Cotton Farming in Faulkner County: “Looking Back”

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

According to Henry Enderlin, whose family ginned cotton in Conway for most of the 20th century, the last bale of cotton was ginned in Faulkner County in 1972. It was an end of an era that lasted over 120 years in the county.

Cotton was the main cash crop for Faulkner County farmers until after World War II because it was the most easily marketed in proportion to its value. It was also a crop in which all the children and the women in the family could contribute labor. Most of the cotton produced in Faulkner County was produced on small farms.

During the growing season, most days began at sunrise. After eating breakfast and feeding the animals, all able-bodied family members went to the field. After the crop was planted and came up, the family then spent their days hoeing cotton. Harvest usually began in August and ended around Thanksgiving, depending on the weather.

Harvesting cotton usually involved the picker carrying a cotton sack and picking the boles by hand. One lady claimed to be able to pick a bale a week by herself. If the children were too small to carry a sack, they would carry as much as they could pick and leave it at the end of the row for an older person to pick up and put in their sack later.

Children went to school during the winter months and maybe a couple of months in the summer. That depended on the school district’s budget but typically the school term in rural Faulkner County might be only about five or six months.

When the cotton was picked, the farmer had to take it to the gin to have the seed separated from the lint. The cotton fibers would be baled there. There appears to have been a gin in every town and community in Faulkner County. The first gin, reportedly, was introduced in the Greenbrier area in the 1850s.

Once the cotton was baled, it would typically be shipped by rail to St. Louis or Memphis. The Lollie Plantation, a 4,000-acre plantation where the new Conway airport is located, had its own gin and was able to ship its cotton by boat out of two steamboat landings. The landings were at different heights so that cotton could be shipped out no matter what the height of the river.

There were other businesses in the county that also made use of cotton products. In the 1890s, Conway Cotton Oil Company, a cottonseed oil mill, opened and operated until 1936. Factory Street supposedly got its name because a cotton spinning mill was located there in the 1880s. It was destroyed by fire a few years later.

The 1880 census reported that there were 15,749 acres of cotton planted in Faulkner County. By 1900, cotton acreage had increased to 33,338 acres. According to Enderlin, who kept yearly totals of cotton production in the county, cotton farming peaked in 1935 with 46,490 acres of cotton being planted. But it only yielded 13,350 bales because of the drought.

That was nearly 20,000 less bales than in 1928 because of the Great Dust Bowl. It sold for only 11.09 cents a bale.

As a result, after World War II, Faulkner County farmers began to find other ways to make a living. Many turned to dairy farming or raised beef cattle for sale at the Lewis Livestock Auction. The price of cotton hit a record high of 40.07 cents a bale in 1950 but the 23,800 acres planted in the county only produced 6,720 bales because of another drought that hit the area.

Some farmers continued trying to make a living at farming cotton after the drought. 1955 would be another good year with 12,100 bales being produced on 15,900 acres but by 1970, that number had fallen to 1,750 bales harvested from 4,000 acres. I remember taking a ride down to Lollie Bottoms about this time to see the cotton and play in the cotton buggies. Soon after, Lollie Bottoms and most other county farms would switch to rice or soybeans.