52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Working

When you were in middle school or high school, did you have a summer job? What was it? How much of your day was spent at work? Could you quit if you wanted to?

Well, children growing up on family farms did not have the luxury of calling in sick or quitting if they found the work too difficult. On the Jaeger farm, cotton was their livelihood, and cotton was hard work. While children today look forward to May, when school is wrapping up, the Jaeger children were prepping themselves for cotton picking season. They would wake up early to begin chopping cotton stalks, which prevented overcrowding. When they came home from school they walked right back to the fields to continue chopping. And once the middle of August came around, it was cotton, cotton, cotton,  sun up to sun down. Jeanette, Bernhardt, Melvern, Will, Larry, and sometimes Jerry and Edith (they were very young at the time) put on hats and layers of loose, protective clothing  to protect from the blistering heat. Sometimes they walked to the field and sometimes they rode on the tractor. Farming families were racing against time. The land did not wait around or take a break. The cotton had to be picked by early October and the children had to hustle. Some of the neighboring families who did not have as large of a family as the Jaegers might even have to hire help or keep their children home from school for a few days to finish the work.

Jeanette often tells the story of when she and Will were arguing and he pushed her over a cotton plant. She decided to get even so she picked a green boll (an unripe pod of cotton) and threw it as hard as she could in Will’s direction. As the boll sailed across the field, her father stood up and the boll hit him right in the back. He shouted “Who did that! Boy or boy if you don’t straighten out…” At times like this, Jeanette would look up at the fluffy white clouds and dream about sailing on them through the air. Each of the children received one penny for each pound of cotton they picked. One summer Jeanette earned $8 which she used to buy a new pair of black shoes.

Henry dutifully farmed cotton until the 1960s when he moved to Houston to pursue more stable working conditions. At that time, most small family farms were shuttering. Gins were closing down and the farmers could not compete with large corporate farms. In his book The History of Early Pioneer Families of Winedale, Vol II, Henry writes, “Since the end of cotton, thousands of beautiful acres of land were thrown out of production and are now covered with weeds, grass, and shrubs. Cattle now roam these acres as the King Crop.” The Jaeger’s fields were in between the house and the cemetery, in the lower 40 (now Brian and Karen’s farm) and another field now owned by Daryl and Kathy. If you were to drive by now, you would never know that these fields were once covered in cotton.

In our own language, “cotton picking” is used to indicate disapproval. I imagine it must have been the cotton pickers themselves who came up with the term. Sometimes when I’m driving along the gravel roads I wonder what things looked like when cotton covered the land. How could something so pretty when in bloom be so much work? How long would my cousins and I have survived working our summers away in the fields? Granny and Grandpa’s niece, Joyce Schkade, said how she went to visit one summer and lasted about half an hour. Being a “city girl” she was not used to that type of work. I imagine those in my generation would have lasted just as long.

Henry Jaeger Sr. hauling cotton, 1915

Emil Eichler’s cotton gin, located near the Peter Jaeger farm.

Grandpa’s cotton field, 1960

Jeanette waving goodbye to the cotton, 2000

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