AMERICANS DON’T PICK COTTON – Marilyn Armstrong

Photography: Garry and Marilyn Armstrong

You really get a feel for rivers when you live in a regional watershed. The Blackstone and its tributaries flow down from the Worcester hills at the northern part of the state.

The Blackstone is not a wide river. Not like the Mississippi or even the Hudson. It’s a relatively narrow river that drops about 900 feet from its beginnings. It does a lot of twisting and turning, making it much more powerful than its size would suggest.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

It concludes its nearly 50-mile run as it flows into the sea down around Newport, Rhode Island. All the dams were built to power factories and mills, which is why every town in the valley is called “mill” something — or has the name of one of the mill owners.

Early greenery along the river in Rhode Island

Uxbridge is unique. We are named after Uxbridge in England. That’s our twin town, though it’s nothing like our Uxbridge. England’s Uxbridge is an affluent suburb of London. We’re not an affluent anything.

Spring by the Mumford Dam – Photo: Garry Armstrong

The problem with the dams is they block the river and make it hard for wildlife to move up and down the river and many people want to get rid of the dams.

Because this region was the “birthplace” of America’s industrial revolution (1788), most of the earth used to build the dams is hazardous. It’s amazing how much pollution we created in the good old days, before the chemical revolution. We made things every bit as poisonous as we do today.

Spring, downtown Uxbridge

So although they would like to release the dams, they can’t. That hazardous dirt would poison the river. The 45 years we’ve spent cleaning up one of the most polluted rivers in the world (as of the 1970s) would be undone. Instantly.

The train doesn’t stop here anymore – Photo: Garry Armstrong

We are — in 2019 — more or less the poor cousin to other towns in New England, but once upon a time, this was the most prosperous area in the country. Uxbridge had a population and stuff like trains, buses, and businesses.

In the early 1900s, mill owners decided they weren’t rich enough. So they moved down south to where cotton grew and where people worked cheap. By the 1920s, they had closed all the factories in New England.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

The south got the mills, the dams, and the pollution. Then, they realized they were rich, but not rich enough, so they said “Screw the USA” and moved the mills to the far east where people were willing to work for pennies, including children as young as four or five.

Suddenly, all the modestly priced cotton sheets we used to buy became expensive. Between moving the mills and fabric factories to another continent, they simultaneously realized it was also cheaper to buy the cotton there, too. Like, from India, Pakistan, Israel, and places in North Africa.

So it was and so it has remained.

Roaring Dam: Photo: Garry Armstrong

It’s why you can’t find decent percale sheets anymore. The cotton they grow overseas is different than the cotton we grew. It’s finer and silkier, but not as strong or crisp.

To finish us off, we then banned immigrants from picking crops. The idea was that Americans would pick cotton once those brown-colored foreigners were gone. Instead, it turned out that no American of any color, race, or creed will pick cotton. The professional pickers are gone and so are the farms where cotton grew.

Bridge over the Blackstone River

Americans will not pick cotton. Not only do we not do the job well, but we refuse to do it at all. Today’s Americans do not pick cotton. Not white, brown, black or any shade in between. We would rather starve.

John Grisham wrote a book about growing up in the south and picking cotton called “The Painted House.” It’s his little autobiography about before he became a lawyer, then an author. It’s enlightening.

Early autumn at Manchaug

David Baldacci has written something along the same lines about his native West Virginia and how it has been completely destroyed, its people uprooted and ruined. These lawyer-writers are interesting guys. They are more than lawyers, more than writers. They are thinkers.

These southern authors come in two varieties: racist and incredibly liberal.

Guess which ones I read?

Author: Marilyn Armstrong

Writer, photography, blogger. Previously, technical writer. I am retired and delighted to be so. May I live long and write frequently.

27 thoughts on “AMERICANS DON’T PICK COTTON – Marilyn Armstrong”

    1. It used to be a separate town. Now, as far as my geography in England goes (which isn’t very far) it’s really a suburb of London. Boston has added at least half a dozen outlying towns to itself and many more are close suburbs. Big cities do that.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. It not only sounds similar, but the same people from there immigrated to the U.S. and they were the people who built — engineered — our mills and dams. It was immigration from England that did it. Our own people had been trying and failing for at least a couple of decides until Slater, and English mill engineer, popped up and build Slater’s Mill in Rhode Island. After that, it was a wild urgency to build as many dams, mills, factories, tanners. During one 50-year period, we went from being a lovely green valley to being THE place in America where there was industry. With some incredibly loathsome soil and water pollution, of course.

      Without those English engineers and builders, we would have been trying and failing for at least another dozen or so years. This valley has some serious history and that it’s again lovely because all the industry has gone elsewhere and there’s been massive cleanup for the past 50 years. It’s amusing how few people know anything about the Valley including the people who LIVE here.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for that its really interesting. I recently wrote a review regarding L.S. Lowry, he painted industrial landscapes in North West England, which have now disappeard.

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        1. All the mills and fabric/tanning/dying factories have moved to China or Pakistan or some other place where cotton grows. We were where it started but we’ve been abandoned. On the plus side, we are as fiercely polluted. On the downside, there’s no work where they used to be a LOT of work.

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          1. What a conundrum, Pollution and the loss of jobs, you seem to always get one without the other. I think I’d rather a community create more jobs somehow, than put up with the pollution.

