Cotton has a long and storied history in northern Alabama.
In Pollards Bend, the cotton looked fine this spring. I’d expect that, since this is some of the finest farmland in northeast Alabama and the heart of what’s left of the cotton farming business in Cherokee County. A curve of the Coosa River presided over by Lookout Mountain holds it tight.
Standing in these cotton fields, I remember walking them as a child following my father. We had a small farm on the mountain. Dad was also a schoolteacher and a coach. Summers were spent finding ways to make extra money.
In 1956, when I was turning four, USDA started a now-infamous Soil Bank program. Designed to reduce acreage of crops when commodity prices were low, it established base acreage on farms, among other things. Dad didn’t debate its politics but jumped at the chance to measure cotton acreage for the program.
For several years, I went with him just about every day and was his designated holder of one end of the big tape measure. If a farmer exceeded his acreage allotment by, say, a half-acre, the overage had to be destroyed. Dad always carefully inspected the fields to help the farmer find the weakest cotton to plow up. We measured acreage all over the county but I most remember walking the rich bottomland along the Coosa. These farms were impressive, with matching farm homes. The river bottoms naturally pushed yields high. The cotton looked awesome to a kid from a mountain farm with thin clay and sand soils.
As we walked the fields, this area along the Coosa teemed with controversy, though I was too young to understand it. I remember dad saying, “Son, remember this place. It’s going to be gone before long.”
Gone, it soon was.
Bulldozers went to work, clearing a lakebed. The nice big farmhouses came down, one by one. Then in 1961, our family went to the ceremony for the dam establishing Weiss Lake for the Alabama Power Company. Politicians spoke, preachers prayed, bands played, and many feet of water covered the rich river bottom fields.
Now called the Crappie Capital of the World by local promoters, the lake is the primary economic engine for Cherokee County. It’s big, 52 miles long with 447 miles of shoreline, draining a watershed of more than 5,000 square miles. It’s pretty. It’s nice. I like it. But I also remember what lies beneath the water.
All these years later, I like to ride through the Pollards Bend area, where the cotton still grows strong. With today’s high-yielding varieties, what could cotton do if grown on those old-time river bottom fields?
I stop at one field after another, good cotton all. These farmers know what they’re doing and they’re doing it on good soils. I come to a crossroads and hang a left. Over there, at a spot where there’s now pretty much nothing, the Livingston School stood. Dad was principal there for a few years.
Photographing cotton in another field, I turn to leave. While packing up my camera gear, an older lady rolls a motorized wheelchair down her nearby driveway, wondering what I’m up to. As we talk, I ask if she remembers Livingston School. Yes, she says, she went to school there herself. She doesn’t remember my father, though.
We talk about the river and the lake. She, too, recalls the big celebration when the dam was completed and water filled the bottoms.
“That was a big day,” she says.
Indeed, it was. And quite a time, too.
It’s over but not entirely gone. There’s still cotton in Pollards Bend.