ISLE OF WIGHT - If you took an early fall drive along the James River this year, through the fertile farmlands of Isle of Wight and Surry counties, you likely saw acres of cotton plants heavy with white, fluffy bolls.
Long before cotton became the fabric of our lives, long before it etched a spot in U.S. history as an early economic engine of the South, cotton was being grown, spun and woven into cloth in the Indus River Valley in Pakistan and in Egypt's Nile Valley, according to the National Cotton Council. Before Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, he found cotton – a plant that flourishes in warm, humid climates - growing in the islands of the Bahamas.
Virginia's colonists were growing cotton along the James River's shoreline as early as 1616, according to the National Cotton Council.
By the late 17th century, Virginians were cultivating and hand spinning the fiber for domestic use, and next door, the neighboring Carolinas were growing enough cotton to export it to other colonies, according to the Cotton Council documents.
Initially, cotton was not regarded a cash crop because it was so labor intensive, said Anna Mullins, executive director of the Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange, where cotton traders once directed the global cotton economy. Although several major river cities in cotton-production regions had exchanges at one time, the restored Memphis exchange is the only one that still exists today.
In the early 1700s, the need for labor to work on the region's cotton plantations helped make slavery an institution in the South, Mullins said.
Ships leaving from major port cities in the deep South — Memphis, New Orleans and Charleston — would travel to Europe carrying cotton. On return voyages, Mullins said, the ships would stop in Liverpool to pick up slaves who were ultimately sold to cotton plantation owners.
The Southern cotton industry changed in 1793, when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, a hand-operated device that separated 50 pounds of cotton lint from seed in one day. Before that, it took 10 hours for people to separate fiber from seed for every pound of cotton. Also in 1793, the country's first cotton yarn mill opened in Pawtucket, R.I.
"It was the invention of the cotton gin that made the reality of cotton as a cash crop in the South," Mullins said.
After decades of wealth from cotton, a bug – the boll weevil – toppled the cotton industry in the early 20th century, she said.
Boll weevils – tiny beetles that migrated into the United States from Mexico in the late 1800s – crippled the South's economy, Mullins said.
"A boll weevil is a unique pest because it eats every part of a cotton plant," she said. "And it reproduces quickly. Acres of cotton could be destroyed within a few days.
"By 1920, boll weevils had chewed their way through every cotton field in the United States … and entire communities that relied primarily on cotton were forced to find other revenue sources," said Mullins. "In many ways, the boll weevil triggered the economic downfall of the 1930s."
No social or economic class of people was left unscathed by the fall of the cotton industry, she said. In the Deep South, the boll weevil impacted the lives of anyone whose livelihood revolved around cotton: sharecroppers, gin workers, textile mill employees, cotton traders and bankers, lawyers and the shippers who transported the cotton around the country.
A slow comeback
Cotton fields and gins were dormant in much of the South for decades. It was only after the U.S. Department of Agriculture eradicated the boll weevil in 1978 that cotton begin to pick up in many regions
For many southeastern Virginia farmers, the cotton comeback was slower and more gradual.
Retired farmer Joe Barlow, 84, has vague recollections of helping his father pick cotton by hand on his Isle of Wight County farm. But around the time of his fifth birthday, Barlow says his family got out of cotton because of the boll weevil and increased demand for peanuts.
It's only been in the last decade that Joseph Barlow Jr., who now runs the family farm, brought cotton back to Cotton Plains Farm.