| Cotton Wagon loaded with cotton bales;|
Courthouse in the background
Because of the fertile land and abundant water, Hill County has always had an agricultural economic base. In the early years of the county, farmers cultivated cotton as a "cash crop" to provide money for items they needed to buy.
|Hillsboro Courthouse Square, 1905|
| Greenwade Gin in background, Whitney, 1908|
(Whitney Water Co on right side in foreground)
Before the arrival of the railroad, moving cotton to market was not an easy task. In Fort Graham, cotton was hauled to Towash where it was loaded onto a steamboat and carried thirty miles downstream to Waco. But after only a year, the steamboat became stranded on the shoals and the boat was never used again. Once the railroads began to appear in 1876, transportation vastly improved and production increased.
|Cottonseed Oil Mill, Hubbard|
The saying was that "Cotton is King," and Hill County became the second highest cotton producing county in the state. Cotton gins processed the fiber, and compressed it to reduce it to bales for shipping. Sometimes a farmer had his own gin that was small enough to move from one place to another. In 1882 a good crop sent 22,000 bales of cotton from Whitney. By 1899, that had increased to over 54,000 bales.
Cottonseed oil and textiles mills opened. At one time, there were 87 cotton gins and 30 cottonseed oil mills in Hill County.
|Itasca Cotton Manufacturing Company|
|Cotton Mill, Hillsboro|
In 1901 cotton mills opened in both Hillsboro and Itasca to produce fabric from the locally grown cotton. At the time, there were only two other cotton mills in Texas. These factories provided steady work for hundreds of workers which in turn pumped money into the economy, significantly improving the prosperity of the county. Hillsboro’s products were labeled "Cowboy" and "Alamo" and had a reputation for being of the highest grade. The Itasca mill was also known for producing high quality fabrics, especially drapery and upholstery fabric, and Itasca Weavers shipped material throughout the world.
|Itasca Weavers exhibit at the Texas State Fair|
Sidney Files served as manager of the Itasca Cotton Manufacturing Company from 1926-1957. A story is often told how on one particular day, he entered the weave room and smelled smoke. Fire in a cotton mill would have been disastrous. Everyone started looking around until someone realized that it was Mr. Files’ pants that were on fire. It turned out that he smoked a pipe and had put the pipe in his pocket without extinguishing it before entering the mill.
The yearly routine for Hill County farmers started in February or early March, when work began to prepare the fields for planting. Old cotton or corn stalks were shredded with a wheeled "stalk cutter" and plowed into the soil with teams of horses or mules, while plowing "bedding" created the furrows typical of agricultural fields. (Later, in the twentieth century, farmers began burning the cotton stalks to try and reduce boll weevil infestations.)
Planting followed at the end of March. Some farmers relied on almanacs for advice on when to plant, while others watched for the mesquite trees to leaf out, knowing that the soil temperatures were then warm enough to plant the cotton seeds.
Once cotton plants were a few inches tall, farmers and their families would "chop" the cotton. That is, they would thin the plants so that they were spaced about eighteen inches apart in each row and remove the weeds with their hoes.
The beginning of August was a slower time for the farmers, and so the churches would typically hold their revivals at that time. Even today churches often schedule their revivals during this time, continuing that tradition.
By late August, cotton picking began. Children got up early and chores were finished before breakfast so that everyone could help with the picking. Wide-brimmed straw hats and long-sleeved shirts provided protection from the sun. Lunch time was spent under a "resting tree" purposely left to provide shade in the middle of the field. Sacks measuring ten to fourteen feet long were used to gather the cotton. A strap at one end went over the picker’s shoulder. The other end was tied so that it could be opened and the cotton shaken out into the wagon.
|Caldwell Gin, Whitney|
Cotton was brought to the gin where it was cleaned and dried, and the seeds were kept for the following year’s crop. The cotton was compressed into 500 pound bales, and wrapped in burlap. In Itasca near the gin, the window screens would be white from all of the cotton lint in the air.
Historic cotton varieties did not produce cotton that all matured at once, so fields were generally picked twice or perhaps three times, sometimes extending all the way until Christmas. The income provided money for a family to buy shoes or winter coats for the kids. Farmers had the most money in the fall during harvest season, and so local merchants typically sent statements only at this time.
| R. O. Caldwell Gin, Whitney,|
During the 1920’s and 1930’s, about eighty percent of the land in the county was in cultivation, much of it in cotton. By 1980, roughly fifty percent of the county was being used for cash crops.
Cotton is still grown in Hill County, but on large mechanized farms. Mechanized pickers dump cotton into "module builders" where it is compressed in the field and then automatically loaded onto trucks for transport to the gin. Bales still weigh about 500 pounds, but are more compressed and therefore smaller today than in the past.