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King Cotton in Modern AmericaA Cultural, Political, and Economic History since 1945$

D. Clayton Brown

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9781604737981

Published to University Press of Mississippi: March 2014

DOI: 10.14325/mississippi/9781604737981.001.0001

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The Texas Plains

The Texas Plains

America’s Cotton Patch

(p.233) Chapter 12 The Texas Plains
King Cotton in Modern America

D. Clayton Brown

University Press of Mississippi

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter describes cotton farming in the High Plains and Rolling Plains of Texas. This is the world’s most intensive cotton farming area, dubbed the “Cotton Patch ” by inhabitants. Cotton is cultivated on the million acres, and continues to affect social and cultural outlook as well as the economy. The area is the most developed cotton infrastructure in the United States, processing and handling 25 percent of the country’s crop each year.

Keywords:   cotton farming, High Plains, Rolling Plains

On the South Plains in Texas lies the most intensive cotton farming area of the world, the High Plains and Rolling Plains, which the inhabitants proudly call the “Cotton Patch.” King Cotton still reigns on the three million acres, where the cultivation of the royal plant continues to affect social and cultural outlook just as it drives the economy. Here is the most developed cotton infrastructure in the United States, which processes and handles 25 percent of the country’s crop each year. In the center sits Lubbock, the self-proclaimed “cottonest city in the world.” On this windswept plain survives a culture that combines an admiration for farming with the resilience of living on a stark and harsh land. Indeed, the land dominates, forcing man and beast to accommodate and adjust to a prairie blown by a relentless wind. Residents in the state’s eastern urban centers often ridicule and deride the area, but the recipients of such scorn have a strong attachment to the land and even the harshness that comes with it. The Cotton Patch could be compared with the Mississippi Delta in sense of place, where attitude and history along with the natural environment establish an identity for both areas. But the history of the Cotton Patch is much shorter, having begun in the twentieth century and coming to fruition only after World War II. Without question, the emergence of the Texas Plains stands as one of the important developments in contemporary agriculture.

The Cotton Patch forms a rectangle bordered on the north by Interstate Highway 40, which follows the old Route 66 across the Texas Panhandle, and bounded to the south by I-20. The New Mexico state line marks the western edge, and the 100th meridian draws the eastern edge. Within this general area lies the Llano Estacado, bordered on its eastern edge by the Caprock Escarpment. Around twelve million years ago, streams originating in the Rocky Mountains carried soil southward and deposited it on the (p.234) plains. Over time the Canadian and Pecos Rivers eroded the area but left a high plain that Spanish explorers named the Llano Estacado, or the Staked Plain. The Caprock contrasts sharply with the lower plains, rising abruptly from two hundred feet to one thousand feet in some locales. On this alluvial plain of sandy loam, elevation reaches over three thousand feet, justifying one description of it as “an isolated plateau that sits fortress like amid the surrounding lowlands.”1 Town names like Levelland and Plainview hark to the area’s geography, and towns like Cotton Center reflect the importance of cotton farming. Memphis, Texas, calls itself the “cotton capital of the Texas Panhandle.” Caricatures of the region generally describe a flat and treeless landscape with dry or near-drought conditions, where severe storms carrying hailstones or causing flash floods occur not infrequently, and “blue northers” bring bitter cold. Large spans of open land and big sky are visible in any direction, where Comanches, Apaches, and Kiowas once rode. The region provided much of the setting for Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. On the northern edge lies Palo Duro Canyon, where one of the last Indian battles took place. Nowhere in the United States is farming more risky because of recurring droughts, hailstorms, early and late frosts, and blowing sand and dust that cut tender plants. In May 1951, plains farmer William DeLoach poignantly noted a sandstorm in his diary: “A hard sand storm blew all day. Lots of land changed hand. No deeds issued. The wind does not require a deed.”2

The harshness of the land with its remoteness and solitude shapes a culture known for its stoic doggedness, where farm families exhibit independence and self-reliance, and the determination to persevere resembles the spirit of nineteenth-century pioneers. Hard work and the ability to endure are taken for granted, and the willingness to live with hardship is expected. Crop failures have to be accepted, and “local wisdom has it that if a cotton farmer can make an exceptional crop every five years,” reported a writer for Texas Monthly, “he can withstand three unimpressive years and one disastrous one.”3 This agrarian life under adverse conditions encourages the sense of community just as it fosters individualism, causing farm families to give priority to church membership and children’s school activities like football and 4-H projects. Sons and daughters compete in livestock shows and home demonstration clubs that in reality are family affairs. More than anything the threat of a failed crop, where growers stake so much into a risky venture, bonds families and fellow crop men in a way not understood by wage earners in eastern cities.

Growing cotton on the Texas Plains offers advantages that help to combat the region’s many drawbacks. The vast spaces of flat land are ideal for mechanization, which explains why growers used tractors and mechanical harvesters there sooner than in the South. Since large-scale farming lowers (p.235) the cost of production on a per-acre basis, growing cotton becomes attractive with large acreage. After World War II, production on the High Plains rose in amazing numbers for over fifty years, and the sheer number of bales alone accounted for the region’s importance. In 1945 production amounted to a measly 139,683 bales but hit 4,877,600 in 2004.4

But the achievement of America’s Cotton Patch came only because of a dogged determination to overcome a slate of obstacles, some inherent in the natural environment and others imposed by historical tradition within the cotton industry. And it is necessary to recognize the sense of second-class citizenship heaped on plainsmen by the residents of the state’s eastern and urban half, who see the remoteness and harshness associated with the Llano as undesirable and not suitable for their tastes. Indeed, in the nineteenth century, the area was thought to be uninhabitable and was described on maps as the “Great American Desert.” Settlement picked up about 1900, and the economy rested on ranching and general farming that depended on the scarce rains. Crop production was low, and self-sufficient farming, or conditions near it, prevailed. The Depression worsened economic conditions, and the population declined in several counties. In 1940 less that 10 percent of the farms had electricity and running water. Towns were small, with Lubbock mustering a population of only 31,853. Texas Tech University, founded in 1925, had a reputation in eastern areas as a “cow college.” Starting in 1945, the plains grew in population and developed economically, and the single most important reason was cotton farming.

