When Cotton was King

May 1, 2011 | By More

Most People take cotton for granted these days.

We wear it, use it or sit on it and never give a thought to the work it took to produce what was once the most important commodity in the River Valley.

At one time the River Valley was well known for its cotton. Dardanelle had three cotton gins where local famers carted in their hard-earned cotton by the bale. These gins processed the raw cotton by separating the cotton seeds from the lint; cotton fiber left after the seeds are removed.

A 1,500 lb bale generally produced 500 lbs of lint and 900 lbs of seed, with 100 lbs of trash. The cotton seeds would pay for the ginning and later be processed into cattle feed. The lint would go to a compress which would mash it into half the size. From there the compressed lint was sold and shipped to factories that turned lint into thread.

Cotton was so important to the local economy, the Federal government under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s commissioned a wall fresco depicting the work that went into the production of the fruit (yes, cotton is classified as a fruit) for the Dardanelle Post Office lobby.

Dardanelle’s cotton gins are now empty or converted for other uses and the fertile bottoms of the Arkansas River Valley planted in soybeans and corn. But, that doesn’t mean king cotton is entirely forgotten. Anyone who ever held a cotton hoe and chopped, picked or ginned cotton remembers it well.

It was back breaking work,” said 86-year- old Delma Merritt, owner of Yell County Gin and a life-long resident of Dardanelle. One of three sons born to Henry and Nora Merritt, he was raised in the Upper Bottoms. “Like everyone else here, we were poor and cotton was our cash crop.”

“I remember the cotton plants had burrs on them that made your fingers raw when you picked it. After we picked it, we’d pile it up and when we got enough, we’d use mules to haul the cotton to the gin for processing.”

“We used to bring our cotton to Cotton Street from the gins,” said Merritt. “I remember the cotton would be knee deep on the street back then. Once the cotton was ginned, we’d get a “card” which graded the cotton and a receipt from the compress. We used the card and receipt to sell our cotton and we usually got 5 cents a pound or $25 a 500 lb bale. Now cotton goes for about $2 lb and a bale is worth $1,000,” said Merritt with a shake of his head.

Despite the hard work, the Merritt family kept on working, and in 1936, Merritt’s Daddy bought a tractor.

“That’s when I started thinking someday I’d like to own a tractor dealership.”

“I got into the Gin business by accident. I was trying to buy a tractor dealership but all I could find in a farm-related business was a cotton gin and grain elevator. I needed $15,000 for a down payment but I didn’t have 25 cents but my brothers did, so the bank gave us the loan,” said Merritt.

In 1966 Merritt started running the gin and grain elevator and in 1971 fulfilled his dream by opening a Deutz tractor dealership (now a Mahindra and Deutz-Fahr tractor dealership.)

A community-minded businessman like his brother Dana Merritt — Mayor of Dardanelle for 25 years – Delma Merritt worked hard to build, maintain and grow the business. But despite Merritt’s efforts, the cotton industry had been in a long slump in the River Valley, and Mother Nature was ready to ring the crop’s death bell.

“The cotton crop here just faded away because of Boll Weevils and Boll Worms. You could fight them by day but they’d get you at night,” said Merritt, who explained that the Boll’s life cycle and the pesticides available made the insects almost impossible to eradicate.

By 1974, the cotton industry was dead and the gin closed. Fortunately, Merritt had opened up a feed store and still had his tractor dealership with a mechanic’s garage in the converted gin. He also used his grain elevator to purchase and store soybeans which he traded as “futures” on the volatile Commodity Exchange.

Unfortunately, the soybean market also crashed and by 1978 Merritt said he was “flat as a flitter.” So Merritt sold out everything he owned.

“If I’d kept those soybeans only 90 days more, I’d have made $800,000 instead of nothing,” he added.

“Bankruptcy in the 1970’s was a no-no. Fortunately, I still had the feed business so we (Merritt and wife Polly) hobbled by until we finally paid it (the bank loan on the business) off. We worked until we brought it all back. We had some of the best help in the business,” said Merritt.

Two years ago, Merritt gave the gin and the tractor dealership to his son, David. “Forty-five years ago my son was working for me. Now I’m working for him,” laughed Merritt with a twinkle in his eye.

Will cotton ever again be king in the River Valley? While cotton is still grown in Arkansas, you can’t find a cotton gin today this side of England, Ark., said Merritt.

“Some years ago a man tried to grow cotton in the Coal Hill bottoms, but it was too hard to fight the Boll Weevils so he only did it for one year.”

Historically speaking, this isn’t the first time an insect brought down an empire; let’s hope for the River Valley’s sake, it is the last.

 

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