiler to generate steam for the engine, and the fact that this simple gin cannot handle today's trash-filled, machine-picked cotton.
Located at Old Alabama Town, 310 N. Hull Street, Montgomery, the gin is open for tours from 9:30 A.M. to 2:30 P.M. Monday through Friday.
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In the second decade of the twentieth century, Coffee County, Alabama, was much like any other rural Southern community. Its economy, based entirely on cotton, was reeling under the onslaught of the Mexican cotton boll weevil. First reaching the area in 1914, the weevil by 1916 had annihilated most of the county's cotton crops. But things were changing. In 1911 Coffee County agent John Pittman, realizing that the weevil would soon eat its way into the state, urged local farmers to invest in livestock and diversify their crops. A forward-looking man, Pittman advocated soil conservation, fertilization, timber production—and the planting of peanuts, for which he felt the area's soil and climate were ideal.
(Photograph courtesy Alabama Department of Archives and History)
In 1916 a local farmer planted 125 acres of peanuts. When he sold eight thousand bushels the following fall for a dollar each, other farmers quickly followed his lead. Subsequently, the Enterprise Cotton Seed Oil Company—the state's first peanut oil manufacturer—began to guarantee farmers a market for their crops.
The economy's turnaround was staggering. In the fall of 1917, Coffee County sent more than a million bushels of peanuts to market (more than any other county in the nation), bringing in over five million dollars. The absence of cotton was hardly noticed.
Because the weevil had sparked an unprecedented economic boom, Enterprise city councilman Roscoe "Bon" Fleming suggested that the town honor the pest. At his direction, a thirteen-and-a-half-foot monument, depicting a robed female figure holding a fountain over her head, was designed and constructed in Italy. The following was inscribed on its base:
IN PROFOUND APPRECIATION OF
The monument was erected in downtown Enterprise on December 11, 1919. Fleming paid about half the monument's total cost—$1,795—and townspeople contributed the rest.
THE BOLL WEEVIL
AND WHAT IT HAS DONE AS THE
HERALD OF PROSPERITY
THIS MONUMENT WAS ERECTED BY
THE CITIZENS OF ENTERPRISE,
COFFEE COUNTY, ALABAMA
Years later, in 1950, the town replaced the fountain with an oversized boll weevil, which was subsequently stolen and then replaced. The next weevil disappeared mysteriously in the winter of 1953 and was rumored to have turned up somewhere in Korea. Then, on May 1, 1954, the monument was rededicated with a new copper-plated weevil on top. May 1 has since been known in Enterprise as Boll Weevil Day.
Reverence for the holiday has not deterred thieves. On May 3, 1974, the entire
monument was stolen and ransomed for five thousand dollars, but it was recovered,
albeit slightly damaged, before the ransom was paid. The weevil was stolen yet
again in 1991, and returned days later to the steps of City Hall. With all its
parts in order, the monument was rededicated on December 11, 1994.
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About the Author
Thomas W. Oliver, IV, graduated in veterinary medicine from Auburn University in 1948. From 1950 until 1978, he operated a cotton plantation and gin in Montgomery County. The fifth generation in his family to grow cotton in Alabama, Oliver has served for the past ten years as chairman of restoration for the Landmarks Foundation in Montgomery. He recently supervised the reconstruction of an 1890s cotton gin in Old Alabama Town, the Foundation's collection of nineteenth-century buildings.
Biographical Update 2007: A founder of the Montgomery County Historical Society in 1992, Oliver served at various times as its president, treasurer, and newsletter editor. He received the Distinguished Service Award from the Alabama Historical Commission in 1999, and remained active in historical preservation until shortly before his death in September 2003. In May 2004, Landmarks Foundation named the 1890s cotton gin at Old Alabama Town the Thomas W. Oliver Gin.
For more information on cotton in Alabama, see:
• Ellis Merton Coulter, Old Petersburg and the Broad
River Valley of Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1965).
• Charles S. Davis, The Cotton Kingdom in Alabama (Montgomery: Alabama Department of Archives and History, 1939).
• Thomas W. Oliver, "Farm Journal," unpublished, 1895.
• _________, "Farm Journal," unpublished, 1900-1908.
• Albert Pickett, History of Alabama (Charleston, SC: Walker and James, 1851).
• Merrill E. Pratt, Daniel Pratt, Alabama's First
Industrialist (Birmingham: Birmingham Publishing Company, 1949).
• U.S. Department of Agriculture, The Cotton Plant (Washington: Covernment Printing Office, 1896).
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