Storm-Proof Cotton

Growers on the plains faced a steep uphill battle. They relied on a variety known as Georgia Half and Half, meaning that it produced an equal amount of seed and lint, whereas most varieties had several hundred more pounds of seed than lint. Half and Half tolerated dry weather and produced an extremely white color, but the short staple, usually 13/16 inch, had coarse lint disliked by textile mills. West Texas cotton generally had some discoloration owing to sand, so these characteristics gave it a poor reputation, and growers received a discounted price. To worsen matters, the Half and Half had a large boll that made it vulnerable to high winds, and the infamous windstorm of Thanksgiving Day 1926 blew much of the area’s cotton onto the ground. In Dawson County 75 percent of the crop blew out of the fields.5 L. C. Unfred remembered moving as a child to the plains and driving up a steep road to the Caprock on that holiday. His family thought they had come upon a snowfall but then realized what they saw was cotton.6 After the storm, H. A. Macha (p.236) went through his fields in southern Lubbock County and found only a single stalk that held on to its lint. He gathered seeds and started growing them in his home garden in hopes of getting enough to plant. In 1927 the Experiment Station in Lubbock began trying to develop a storm-proof variety, but a fire destroyed all the records in 1934. When the Lubbock researchers advertised for seeds resistant to wind, Macha took his seeds to them. From that stock they developed a storm-proof variety known as Macha that replaced Half and Half. The new cotton produced fewer seeds per bale but had a small boll that did not generate high yields of lint.

To grow better cotton on the plains, seed varieties had to be further improved. One breeder thought the small boll on Macha resembled pecans. Derivatives of Macha were commonly planted along with strains from Anderson, Clayton and Company’s Paymaster or Five A developed at the Lubbock Experiment Station. An improvement developed by Joe Lambright, a cross of Macha and Five A, resulted in a large boll with wind resistance that came to be known as Lambright 123. Other improved varieties included Lockett and Lankart, but nearly all cotton grown on the plains had some lineage to Macha. Rex Dunn, a seed breeder, estimated that growers lost fifty dollars per bale due to the poor reputation of West Texas cotton. Among crushers, seed grown on the plains carried the nickname “popcorn” because it was small, with little oil, and drew the “Dallas differential,” a lower price than other Texas cottonseed. “Cotton from our area had a horrible reputation in the textile industry and, unfortunately, most of it was accurately perceived,” recalled a plainsman. “We had absolutely horrible cotton.”7

Dunn attributed much of the problem to farmers because he felt they failed to understand the importance of variety as a factor in production. “Is there really a difference in cotton?” he quoted one farmer who had raised crops for forty years.8 As late as 1955, Half and Half still grew on the plains. To teach growers the importance of planting better cotton, seed breeders, private and public, along with the Extension Service, started an educational campaign in the 1950s that Dunn described as an “educational revolution.” He found younger men more willing to experiment.

The Rise of Irrigation

Growers typically planted several varieties in the same fields, which increased yields but meant the cotton would grade differently. Textile mills wanted consistency in the lint, and with the rising market in artificial fibers, they could be persnickety. Volume of production continued to be the response to the discounted price, partly accounting for the area’s dislike for acreage (p.237) allotments. Seed breeders continued to search for storm-proof varieties with the desirable characteristics of large bolls and longer staple length. Early maturing also remained an objective because the northern limit for growing cotton rested only about seventy-five miles north of Lubbock. By the early 1980s, plains cotton had greatly improved, and Dunn gave credit to commercial breeders, university researchers, and independent operators. Seed improvement never reaches a final point and remains a constant objective in all areas of the Cotton Belt, but for West Texas, the pursuit of better cotton had special meaning, since the area had to overcome its reputation for growing inferior grades. But the low rainfall restricted yields, and the dry spells worsened matters.

The answer to scarce rain came in the Ogallala Aquifer, the largest underground source of water in the world. The aquifer begins in South Dakota, stretches southward through the Texas Plains, and ends near the Permian Basin oil fields. Farmers on the Caprock began drilling into the aquifer in the mid-1930s, but not until the end of World War II did irrigation grow significantly, owing much to improvements of the submersible pump for submarine warfare.9 That advancement, along with the Ogallala’s readily accessible water table, made pumping inexpensive once the infrastructure was installed. In the postwar era, initial expenditures per well ran about $4,000 to $6,000, and once installed, irrigation cost little, since the landowner had the water rights. Fuel costs for pumping were low, thanks to the abundant natural gas in the area.10 With irrigation, per-acre yields generally doubled, rising 250 percent in some cases, so an irrigation boom got under way with a 1,000 percent increase in the number of wells for between 1945 and 1957.11 As tractors replaced horses and mules, farmers converted feed acreage to cotton. Implement dealers often accepted teams of mules as a trade-in for mechanical equipment and shipped them to wholesale mule traders in the South. This disposal of animals partly accounted for the postwar surge of mule trading in Memphis, where mechanization trailed behind farming on the plains.

