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Bulloch History with Roger Allen - Cotton: Lifeblood of Bulloch County
roger allen
Roger Allen

With cotton fields all around and bolls about to bloom, cotton remains the lifeblood of many Bulloch Countians today, as it has been for more than a 150 years. The word “Cotton” translates to “coton” in French, and even sounds the same in Arabic: “Qutun”. The cotton plant is actually a member of the Mallow family, which also includes milkweed and hollyhock.
    There have always been two basic varieties of this plant: the Georgia “Upland,” “Asiatic,” or “Old World” variety, which is a short-stapled green-seeded plant; and the Georgia “Sea Island,” “Persian” or “Russian” variety, which is a long stapled black-seeded plant.
    According to reliable sources, cotton was first recorded as having been planted in the “Trustees Garden” in Savannah as part of a Royal Experiment in Horticulture in 1733. The colony of Georgia was actually the first colony to produce cotton as a commercial crop, although both Florida and Virginia both had established substantial cotton plantations within their borders.
     According to most historians, a Frenchman named Francois Levett brought the first Sea Island cotton plants to Georgia in 1807. The seeds were sold to a select group of Georgia planters for 4 shillings and 6 pence for a pound of the seed. He planted most of his seeds on Sapelo Island, where he had established a plantation.
     Two wealthy Georgians had already established cotton plantations on Skidaway Island: Josiah Tattnall and Nicholas Turnbull. Another countryman of Levett, John Du Bignon, had established his own cotton plantation on Jekyll Island. In Bulloch County, cotton growing rapidly became a mainstay of the agricultural establishment.
     As cotton became a major crop shipments were hauled to towns on the fall-lines of the areas major rivers, including the Oconee and the Ogeechee. Macon was a major trans-shipping point for some fifty years, as was Augusta. Bulloch County farmers, however, usually just carried their cotton directly to Savannah.  
    Whereas in 1850 only 594 bales (each weighing 450 pounds) were produced, by 1860 there were 1378 bales brought to market. Caravans of wagoneers and their teams of mules would line the roadways to Augusta and Savannah, sometime stretching for as much as a half-mile.
    The value of cotton lands, thought by many to be dead and unproductive, soon jumped in value with the discovery that fertilizers made the land perfect for this plant. The earliest fertilizers used on Wiregrass plantations were alkalis and limestone.
    These were soon supplanted by the use of “night soils”, in which human excrement was collected from the areas slave populations and spread on the field. Most of the Bulloch cotton was planted at first for home consumption. The short staple variety was used to produce wool or cotton batten for stuffing mattresses, while the long staple cotton was used to produce warp or thread.
    It wasn’t until the discovery of almost inexhaustible supplies of guano (bird droppings) from the western coastal areas of South America that cotton yields jumped to near where they were at the peak of cotton production in Bulloch County. Bulloch County inventors created many new machines for the area’s cotton crop, including cotton planters, chippers, and even cotton gins.
    With the creation of these mechanical devices, such as the 36 saw toothed cotton gin, enough cotton could be cleaned per day to produce one 400 pound bale a day. This machine’s engine had one horse power – meaning it was run by using one horse.
    With the onset of the Civil War, cotton became a rare but also largely unsaleable commodity, largely because of the Union blockade of Confederate ports. Thus began what became known as the “Cotton Famine” in Georgia:
    First, there was an abundance of cotton stocks in England, the states biggest client; secondly, the production of cotton garments in New England factories was meeting the Union’s needs; thirdly, there were now competing producers, in both Egypt and India, who were more than happy to supply Britain’s future cotton needs.
    Finally, and most importantly, what manpower hadn’t been drafted to fight against the North that still lived near the cotton plantations was incapable of harvesting the existing crops of cotton. After the war ended, the situation didn’t improve.
    Roger Allen is a local lover of history. Allen provides a brief look at Bulloch County's historical past. E-mail Roger at rogerdodg

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