As the cotton gin was to removing seeds from the locks of cotton around 1800, so was the mechanical picker to the gathering of the valuable bolls from the stalks. Each made a giant step toward making cotton the king of fibers. In 1850, Samuel S. Rembert and Jedediah Prescott of Memphis, Tennessee, received the first patent for a cotton harvester (no. 7631A) granted by the U.S. Patent Office:
“To all whom it may concern: Be it known that we, Sam. S. Rembert and Jedediah Prescott, of Memphis, in the county of Shelby and State of Tennessee, have invented a new and improved machine for picking or gathering cotton from the bolls upon the stalks of the plant while they are standing in the field; and we do hereby declare that the following is a full and exact description thereof, reference being had to the accompanying drawings, making a part of this specification.”
Trial and error of evolving technology
The late 19th century was an age of inventions, and many entrepreneurs sought to perfect a mechanical cotton harvester. Their lack of success reinforced the belief that cotton would always be picked by hand. For almost 100 years, it seemed, a successful cotton picker had been just around the corner. Inventors experimented with a variety of devices that were designed to pick cotton.
Pneumatic harvesters removed cotton fiber from the bolls with suction or a blast of air. Electrical cotton harvesters used a statically charged belt or finger to attract the lint and remove it from the boll.
The thresher-type harvester cut down the plant near the surface of the ground and took the entire plant into the machine, where the cotton fiber was separated from the vegetable material.
The stripper-type harvester combed the plant with teeth or drew it between stationary slots or teeth, while the picker- or spindle-type machine was designed to pick the open cotton from the bolls using spindles, fingers, or prongs, without injuring the plant’s foliage and unopened bolls.
Injecting new tech into old tech
Mechanical cotton picking began to be practical in 1943, when International Harvester produced the first dozen of their successful commercial cotton pickers. However, although the spindle-type harvester finally proved to be successful, even until today, its introduction wasn’t smooth.
Some farmers suffered rejection at the gin, where even mechanically picked cotton was not clean enough to be processed. The cotton was full of leaves, stalks and boll hulls – as it still is today – but many gins weren’t yet equipped to remove that contamination, and the crop couldn’t be ginned without being cleaned. In that case, farmers were forced to haul the load elsewhere, incurring additional transportation costs.
Gin equipment manufacturers realized this need early, knowing that the mechanical picker was here to stay. They rapidly incorporated air-handling of the seed cotton from the wagon to the bale press, and they developed dryers and cleaners efficient enough that the locks – segments of cotton fiber within the boll – reaching the gin saws were as pristine as hand-picked.
Salvaging a 1940s picker
In 2007, Gus Rodgers, who lived near Huntland, Tennessee, purchased (as an investment) a late 1940s International Harvester 114A one-row, dual-fan low-drum cotton picker, mounted on an Farmall H tractor, from Harvey Osmer in Gurley, Alabama. The unit’s early history is lost, but it is apparent that the tractor and picker were factory-mated, probably in Memphis. The rear axle was reversed so that the unit could run backward, and the clutch and gear shifter were relocated near the much higher and backward-facing driver’s seat.
Harvey had replaced the engine and added a new distributor, but when Gus started trying to crank it, he had to remove a colony of ants that had gutted the distributor, so a new one was installed. One tire was new but flat, so a spare was installed.
A sizeable tree was growing up through the frame by the driver’s seat, and a smaller one up through the basket, which had been (mostly) cut out of the way. Two friends were along to help load and move the picker on a trailer, but once Gus got it started, he drove it the 32 miles from Gurley to Huntland, stopping along the way to pump the new tire and replace the replacement that had gone flat.
With half a round of slack in the steering linkage, traveling the highways at top speed of 17 mph could be a bit harrowing. The 114A stayed in Gus’ barn until a newer tractor came along and bumped it out into the yard, where it was sitting in January 2010, when the Southland Flywheelers Antique Tractor & Engine Club was offered a chance to buy it.
Flywheelers’ dream comes true
For a few years, the Flywheelers had been growing cotton on a small plot of ground on the Morgan County Fairgrounds, where we held our annual Fall Show. There were also plots of corn, peanuts and sorghum, all of which produced fairly well each year, and the other crops, which were mechanically picked with antique machinery.
We already had a Van Winkle cotton gin going by that time, so the cotton was handpicked, but that was desirable anyway in order to keep it clean enough for us to use without a pre-cleaner. But even for a group of us on that tiny plot, picking was a backbreaking chore that few relished. We had looked at the picker and dreamed of owning it, but at the time our tiny treasury wasn’t up to making the acquisition.
