During the 19th century, Sea Island cotton was grown on plantations in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, requiring, according to The Story of Sea Island Cotton, “1,000 lbs. of seed cotton to produce 300 lbs. of clean white cotton; 15 persons will be required to sort and prepare 1,000 lbs. for the gin or machine; taking all weather, 25 lbs. is the mean quantity received from gin per day; this gives 12 days labour to each bag for ginning; and 10 women mote these 300 lbs. of cotton in the day, making, for sorting 15, for ginning 12, for moting 10, for packing 1, in all 38. But besides these 38 that must be good and steady persons, there are usually two inferior persons, young or old, to place the cotton, which is about to be ginned, upon the drying floor, or to remove or pass it about it in any change of weather, thus requiring every bag of sea island cotton well put up, the labour of 40 persons, one day.”
Today, thanks to the research of local author and botanist Richard Porcher and a partnership between Charleston County Parks and Recreation (CCPRC), the Friends of McLeod nonprofit, and local attorney and James Island resident Bill McLean, McLeod Plantation Historic Site is bringing that back-breaking history to life with the planting of circa 1939 Sea Island cotton seeds.
Behind the intersection of Folly and Maybank roads, amongst towering live oaks and Spanish moss, sits McLeod, a 37-acre estate, preserved since 2011 by CCPRC as a Gullah/Geechee heritage site. In 1849, these 37 acres were 1,693, and the now empty slave quarters were home to families who would work the fields, growing what was, according to The Story of Sea Island Cotton, “by all accounts the finest quality of cotton ever grown — anywhere or at any time.”
Sea Island cotton, of the genus Gossypium, was, other than Carolina Gold Rice, the cash crop of the Lowcountry between 1786 through the Civil War. The cotton was grown after the Civil War, but it never accumulated as much wealth for planters (in large part due to the end of forced free labor). The exceptional cotton, writes Porcher, “clothed the royalty and aristocracy of England and France.” And McLeod, at its peak, was the most productive plantation on James Island; purchased by outspoken secessionist William McLeod in 1851, the 1,693 acres were producing as much as 64 bags of cotton by 1859.
After reading an article in 2011 about an attempt to grow Sea Island cotton on Middleton Plantation, McLean did some research on the man cited in the article, Dr. Richard Porcher. “After I read Porcher’s book I was convinced there must be some seed around somewhere,” says McLean. “Then I found they have some at the USDA cotton repository in Texas. They sent me 25 seeds; I planted them on Edisto and 12 plants survived.”
McLean was lucky to get those 25 seeds — most USDA seeds go to seed geneticists, not curious, well-read attorneys. The reason for the dearth of Sea Island cotton seeds is the boll weevil, a quarter-inch-long beetle that feeds on cotton buds and flowers, that eviscerated Lowcountry cotton in the early 20th century, severely impacting the entire southern economy between 1892 and 1932.
But even if the boll weevil had never made it to the American South, the plant would probably not have fared so well. “Even with skilled slaves and the special care taken with the plants, Sea Island cotton was an uncertain crop, succumbing to unreasonable rains, storms, insect pests, and a fluctuating market,” writes Porcher. Plus, “conditions in the sea islands today make it impractical to grow cotton on a scale large enough to be commercially feasible … the amount of cotton produced would be so small that it would not be profitable for a mill to change its machines to handle the longer lint. Sea island cotton is now history.”
So, why grow Sea Island cotton in 2017? On a quarter acre of McLeod on a gray and humid morning Monday, May 22, 1,500 of “Bleak Hall” variety seeds were planted to educate visitors about this important facet of the plantation’s history. A ball of twine was used to mark 100-foot straight lines, and seeds were placed about a foot or so apart. Volunteers from local gardening clubs and the Friends of McLeod planted the seeds at least an inch into the ground to achieve an appropriate level of soil moisture, then gently patted dirt on top so the seeds would not be too loose in their settings. As of June 6, according to cultural history interpretation coordinator and CCPRC volunteer recruit Shawn Halifax, 128 seedlings had germinated. The first two months require hoeing and cultivation, until the plants are tall enough to shade out weeds. After four months, the cotton will start blooming.
The labor intensive process to turn seed cotton into clean white cotton is not something CCPRC is endeavoring to do. Halifax notes that “While it is exciting on one hand to have Sea Island cotton growing here once again, it is equally important to acknowledge the cultivation of this cotton was accomplished through the oppression of millions of people for generations … This calls for solemn remembrance, too.”
Forty persons, one day of labor. The planting at McLeod will be educational, and visitors will learn about this intense and unforgiving process while seeing the plant firsthand, and, maybe, even participating in its cultivation. Friends of McLeod members Glenda and Jerry Owens say the project is really becoming “a community thing. Everyone who comes for a tour will be interested in it, and we may have the children help gin the cotton with small ginning replicas. We are hoping there will be enough seeds to be able to do this. It’s part of a living history.”