Irrigation proved advantageous once Congress imposed acreage restrictions after the Korean War, since watering enabled growers to increase yields and offset smaller acreages. During the next decade, however, as cotton prices remained low, plainsmen put a lot of their crop “in the loan” to finance the installation of irrigation systems. Dryland farming did not disappear, because some landowners continued to rely on rain while others practiced both types of farming, but generally cotton instead of grain received the favored treatment. Banks encouraged irrigation, since it was the key to further economic growth in the area. In 1948 the High Plains had 8,356 wells, but the number grew to 42,225 by 1957. Irrigation became an ancillary industry in the infrastructure of cotton farming, and to serve the wells there were drilling (p.238) companies, equipment dealers, installers, and mechanics. Lubbock emerged as a supply center for pumps, equipment, and services. Farm size grew.12

With an adequate supply of water seemingly ensured for an indefinite time, landowners put more land under the plow, whether to raise cotton, sorghum grain, or other crops. During the era of the irrigation boom, from 1945 to 1970, some counties on the plains lost population, but those with irrigated farming grew as green fields stimulated the economy in cities and towns along with the rural environs. Irrigation raised farmers to a better level of prosperity and contributed, wrote an economic historian, “to the economic growth of the entire High Plains region.”13

To overcome the obstacles imposed by the natural environment, more than irrigation was needed. Use of the mechanical cotton stripper took bolls, opened and unopened, plus any leaves left on the stalk, which made plains cotton trashy. This drawback was overcome when in 1946 E. L. Thaxton first observed in North Carolina that calcium cyanamide, the “black mammy” used for fertilizer, caused the leaves to drop off the stalk. Along with researchers at the Lubbock Experiment Station, Thaxton saw an advantage for mechanical stripping and began studying defoliants for use on the plains in 1948. They moved past black mammy to better chemicals such as sodium cyanide. Thaxton and others learned that defoliants needed moisture to react, so growers kept the strippers out of the fields until 10:00 a.m. to let the morning dew moisturize the chemical. Thaxton and other researchers developed desiccants that dried the leaves but left them on the stalk. Desiccants required no moisturizing, which made them attractive. Chemical companies saw the potential in this research and began commercially producing both defoliants and desiccants, but the desiccants proved to be the most popular. Growers in the cooler northern counties of the High Plains did not adapt the new chemicals, since they needed to maximize the growing season, so the acreage devoted to use of leaf removal was greater in the southern counties.14

Among the hardships of living and farming on the plains, none proved more irritating than blowing sand and dust. Townspeople complained that it penetrated under doors and around windows, and housewives loathed the fine coat that covered furniture and shelves. Sand and dust damaged young cotton plants and stripped away topsoil. A breakthrough came with chisel plowing, which involved the use of a special plow, narrow and with a chisel point, which ran ten to twelve inches below the surface. Chisel plowing required a powerful tractor, but it brought clay to the surface and held moisture better than sand. A clodded field also reduced the sweeping effects of wind. When combined with irrigation, this practice significantly reduced airborne sand and dust.15

(p.239) Because of the capital expenditures involved with irrigation and the opportunity to further profits with greater production, growers tended to buy more land and engage in “factory farming,” known as industrial agriculture. Profitability in cotton farming steadily required more land, and on the plains that meant the use of irrigation. Successful growers had to increase investment for acreage expansion and install wells, so risk and indebtedness climbed, too, and the culture of family farming succumbed to commercial operations based on volume production with heavy reliance on machinery and technology. Single proprietors continued to dominate the pattern of ownership, but the definition of a farm changed. Acreage became larger, machines replaced mules and workers, and owners carried much debt, a pattern that recurred throughout the Cotton Belt.

Home Modernization

During the postwar growth on the plains, cotton generated enough new wealth that a boom in rural housing occurred. “Cotton builds fine farm homes,” reported the ACCO Press. Across the Cotton Belt, construction of more-spacious dwellings with two or three bedrooms was under way, particularly on the Texas Plains.16 With a sense of pride and accomplishment, farm-wives displayed their new kitchens and children’s rooms. With the massive construction program of the REA making electricity available in rural areas, wives no longer had to rely on kerosene lanterns and outdoor bathrooms and maintain homes with no refrigerators. “The mother of the family can vouch for automatic refrigeration, automatic washing machines that do just about everything but mind the baby,” the magazine continued, “and home freezers full of fryers and choice cuts of beef, and a host of garden-fresh vegetables and home orchard fruits.” One cotton wife stated: “Just look across the road to see that little place where we lived, and you’ll understand why we appreciate the roominess of this new home.”17

In 1949 the extension agent of Lubbock County arranged a farm home tour. The new houses were larger and had the latest features of design such as extra storage space, a sewing center, abundant kitchen cabinets, and a washroom for husbands and children. Many of the women had requested the installation of special features that had not been available in their smaller houses. Shelves for displaying favorite objects were popular, and the latest rage, the “family den,” appeared in several homes. Housewives budded with self-satisfaction because in the past they had to concede fine living to their city cousins, but the new homes erased the differences. Lubbock County (p.240) boasted an air of cordiality and a fresh enthusiasm for home life, and one reporter noted the booster spirit: “Cotton has built some fine homes on Texas’ South Plains.”18

The Rise of Cooperatives

Even as conditions improved with irrigation and seed breeding, growers nonetheless recognized their cotton had to be more marketable. For one thing, short-staple lint broke more frequently in the spinning process, and textile mills would generally blend it with a longer variety. Plains cotton did not compete with Acala in the Far West or the traditional varieties of the South, so much of the West Texas cotton went into CCC warehouses or sold at a discount. The CCC even refused to accept one grade common to the area, light-spotted (which referred to its coloration). Plains cotton would remain a minor feature in the market unless growers could overcome these drawbacks. With the renewal of planting restrictions in 1954 and the quarrels over allotments with the older growing areas, a feeling of crisis crept onto the Llano and drove the growers to act. Just as their grandfathers had banded together to fight prairie fires or Comanches, the instinct to be self-reliant led them to form cooperatives. In another respect, Earl Sears testified, the remoteness of the region left them no alternative.19

Table 3. High Plains Cotton Production













Source: Plains Cotton Growers, http://www.plainscottonorg/esw/stats (accessed August 30, 2006).