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  1. Oh, I’ve often wondered about the name! Uxbridge here in London is the most Western tube stop on the Picadilly Line – or one branch of the Metropolitan Line. I’ve only ever been as far out as Ruislip (two stops down) because I used to visit my great aunt there before she died, but have never been to Uxbridge. Maybe I’ll go on the tube one day just for the hell of it, and take a couple of pics to post? 🙂

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  2. I think the British Uxbridge has a big RAF base during WWII and has an aviation museum now but other than that I don’t know a lot about it. I’m sure you are right about it being absorbed into Greater London though. I like John Grisham and have read a lot of his books including “The Painted House”. I liked it, it was a lot different from his others. I didn’t know it was autobiographical.

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    1. John Grisham was bought up dirt poor, picking cotton as a child. That wasn’t a best-seller, but I thought it was really interesting. He didn’t get into how he went from picking cotton to becoming a lawyer then a writer. I’d like to hear THAT part of the story too!

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  3. US is number three in world cotton production. Still plenty grown here. Just drive through South Georgia.

    But it us all picked by machines. No people out in the fields planting, hoeing or picking any more. All mechanized.

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    1. And all the family farms are gone, too. And most of the “soft vegetables” that could NOT be picked by machine. All the mills are overseas, so regardless of where it’s grown, we have to buy it from overseas unless we are just buying raw cotton. The mills are really closed. North, south — closed.

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        1. Textiles are made in this country, but almost NO cotton. One real COTTON mill. They make organic cotton and are REALLY expensive. We produce a fair amount of polyester and microfiber, but the total number of mills is still below 100 (last check, 86 nation-wide) and none of them employ people. Nor will they. There’s a fashion house (Fashionista or something like that?) that makes a wide variety of fabrics and some cotton. Almost all of our cotton used to make fabric in the U.S. is sold to the mills in the east or mixed with polyester or microfiber.

          China (40% approximately) and Pakistan were at last statistical count — which was a few years ago — the two biggest producers of all cotton fabric, but there are others including Israel, India, Indonesia etc. as well as a few in Africa. Overall, cotton usage has been decreasing as the cost has continued to rise. Now with those cool tariffs, good luck getting cotton! In this country, cotton is typically “mixed” with other microfibers. Pure cotton is expensive and the stuff most of us can afford is not the quality we remember — or want. It’s thinner, silkier, and rips easily. Those thick percale sheets that lasted for decades? I have not found ANY place that makes them at any price. For those of us that remember the joy of crispy percale, there’s very little to be had — regardless of price.

          We DO make canvas and duck in this country, though much of that goes to the military.

          The mills are gone and the people who worked in them are gone. It’s healthy for our valley and all of New England, but there’s very little employment up here anymore. And those family farms in the south are gone. They are all goliath corporate farms. The families that ran them are gone too. None of the mills in the U.S. employ humans and never will.

          Meanwhile, I wonder how much pollution these robotic mills are creating. Just because the fabric is being made by robots doesn’t mean it isn’t poisoning the rivers and earth.

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  4. So much valuable info on your home town. The photos are incredible, but then I ADORE any photos with water as their theme. The mills are gone everywhere, nearly…. We just returned from Switzerland and I didn’t recognise my home city when we drove along new roads (at 30 km/h mostly!), the only thing reminding of former industry were the street & building names as well as the stops of trams, buses & trains. Alte Mühlestrasse, etc. There used to be a huge paper mill, and in a nearby valley several textile mills – in my very first job, I bought T-shirts and fine cotton shirts in Switzerland. They were far more expensive than the stuff we imported, because!!! Now I wear clothes ‘designed in Paris’, from a Swiss fashion maker, but we don’t know WHERE they are being made.
    I have also ordered more books by Douglas Kennedy, and if I’m not overly mistaken, I probably own one or two books by John GRisham and ditto by Baldacci. I seem to remember Grisham as a bit too noir for me, and then I’m not that much into American history.
    I love knowing more and more about your stories. It’s like getting to know you better and better. Thank you for your always interesting and well written posts. I tremendously enjoy them.
    And please DO take care of your health. Take that break!!!! We can ‘take a holiday’ from Marilyn and Garry….

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    1. I’m living on lidocaine patches for my shoulder and promised Garry I will see my orthopedist and find out if they can fix the shoulder. The problem is it’s a pretty big surgery. Garry knows because HE had that surgery. It’s not only a major surgery, but a lot of rehab, too. I’ve had too much surgery and way too much anesthesia, so no one is eager to do anything on me that isn’t a life-death issue. I thought it was a simple thing to fix, but it’s the kind of surgery they use to fix the arms of pitchers (baseball) plus a full year of rehab post-surgery. I’m not sure it’s even doable with arthritis in the joint. But I did promise to check with my specialist when I’m done with the next run of medical stuff coming up. If there’s something they can do, and it isn’t going to kill me, I’ll do it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You poor woman; I know that, once a patient is so ‘used up’ as you are with all kinds of surgery, doctors are not keen to add another op. We had a friend (RIP) who always joked in between another stay at hospital that he would have to be buried (vs cremated), because he was such a ‘spare parts warehouse’ that the burning of his body would undo the furnace of the crematorium….. not funny, I know, but funny in a way all the same.
        Hope, IT isn’t going to kill you and that you will come out the other end in better shape and health. You must look at yourself as the ‘survivor’ – and you would do it also for Garry and the babies…

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