The Randy and Robert Bodine families are longtime Alabama cotton growers, and among their fleet was an IH 114A, so when they learned that a similar machine was available, they helped purchase it for the Flywheelers, and with help from some of us, moved it in January 2013 from Huntland to the Flywheeler Farm, now located at Hartselle, Alabama.
Undoing the ravages of time
Again, time hadn’t been kind to the old relic, as one of the trees was still present, grown through the bottom of the basket. The new distributor was full to the brim with rainwater, and there were bent shafts with ruined shaft bearings. The starter was balky and there was no battery. The hydraulic basket-dumping cylinders were leaky, water lines were missing and the doffers were worn out.
Some of the picker spindle racks needed new bearings, but they were otherwise mechanically sound, as were the overhead chains that powered them. The water sponges for the spindles were in good shape. A large animal nest, probably from a opossum, was removed from one of the fans.
It wasn’t hard to get the engine running smoothly again, and at that point the picker mechanism was exercised. Randy Bodine and Jerry Dewberry, who have spent lots of time herding these machines through the fields, offered tips and hands-on help in the restoration. Larry Lemmond spent many hours working with linkages that were in bad shape when it was retired from active duty. Larry had even gone to the Bodine farm and operated their 114A picker just to get the feel of driving a tractor with the narrow “front” wheels following behind. For those who haven’t tried it, it isn’t a natural accommodation.
Finally, in March 2014, it was time to give the unit a workout for the benefit of the visitors to our Spring Show and Swap Meet. The cotton crop from the previous season had been good, but most of the bolls were still on the stalks. For a change, the weather gave us a long enough dry spell that the tired old machine could be driven to the field and eased into the first row. Considering the poor condition of the rubber doffers, the result was a bit satisfying, or at least crowd-pleasing. But the brittle cotton stalks kept jamming the spindles and we had to give it up after one row.
The 2014 crop was again a good one, though planted late, so that it was December before we could crank up the picker again. New rubber doffers had been installed, and the spindle racks were thoroughly cleaned and adjusted to turn smoothly.
This time everything worked well, with cotton flying up into the basket. After a couple of rows, Bill Gray climbed into the driver’s seat, and then I took my turn. Videos and photos of the three of us show looks of grim concentration as we endeavored to keep the wings sweeping the cotton stalks into the spindles evenly on both sides as the trailing wheels kept trying to steer off the row.
Mother Nature still rules
And that was that. In 2015, not a single stalk of cotton sprouted in our crop plot. But then, the peanuts also didn’t sprout, the sorghum never developed any sugar, and what should have been a bumper corn crop was almost completely devoured by crows.
2016 started like most recent years, with weekly heavy rains, such that the ground wasn’t yet broken in April, much less planted. But once the weather broke, planting was smooth, with a good rain afterward. The corn crop is as good as last year’s and was spared the crow predation. The peanuts delivered the best crop since the first year. The cotton is tall and full of white fluff. Once the leaves are frost-killed, the picker will collect the bounty. With enough harvested in 2015, we plan to produce our own bale, probably only 200 pounds so we can easily handle it, wrapped in burlap with steel straps and vintage buckles. FC
How the cotton picker works
“All pickers manufactured in the U.S. have two drums in a tandem (or staggered), opposed-drum arrangement. Early research during spindle-picker development compared drum positions on the same side of the row (in-line) and on opposite sides of the row (opposed drum), as well as varying numbers of spindles per bar and bars per drum with a variety of plant sizes and cotton conditions. The front drum of the row unit harvests about 75 percent of the cotton.
“Current production pickers have a top-to-bottom spindle contact area of about 30 inches using 18 or 20 spindles per bar. Spindles are spaced 1.625 inches along the bar. Bar cams and cam tracks cause spindles to enter a cotton row pointed slightly toward the rear of the picker and quickly swing to aim slightly forward as they retreat from a row.” – Excerpted from The Spindle-Type Cotton Harvester by Herb Willcutt, S.W. Searcy, et al.
Check out a video of the 114A cotton picker in action: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-oB8prmXl8
For more information: Retired scientist Bill Friday, Huntsville Alabama, collects and restores old tractors, gist mills, cotton gins, engines, pumps and tools. He is member of the Southland Flywheelers Antique Tractor & Engine Club. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.