Cooperatives provide several services for members, with marketing nearly always being the most important. Before the rise of cooperatives, buyers typically traveled to gins and offered prices that growers generally accepted without knowing comparable prices a few miles down the road.20 Through a cooperative, farmers could band together and raise capital to build storage facilities and empower the cooperative to sell their crop when prices were strong. A particular feature of this concept involved the employment of experts whose knowledge and information of commodity markets, one of the (p.241) riskier and more complex in trading, would ensure that members had experienced traders working on their behalf. Co-ops also helped with the buying of fertilizer, fuel, and other production inputs. Cooperatives, in other words, offered the opportunity to gain advantages and make every dollar squeak.

From this perspective, a group of growers formed the Plains Cotton Cooperative Association (PCCA) in 1953. It began as a grassroots undertaking when the executives of the Plains Cooperative Oil Mill (PCOM) recognized the compelling need to overcome the disadvantages of cotton farming on the plains. Roy Davis, manager of the PCOM since its founding in 1937, led the move, but he had the assistance of the mill’s directors. Lack of capital blocked any initiatives, but Davis offered $12,000 in uncashed checks that had been made to members of PCOM, only with the understanding that the directors had to honor the checks if the recipients demanded them. This offering became the venture capital of PCCA. “Roy Davis didn’t create PCCA, but he was the midwife who delivered the organization into the world,” one writer described his role.21

Probably no figure shone brighter on the plains than Davis. He was born in McLennan County in the heart of the Texas blackland strip, but his family moved to Lamesa in 1905. He was child number six in a family of ten children. He first picked cotton at the age of six and at one point lived in a plains dugout as a child. He went to Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College and graduated in 1927. Davis always worked in agricultural education or businesses, first as a county agent in Gaines County, then as manager of the Hale County Dairy Association, and finally for the Houston Bank for Cooperatives before accepting the position as head of PCOM.22 In the course of his career, “Mr. Roy” received many accolades and served as president of the NCC in 1968. He embraced the concept of agricultural cooperatives, and along with his work as manager of the largest cottonseed oil mill in the United States, his contribution to PCCA made him renowned.

The new cooperative was a fledging operation, but it quickly improved sales for members. The Davis family became identified with the organization when Dan Davis, Mr. Roy’s son, took over as manager in 1956. He concentrated on marketing in the early years, and the cooperative won recognition for improving the incomes of its members and generating more annual income for the Lubbock area.

In 1963 PCCA acquired two warehouses, one in Altus, Oklahoma, and another in Sweetwater, Texas, to hold cotton off the market until prices improved. In the beginning, the two facilities compressed bales as did privately owned compresses, but they dropped this feature when gins began installing universal density compressors in the 1970s.23 The two warehouses offered storage and shipping and saved members enough money to issue a dividend (p.242) of $10.13 per bale over a five-year period. PCCA cut costs by following the economies of scale.24

Plains cotton nonetheless generally brought a discounted price, and grower interests there believed they faced unfair treatment. They wanted to find a scientific and objective way to establish the grade and color of lint, which they felt would work to their advantage in combating the bias against their product. This objective led to the early work in developing high-volume instrument (HVI) testing, and when in 1960 PCCA manager Davis hired Emerson Tucker to be chief engineer, he gave him an assignment: find a way to test all bale samples with scientific accuracy instead of relying on the standard practice of manual grading. Tucker was a native of Connecticut who grew up in Brownfield, Texas, and graduated from Texas Technological College (renamed Texas Tech University in 1963). He combined the sharp intellect of an energetic Yankee with a naturally acquired familiarity of the Texas Plains. Before joining PCCA, he had worked in a textile mill and had learned the importance of a fiber’s spinning qualities. He got a break in his assigned mission when he discovered that a Dallas cotton buyer used an instrument invented by Motion Control in Dallas to grade cotton, but the instrument had a slow rate of speed and had no system for testing staple length or the strength of fiber for spinning.25

In Dallas, Motion Control had developed the Fibronaire to measure fiber fineness, or micronaire, which provided an indication of how cotton would spin. Davis assigned Tucker to work with Glenn Witts, owner of the Dallas firm. Tucker lived in Witts’s house for two years to perfect an instrument; he recalled how they sat around the kitchen table each morning tossing out ideas. At one point they experimented with an instrument at PCCA and graded over four hundred thousand bales. The USDA saw the potential to test micronaire for the entire U.S. crop, but it wanted a high-speed device that could also measure length and strength. By 1965 Motion Control had a faster length tester, and the Stanford Research Institute, with funding from the CPI, provided a speedy strength tester, but each instrument had to be used separately. By 1967 Motion Control had a single instrument that performed all three services, and PCCA put it into operation. In 1972 the USDA installed the instrument in the classing station at Lamesa, Texas.26

This new method of classing accounted for one of the most important developments in the cotton industry since 1945. It removed the subjectivity of human judgment and established a uniform standard. It gave textile mills a better grip on the spinning quality of each bale and let them avoid bales with varying characteristics and thereby spin fabric with more consistent quality and make fewer adjustments to machinery. HVI testing provided the answer to the advantage of fiber consistency enjoyed by synthetic manufacturers.

