Cotton

For nearly half a century, cotton reigned as king of Waco's economy, establishing the once small frontier town as a thriving urban center known throughout the country.

The area later named Waco held a long history of agricultural pursuits tracing back to the Waco Indians' farming of crops such as melons, pumpkins, lima beans, and corn. Cotton farming and plantation culture arrived in Waco along with the first white settlers of McLennan County. Initially hesitant to plant crops in the black soil found in Central Texas, these settlers soon found the alluvial soil of the Brazos Valley and blackland prairie ideal for growing cotton.

Prior to the Civil War, cotton production in McLennan County remained relatively small. Without a means to transport the product with ease throughout the country, there was little reason to produce large amounts of cotton. Additionally, although farmers sought to recreate southern plantation life in Waco, legal restrictions placed on the number of slaves a landlord could bring into Texas prevented large-scale plantations from developing.

Cotton production slowed with the dawn of the Civil War as most Wacoans, supporting secession, left to fight. The price of cotton fell and shipments to Europe stopped completely when the Union blocked established trade routes out of the South. Yet this setback ultimately turned into Waco's first step toward industrialization when, during his search to secure passage for the crop, John Baylis Earle acquired equipment for a cotton mill in England, disassembled it, and smuggled it into Waco via Mexico. The new mill freed up considerable time for women who had previously spent hours sewing and spinning cotton.

The defeat of the South in 1865 and subsequent emancipation of slaves completely restructured plantation life. Although some freedmen left Waco, many remained in the area in altered relationships with their former owners. The large number of people desiring to farm a limited amount of land led to a new hierarchy. Unable to pay all of their former slaves a fair wage, landowners rented pieces of land to tenants and sharecroppers in exchange for a portion of the crop and profit at the end of the growing season.

The cotton industry industrialized and grew considerably in Waco during this period immediately following the Civil War. The construction of the Waco Suspension Bridge and arrival of the Waco Tap Railroad in 1870 increased the number of people and goods entering and departing the city. Waco's cotton market boomed, and by 1885, the city became known as the largest inland cotton market in Texas. When a second railroad connection arrived, it was named the Cotton Belt Route in honor of the large market to which it primarily catered.

Life in Waco came to revolve around the crop which had earned the town the name of King Cotton. Bankers loaned money against cotton crops, and the city economy boomed along with farmers' prosperity. Brokers from other states and nations opened offices in the city. Each fall, farmers from the surrounding counties arrived in the town square at daybreak to display bales for classification and sale. In 1894, the city instituted the grand annual festival named the Cotton Palace Exposition in order to honor and celebrate the central role of the crop in the local economy.

By the turn of the twentieth century, however, the cotton industry reached its peak and was already beginning a steady decline, largely due to the diversification of agriculture as well as the depletion of soil nutrients. Although no longer the enormous market force it once represented, cotton continued to play an important role in Waco's economy throughout the twentieth century, with small numbers of farmers growing cotton and local merchants continuing to offer rewards for the first bale of cotton each season. Today, small cotton farms can be seen in the countryside surrounding the city, and the legacy of the crop which once made Waco a center of the South is visible in landmarks around town such as Cottonland Castle, the silos of the old cotton oil mill, and the site of the Texas Cotton Palace.

Images

Center of the South

Center of the South

The town square demonstrated the growth and impact of the Waco cotton industry better than any other place in the city. Farmers from counties surrounding the city brought their crops to Waco for sale and then in turn purchased groceries and other supplies from local merchants, further strengthening the economy. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection | Creator: Fred R. Gildersleeve View File Details Page

Neale Farm and Cotton Gin

Neale Farm and Cotton Gin

Eli Whitney's cotton gin, a machine which separated cotton fibers from the seeds, revolutionized the cotton industry at the turn of the nineteenth century, decreasing the cost of cotton and leading to the development of plantation culture. Situated on Old Marlin Road, this cotton gin likely produced large amounts of "white gold" to be sold in the city square. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

A Day's Wages

A Day's Wages

Prior to the Civil War, slaves brought their pickings to the gin at the end of the day to be weighed. After achieving their freedom, many African Americans continued to work in the fields but for pay, and the weighing system remained. Landowners used scales such as the one in this picture to determine how much to pay laborers at the end of each day. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University | Creator: Fred Marlar View File Details Page

Lingering Tension

Lingering Tension

Following the Civil War, a new hierarchy of cotton farmers developed as a result of the increase in the number of people who wanted to farm and the lack of farmland available. Unable to afford their own land, African Americans often had to surrender large portions of their crop each season to a landowner as tenants and sharecroppers. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University | Creator: National Archives View File Details Page

Waco Cotton Yard (c. 1915)

Waco Cotton Yard (c. 1915)

The sheer volume of cotton visible in this photograph emphasizes the crop's importance to the city. Cotton yards such as this one situated in downtown Waco at the corner of Clay Avenue and South Second Street (as indicated on the Waco History map) held the thousands of bales of cotton brought to the city each fall to be classified and sold. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University | Creator: E. C. Blomeyer View File Details Page

Celebrated Sale

Celebrated Sale

The sale of the first bale of cotton each year became a major event in the city accompanied by much fanfare. In 1916, Sam Sanger of Sanger Brothers Department Store offered a large cash prize to the local farmer who produced and sold that year's first bale of cotton in the city. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University | Creator: Fred R. Gildersleeve View File Details Page

Mexican American Fieldworker (c. 1920)

Mexican American Fieldworker (c. 1920)

Increasing violence at the Texas-Mexico border resulting from the Mexican Revolution between 1910 and 1920 led to an increased Mexican-American and immigrant population in Waco. Labor segregation during that time period forced many to take menial jobs working in areas such as construction, slaughterhouses, or mining. A large population of Mexican American Wacoans worked in agriculture during the twentieth century, handpicking cotton in the fields. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University | Creator: National Archives View File Details Page

Ideal Location

Ideal Location

The rich soil of the blackland prairie combined with the steady water supply provided by the Brazos River offered ideal farming conditions for cotton plantations. Up until the mid-twentieth century, furrow irrigation techniques similar to what is pictured in this photograph were widely used in cotton production in order to provide adequate water for crops in areas where rainfall was less reliable. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Unique Monument

Unique Monument

The pageantry of the Texas Cotton Palace Exposition showcased Waco's efforts to stylize itself as the Cotton Capital of the South. The two-week exposition consisted of exhibits designed to entertain visitors of all ages, including horse and automobile races, a parade, baking competitions, and carnival grounds known as the War Path. Many considered the coronation of the Cotton Palace Queen at the Cotton Palace Ball, attended by the elite of society, to be the height of the event. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Lasting Legacy

Lasting Legacy

Cotton's legacy in Waco extended far beyond the efforts of farmers. The boom in the cotton economy led to the creation of jobs in other industries, such as those brought by the incorporation of the Brazos Valley Cotton Oil Company in 1910. Cotton heavily influenced the culture of the city as well, as evidenced by the Cotton Palace Exposition and other city landmarks such as Cottonland Castle, named to honor the prosperity the crop brought to Waco. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Audio

The Cash Crop

Edward F. Wegner explains the importance of cotton to his family because it was the main source of the family's income. | Source: Wegner, Edward F., interviewed by Dan K. Utley, March 18, 1992, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

Cotton Activity in Waco

Robert Lee Lockwood describes Waco during the time when the city was one of the greatest cotton centers in the world.  | Source: Lockwood, Robert Lee, interviewed by Thomas Lee Charlton, May 29, 1974, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Amanda Sawyer, “Cotton,” Waco History, accessed May 30, 2017, http://wacohistory.org/items/show/119.

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