The Magazine of South Carolina

Land of Cotton

Spring planting in South Carolina means everything from big money truck crops to thousands of home gardens. Increasingly each year - particularly in the Pee Dee - it also signals the resurgence of a crop that helped shape the South: cotton. Almost a quarter of a million acres of it will be planted in South Carolina in April and early May. The acreage has been increasing steadily, fueled by a renewed worldwide demand for cotton fabrics. Once again, cotton is in vogue.

Cotton growers possess the determined characteristics of their forebears. The problems they face are essentially those of the days when cotton was king: weather, market and fashion trends and - still today - the pesky boll weevil that has ruined many a farmer. Last year, for example, was one most regional cotton farmers would like to forget. It began with a comparatively dry spring and summer, hampering the growth and maturity of the crop. Then a wet autumn impeded the harvest. Those kinds of conditions, little noticed by nonfarmers, can deal a dramatic blow to folks striving to earn their living off the land.

But the state's more than 1,400 cotton growers are a staunch lot. Their philosophy might be summed up in a statement by Clayton Lowder Jr. of Oswego, chairman of the South Carolina Cotton Board: "They say 'necessity is the mother of invention' and 'where there's a will there's a way.' Our forefathers saw a need for technology to process cotton, and they made it happen. They saw a need to develop other products made from cotton - from Straus' cotton Levis to the new 100-percent cotton wrinkle-resistant shirts and pants of today - and they made it happen. They saw a need for cotton, found a way to produce it and made it king. . . .

"If our predecessors could make it happen, we can, too."


THOSE PREDECESSORS began growing the crop in the 17th Century. In Revolutionary times they wore "homespun cotton" as a proud symbol of independence. In 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin to remove cotton seed from lint, and during the next decade America's annual cotton production soared from 2 million pounds to almost 50 million.

Cotton became indispensable to the American way of life. Straus' cotton Levis became popular during the California Gold Rush of the 1840s, but the fabric was used for much more than clothing. It was found to be effective for telegraph insulation, filament for early electric lights and tire cord. Cotton muslin covered the wings of the Wright Brothers' first airplane. During World War II it became an ingredient in smokeless gun powder.

In modern times, it has been used for astronauts' biological isolation suits, for fire-resistant uniforms and for high-protein food flour.

South Carolina, one of the country's 14 major cotton-producing states, had its peak in cotton production during the 1920s. Now the crop is on the rise again here. Nationally, it's a $50-billion industry. Cotton, which reportedly has the greatest economic impact of any crop in America, is king once more.

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