(p.243) For growers on the plains, a major breakthrough had come. They could now assure buyers of the quality of their bales through instrument testing administered by the USDA, which enabled growers to identify their better cotton and sell it without a discount. Plainsmen now sold cotton at prices based on scientifically determined quality rather than human prejudice. In the words of PCCA’s Tucker, “it modernized the cotton industry.”27 But it also ended the aura associated with cotton buying markets such as Cotton Row in Memphis because no longer did classers appear on streets and coffee shops with lint clinging to their trousers. The “snakes” of discarded cotton disappeared from sidewalks. Data obtained from HVI testing now appeared on computer screens, and one dimension of the romance of the cotton kingdom disappeared.

Plains Cotton Growers

To establish identity and authority in the Cotton Belt, plainsmen needed political muscle. In 1956 the Plains Cotton Growers Association (PCG) went into operation to fill the gap. For the mid-South there was the powerful Delta Council, and an assortment of other organizations like the Texas Cotton Association addressed the needs of local interests throughout the Cotton Belt, but growers on the plains had no organization to speak on issues requiring a political voice. Necessity pushed the establishment of the new cooperative, which began when the Texas Agricultural Stabilization Committee of the USDA intended to shift some acreage allotments from West Texas to East Texas, about two hundred thousand acres. And bills had been introduced in Congress to make one-inch staple the average length for cotton stored through the CCC program. The short staple grown in the Cotton Patch measured 15/16 inch, and since much of the West Texas cotton generally graded as light-spotted, which placed it in the lower CCC standards, an increase in the definition of average length would have worsened the penalties on it.28

To ward off these threats, growers in twenty-three counties established the PCG. They sought to protect their interests through political lobbying and to undertake programs for enhancing production. The new organization acknowledged the inferior qualities of plains cotton and soon began an educational campaign in cooperation with the Extension Service and Agricultural Experiment Station to make farmers aware of the importance of growing better-quality fiber. Some of the acreage lost to East Texas soon went back to the plains, and George Pfiffenberger, first executive director of PCG, lobbied the CCC and persuaded it to remove light-spotted from its list of inferior cottons. The new organization also helped finance the (p.244) installation of humidifying equipment in the USDA classing stations at Lubbock, Brownfield, and Lamesa. This move caused the area’s cotton to grade slightly better, at least in cases when the excessive dryness of the fiber had worked against it.

Bad luck loomed over the Caprock, however, when the boll weevil appeared on the lower Rolling Plains. Ironically, the absence of weevils and the expectation they would never reach the plains had been responsible for the growth of the area, but in 1959 a confirmed outbreak occurred in two counties east of Lubbock, Crosby and Dickens.29 Further outbreaks came a few years later in Brisco and Floyd counties. News of scattered infestations continued until by 1963 the boll weevil reached the edge of Lubbock County. “These infestations were nearly beyond comprehension,” reported one account.30 Growers had believed the Caprock Escarpment would stop the weevil migration. Crosby County’s Don Anderson recalled that the arrival of boll weevils caused a near panic on the plains.31 Anderson, Pfiffenberger, and a handful of growers invited entomologists from Texas A&M University to the plains to offer advice. J. C. Gaines, head of the university’s department of entomology, doubted if the migration could be stopped because no proven system of eradication or control had been developed, but entomologist Perry Adkisson suggested the new concept of diapause control. Adkisson made clear that the method was unproven, but he thought it might slow the further spread. Anderson and Pfiffenberger drummed up support for an experimental program among growers, and in 1964 they created the Texas High Plains Boll Weevil Suppression Program, with Adkisson as head of the technical group.

Plains Cotton Growers had organized the program and split the costs with Texas A&M, Texas Tech University, the USDA, and the Texas Department of Agriculture. Airplanes sprayed only targeted areas where boll weevils were found. It was a costly undertaking because an “army of flaggers” had to stand at the edge of fields to guide the pilots.32 Anderson remembered that when crop dusters were in short supply, C-47s with U.S. Air Force pilots were used. This effort stopped the weevil migration and was described by a team of writers as “the first cooperative attempt in the U.S. to control the boll weevil on an area wide basis.”33

Whether lobbying members of Congress or USDA bureaucrats or simply carrying its message to the general public, the main task for the PCG remained in the political realm. It resembled the NCC in this respect, though the Texas organization limited its activities to issues pertaining to the plains. It sent spokesmen to congressional hearings and assisted with special hearings conducted by congressional committees at the local level. When an issue arose among plains growers that required federal assistance, the PCG carried the ball. It maintained a close relationship with the congressional (p.245) delegation for the area and often went to George Mahon of the Texas Nineteenth District for help. Mahon managed to get President Lyndon Johnson to make a special budget request to Congress to fund a special federal matching program for the PCG Boll Weevil Suppression Control Program.34 When Mahon became chair of the House Committee on Appropriations, he gave the growers a distinct advantage; Larry Combest followed Mahon in 1984, and Randy Neugebauer replaced Combest when he retired in 2003. Charles Stenholm of the Seventeenth District often fought on behalf of cotton growers during his congressional terms from 1979 to 2004. In 1997 the PCG established an e-mail service that provided members with daily news about developments pertaining to their interests, ranging from political matters to announcements of meetings and similar items.

