One of the earliest forms of commercial fertilizer used in this region was guano, copious amounts of manure from seabirds deposited in the arid Chilean Andes, where it accumulated for centuries. It had high nitrogen content, but only traces of other crop nutrients. Even after companies in this country began to produce fertilizer with a more balanced analysis matched to crop needs, farmers continued to call it guano. Really, they called it “geuanner” with strong accents on both geu and anner. (Geuanner is my spelling; any other that sounds the same is just as proper.)
This fertilizer came in heavy-duty cotton bags — 200-pound capacity — not a light load. These bags — called “sacks” by everyone I knew unless they used unprintable terms — were marvelously useful after being emptied of fertilizer. Like string, nails and haywire saved after original applications, they were used in many ways.
Tough, durable and tightly woven, they made superior sacks for picking cotton — much superior to burlap — stronger and less abrasive to exposed skin. Even the straps that held cotton sacks over shoulders were made of layered strips of geuanner sack cloth. When the heavy string that held the sacks together was unraveled, they became rectangles of cloth. Four of these sewn together with strong thread made a sheet onto which cotton was deposited after cotton sacks were filled. At the end of the work day, each picker’s sheet was weighed to determine the picker’s pay for the day. Then the filled sheets were hauled from the field for storage until the cotton was taken to the gin.
Tobacco farmers also had many uses for geuanner sacks. Before the advent of harvesting machines of any sort, tobacco pickers (a.k.a. croppers) worked on foot and harvested a few “ripe” leaves at a time. They “cropped” with their dominant hands and carried the leaves under their other arms until it was necessary to deposit the load into a mule-drawn sled (a.k.a. crate).
These transportation units were both sled and crate. About two feet wide and six to eight feet long, they were sleds on runners onto which a cloth enclosed frame was erected to hold the harvested tobacco. They consisted of 2 x 6 inch runners held by 2 x 4 connections at the ends, each having a length of chain for pulling. They were floored with thinner boards. A frame was erected, about three and a half feet high with standards at each end and in the middle connected with 1 x 4-inch boards at the top across each end and down the sides.
This frame was covered with bagging, burlap or geuanner sacks, fastened by small nails driven through soft drink caps to keep the cloth from pulling away from the nails under stress of weight and travel.
Some of the “barn workers” who bundled the loose leaves and strung them onto sticks for the curing barn also used geuanner sacks. They tied them around their waists for protection from dew-wet leaves and the omnipresent tar. Clothes loaded with tobacco tar were hard to get clean, even using lye soap.
Commercially available sheets for hauling cured tobacco to market were made of burlap. However, the same geuanner sack cloth sheets used for cotton harvest could be used for tobacco. They were heavier and stronger. The offered more protection from moisture and accidental rips. They lasted longer and did not have to be bought.
In hard times — like the Great Depression or after a bad crop year — geuanner sacks could be made into clothes, not fancy or comfortable but durable. It was not a simple task to transform these sacks into clothing. They came with the names of their manufacturers dyed into the fabric. So, the first step was to boil the cloth long and hard in strong lye soap water. (No, chlorine bleach was not available.) Next, the cloth was hung out to dry in hot, bright sunlight.
After this, if the dye remained, the choice was to do it all over again or to wear garments still faintly advertising Swift, Armour or some other company. In hard times, nicer clothes might be an unaffordable luxury.
No matter how often washed, geuanner sack cloth was never soft. Its coarse texture was not comfortable to bare skin. After my father’s emergency appendectomy and lengthy recovery led to a poor crop and harvest, things were tight financially for our family for a year or so. Mother fashioned a pair of geuanner sack cloth overalls for me, but I mostly used worn-thin ones from the previous year. She took one of Daddy’s old shirts for a pattern and made a geuanner sack cloth shirt for him. He tried it, sweating a lot as usual. The wet cloth stretched out of shape and abraded him from neck to belt. He thanked her for her labor, but told her that she need not repeat the effort. “That thing would take the hide off a mule. I just can’t stand it.”
He had many uses for geuanner sacks, but wearing one for a shirt was not one of them.
In time, plastic replaced cloth as fertilizer sacks and the weight was cut in half. There were advantages to the new packaging, but it is useless afterwards.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.