The Cotton Economics Research Institute

Established with the Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics at Texas Tech University in 1997, the Cotton Economics Research Institute (CERI) became renowned for its studies of cotton markets and economic impacts of policy, both proposed and enacted. The institute’s origin stretched back to 1975, when the USDA moved its Economic Research Services (ERS) to Lubbock, but the department closed the office in 1981. The university wished to keep the program and employed Don Ethridge to continue the studies, but the program needed funding, so representatives of the grower constituency managed to get line-item budget status for it in 1985 by the Texas state legislature. Leading in this effort were S. M. True of Plainview in the Texas Farm Bureau and Bob Poteet of the Texas Cotton Merchants Association. In 1997 the legislature consolidated many budget line items in a general appropriation that stabilized the funding for cotton economics research at the university. The annual appropriation, ranging near $130,000, funded projects undertaken by faculty in the Texas Tech Department of Applied Economics and graduate students’ work. The impetus for creating a special institute within the department came a year earlier from Bob Albin, associate dean for research in the College of Agriculture. Interest in a separate institute also came from PCCA. In 1997 the university formalized CERI and appointed Ethridge as director.

Ethridge earned a doctorate in economics from North Carolina State University in 1970. He worked first at the University of Missouri with a quartertime appointment in the school’s Water Resource Center. The CIA recruited him for economic studies, where he stayed for over two years. Ethridge joined the USDA-ERS and moved to Lubbock in 1975. He took a position (p.246) on the Texas Tech faculty in 1981 with a clear assignment: build a research program in cotton economics. From 1981 to 1997, he raised external funds for graduate students. When he took over CERI, he became department chair of applied economics. His mission remained the same, to build a research program in four areas pertaining to cotton: economics, water, risk management, and international trade.35

The institute conducts industry-related research but does not confine itself to the plains. For growers on the Llano, however, CERI has made economic impact studies of optimum application of water and fertilizer, the impact of modules on ginning economies, and the feasibility payoff of new harvest systems. It made studies of HVI classing. One accomplishment was the Alternative Price Analysis and Reporting System available for growers. This project, which took two years to develop, received funding from the USDA before Cotton Incorporated took over responsibility. The system, based on an econometric model, furnishes growers with data as they make decisions to sell their cotton.

A particularly valuable service provided by the CERI involves the international dynamics of cotton. Through analysis, it estimates the impact of government policy on the various segments of the cotton industry and consumers. In its Global Fibers Model, an econometric simulation model, the CERI conducted a study of the U.S. proposal for cotton at the 2005 Hong Kong meeting of the WTO Doha Development Round of negotiations. The institute examined the expected impact of the proposal on world production, consumption, textile production, and prices of synthetics. It made this study for each of the twenty-four countries that grow and import cotton. The CERI also assists the NCC when it needs economic analyses. The two organizations cooperate closely but maintain separate roles.

Latino Culture

Development of the Cotton Patch involved more than improvements in farming and marketing, for Latinos made a contribution even though the Anglodominated ownership culture prevailed. Farmers on the Texas Plains used to rely on Mexican laborers who came from the San Antonio area and the Rio Grande Valley to pick cotton each fall. Crew chiefs, the jefes, carried out the orders of the growers. Migrants typically were at the mercy of the jefes, who owned the transportation and arranged the employment. Growers furnished small shacks in the fields that workers used as campsites. Migrants generally cooked outdoors on an open fire and slept outdoors unless weather drove them inside. Their hot meals were simple, consisting of the basic tortilla with (p.247) peppers, chilies, onions, and vegetables such as potatoes and some meats such as chicken. Migrants would travel to the nearest town on Saturday afternoons to buy supplies and socialize with fellow workers. Neuman Smith, a rancher and grower, described migrants as trustworthy and hard workers and sold them milk and eggs.36

Latinos faced much hardship throughout Texas, whether on the Llano Estacado, the South Plains, or the Rio Grande Valley, but labor unrest rarely occurred among migrants in the Cotton Patch, because relatively few lived there permanently.37 A few outbursts, however, took place. In October 1959, two hundred Latino pickers appeared at the gin of O. C. Heard located five miles west of Levelland, Texas. They demanded their pay and transportation to Mexico. They were peaceful but refused to disperse. Militancy was so uncommon among the laborers that this appearance provoked a reaction. Two Texas Rangers and five policemen went to the site, but no violence occurred, and no arrests were made. The workers were unhappy because they were kept out of the fields until 10:00 a.m., which shortened their day and the opportunity to pick a maximum poundage of cotton. Landowners wanted to let the morning dew evaporate, since dry cotton ginned better. No further action occurred, but the laborers chose to return to their homeland.38

Growers had more serious dissatisfaction with the U.S. Department of Labor. They had begun to assign braceros to drive tractors, though the practice violated the terms of the Bracero Program. In 1958 New Mexico and Texas Plains farmers appealed to the Dallas regional office of the Department of Labor for permission to let migrants operate tractors on the grounds that local labor was too scarce. The El Paso Valley Cotton Association made the formal request and pointed out that it had placed ads in newspapers for one hundred drivers and got only thirteen responses. The organization lost the appeal, and the growers had to cope without bracero drivers. Growers indicated a need for more braceros because local labor would no longer work on farms owing to the low wages or a new preference for nonagricultural jobs. Landowners in the El Paso Valley appealed to Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson for help, but the Bracero Program had begun to be regarded as exploitative and unfair to workers.39

Migrant labor on the plains passed into history once the mechanical stripper and herbicides became common. In this respect, it resembled black labor displaced in the South by mechanization. Machinery changed the status of Latinos, however, for while it ended the large flows of migrants each year, growers employed a few as permanent employees to operate machines and serve as mechanics. This new permanency encouraged Latinos to become U.S. citizens and put their children in public schools. Latinos then began having an impact evident in food, music, and language. Growers, for (p.248) example, nearly always acquired some speaking ability in Spanish as a matter of necessity. Though Anglo culture dominated, a powerful Latino subculture emerged on the plains, recognized through Lubbock’s Viva Aztlan Festival and numerous Cinco de Mayo celebrations. Cotton farming alone did not account for this development, but it provided much of the original impetus.

Music of the Cotton Patch

Just as the blues grew out of the fields of the Mississippi Delta, the Texas Plains developed a version of a rockabilly sound. While the blues traced their origins to slavery and the life of black sharecroppers, West Texas rockabilly came out of the Anglo experience on the Llano Estacado after World War II. Music and place went together in both cases, and while the sounds were different, the messages were similar. However much the two forms of music parallel or diverge, they had a common root: the annual cycle of cotton farming.40

Rockabilly, described by a cultural geographer as “a uniquely Texas strain of music that falls somewhere between country, rock and folk,” reflects the flat West Texas landscape with few trees, little rain, and blowing sand. Texas rockabilly originated in the 1950s among artists like Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison, but in the 1970s it enjoyed a revival on the plains and bespoke how cotton featured so prominently there. In “Because of the Wind,” country- and-western musician Joe Ely remembers a former lover, the memory of whom flows through him like a West Texas wind. In his “Dry Land Farm,” Butch Hancock sings about a thunderstorm on the horizon bringing wind and sand that “burns like a blazing blowtorch when you’re living on a dryland farm.”41 Unlike the blues musicians, balladeers of the Caprock lamented the pain of place: sand, flatness, drought, and wind. The harshness of the physical environment was a common theme. West Texas rockabillies complained about the conservatism and religiosity of the people, so like blues, escape was a frequent topic. They expressed the oft-heard frustration over a conformity that squashes creativity and tolerates no rebellious behavior. They complained of a stifling environment imposed by nature and man alike, whereas blues of the South reflected social injustice. This made escape, nonetheless, common to both. Despite their protestations, the artists had an identity and love for the area. Lubbock native Mac Davis sang that “happiness is Lubbock, Texas, in my rear view mirror” but concluded that “happiness is Lubbock” and “you can bury me” there “in my jeans.”42

The group that best expressed the connection of cotton farming with music, the Flatlanders, formed in 1970, had an “old timey acoustic sound” that did not follow the strings and electronics stylish in country music at the time. (p.249) They recorded an album, More Legend than Band (1972), that displayed the “band’s geographic origin.” This music, in the words of a scholar, was written by people “who knew what it was like to sink up to their ankles in mud and wash dust from their faces.”43

Butch Hancock wrote some of the songs on the album, and his songwriting background came straight out of a cotton field. Born in 1945, he grew up in Lubbock and started driving a land leveler in 1968. He spent long hours on the lonely fields of the Caprock and later described how the sound of a tractor helped him write music. “Second gear at two-thirds throttle on a John Deer tractor—I found that that speed and gear was the key G and you could play any song you wanted to in it.”44 But the Flatlanders had a short life span, and their album was not released until 1990.

During the interim and through the 1990s, the members of the band went their own ways, and Joe Ely, Hancock, and Terry Allen achieved some recognition as individual artists. Hancock released two albums, West Texas Waltzes and Dust Blown Tractor Tunes, based on his experiences on the plains. In 1996 Allen released Flatland Boogie, which reminisces about cotton fields, coyotes, and other features of the Texas Plains. Ely lived in Lubbock as a child and remembered that Mexicans who went to his father’s used-clothing store during cotton picking season liked accordions, so he incorporated them into his songs.45

Rockabilly and country-and-western music were not confined to the cotton-growing area of the Texas Plains. They belonged to a broad genre of music in the era after World War II. But the plains contributed some of the most popular and influential singers of their time who had roots in the rural environment of West Texas. The famed country-and-western singer Bob Wills came from Turkey, Texas, about one hundred miles northeast of Lubbock, near the Caprock Canyons. His music appealed to rural folk, and his Cotton Patch Blues resonated with them. Waylon Jennings came from Little-field on the Llano. Their music went beyond the cotton culture, but it was rooted there just as blues traced its origin to the cotton South. Willie Nelson grew up on the Texas blacklands but stated that he was “raised and worked in the cotton fields … with a lot of African-Americans and a lot of Mexicans, and we listened to their music all the time…. There was a lot of singing that went on in the cotton fields.”46

The sound of music on the Texas Plains had an appeal similar to the blues. Country-and-western and rockabilly musicians developed a message rooted in their own experiences, a childhood spend in a cotton culture that emerged after the emancipation of subsistence labor. Music was an escape. “No one had to tell the musicians,” went one account, “that picking the guitar beat picking cotton.”47

(p.250) Conclusion

A strong sense of place continues to reside in the hearts of plainsmen for their land. They give it fierce loyalty and unashamedly boast of weathering the wind and sand, of enduring droughts, storms, and more wind. They show pride in overcoming the harsh and oppressive conditions that nature imposes on the area as they see towns and cities grow, schools and shopping malls appear, and patches of green interrupt the monotonous sandy brown landscape. An esprit de corps lingers that is visible among all, whether Anglo or Latino, and drives them onward season after season. Their common denominator is cotton, the plant that offers a livelihood, however harsh it may be, and gives meaning to the work ethic and the resilience of men and women. For the first generation after 1945, the cultivation of cotton on the vast open spaces meant a chance, perhaps even a second chance, to own land, make a home, and raise children. While some longed to escape, particularly the second generation, others stayed and expanded their operations, and the area became more developed as a consequence.

The Texas Plains took their place as the giant of the Cotton Belt, and more cotton grows on the plains each year than in any other place on earth. Here King Cotton can still be sensed, and the sight of raw cotton lying on the ground, or the appearance of cotton stalks growing along sidewalks in small towns, is taken for granted. Rows of cotton stretch to the horizon, and gins run all night during picking season. Module trucks speed along roads and through fields, and semitrailers loaded with cottonseed hurry to oil mills from whence the sweet smell of cottonseed oil permeates the air. To produce a crop on the plains involves more than cultivating the soil and tending the precious plants. It is a display of coping with the challenges of farming on the plains, and it is a show of independence from the old South. Here families thrive on the Caprock and prosper with their own work ethic and sense of purpose. Here the drive to succeed still flourishes. However they make their contributions, whether as educators and researchers, gin operators or cooperative managers, or the sunburned farmers, they are a cotton fraternity. Like westerners they admire the big sky and the vast expanses of space. “In Lubbock, there is nothing between you and the clouds or you and the earth,” flatlander Jimmy Dale Gilmore stated. Easterners remain puzzled over this fondness for the unbroken horizons, but as expressed by one country-andwestern musician, “You have to train your eye to see it.”48


(1) . Lawrence L. Graves, Lubbock: From Town to City (Lubbock: West Texas Museum Association, 1986), 6.

(2) . Janet M. Neugebauer, Plains Farmer: The Diary of William G. DeLoach (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1991), 286.

(3) . Dick J. Reavis, “Way Out West in the Land of Cotton,” Texas Monthly, February 1982, 109.

(5) . Guy Nickels, May 3, 1973, Oral History Collection, Southwestern Collection, Texas Tech University.

(6) . Jack Lichtenstein, Field to Fabric: The Story of American Cotton Growers (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1990), 21.

(7) . Ibid., 37; William N. Stokes Jr., Oil Mill on the Texas Plains: A Study in Agricultural Cooperation (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1979), 18; Bently Baize, April 18, 1975, Oral History Collection, Southwestern Collection.

(8) . Rex Dunn, October 18, 1975, Oral History Collection, Southwestern Collection.

(9) . Roger Haldenby, interview by author, Lubbock, Tex., December 12, 2006.

(10) . Graves points out that installation of gas lines put farmers within reasonable reach of natural gas. See Graves, Lubbock, 11.

(11) . John Opie, Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land, 2nd ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 136.

(12) . Harry S. Walker, “The Economic Development of Lubbock,” in History of Lubbock, ed. Lawrence L. Graves (Lubbock: West Texas Museum Association, 1962), 300–330.

(13) . Donald E. Green, Land of Underground Rain: Irrigation on the Texas High Plains, 1910–1970 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973), 163.

(14) . E. L. Thaxton, June 2, 1972, Oral History Collection, Southwestern Collection.

(p.411) (15) . Roy B. Davis, July 5, 1972, Oral History Collection, Southwestern Collection.

(16) . ACCO Press, August 1949, 9.

(17) . Ibid., 9–10.

(18) . Ibid., 11.

(19) . Earl Sears, interview by author, Memphis, Tenn., January 11, 2007.

(20) . J. Mark Welch, Conrad P. Lyford, and Kenneth Harling, “The Value of the Plains Cotton Cooperative Association,” March 23, 2005, 9, http://www.aaec.ttu.edu/CERI.

(21) . Lichtenstein, Field to Fabric, 35.

(22) . Stokes, Oil Mill on the Texas Plains, 50–66.

(23) . Karen Gerhardt Britton, Bale o’ Cotton: The Mechanical Art of Cotton Ginning (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1992), 119.

(24) . Welch, Lyford, and Harling, “Value of the Plains Cotton Cooperative Association,” 8–9.

(25) . Emerson Tucker, interview by author, Lubbock, Tex., December 14, 2006.

(26) . Emerson Tucker, July 17, 1984, Oral History Collection, Southwestern Collection.

(27) . Tucker, interview by author.

(28) . Emerson Tucker, July 17, 1984, Oral History Collection, Southwestern Collection.

(29) . Katie Dickie Stavinola and Lorie A. Woodward, “Texas Boll Weevil History,” in Boll Weevil Eradication in the United States through 1999, ed. Willard Dickerson et al. (Memphis, Tenn.: Cotton Foundation, 2001), 465.

(30) . Ibid., 466.

(31) . Don Anderson, interview by author, Lubbock, Tex., April 4, 1998.

(32) . Haldenby interview.

(33) . Stavinola and Woodward, “Texas Boll Weevil History,” 466.

(34) . Haldenby interview.

(35) . Don Ethridge, interview by author, Lubbock, Tex., December 11, 2006.

(36) . Neuman Smith, September 29, 1982, Oral History Collection, Southwestern Collection.

(37) . Pauline R. Kibbe, Latin Americans in Texas (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1946), 176.

(38) . El Paso Times, October 29, 1959, clipping in El Paso Valley Cotton Association Records, 1954–66, Official Files, box 1, Southwestern Collection.

(39) . El Paso Valley Cotton Association to Lyndon B. Johnson, April 25, 1958; Washington Post, October 25, 1959; El Paso Times, June 30, 1960; Robert C. Goodwin to Lyndon B. Johnson, December 15, 1960; all in El Paso Valley Cotton Records, box 1, folders “Alleged Tractor Violations” and “Foreign Labor.”

(40) . Blake Gumprecht, “Lubbock on Everything: The Evocation of Place in the Music of West Texas,” Journal of Cultural Geography 18 (1998): 255–75.

(41) . Ibid., 268.

(42) . Ibid., 258.

(43) . Ibid., 261–62.

(44) . Ibid., 267.

(45) . Ibid., 262.

(46) . http://www.songwritershalloffame.org (accessed August 25, 2009).

(47) . Joe Carr and Alan Munde, Prairie Nights to Neon Lights: The Story of Country Music in West Texas (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1995), 46.

(48) . Quotes in Nicholas Dawidoff, In the Country of Country: People and Places in American Music (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997), 300, 307.