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Growing Cotton and Teachable Moments on the National Mall

by Tim Grove, Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum on

2015 marks AASLH’s 75th Anniversary Year. For the occasion, AASLH has created a blog series for members to share their unique history and memories. Contributions were based around AASLH’s founding year, 1940, but members also shared other wonderful moments in local history. The celebration is not just about AASLH’s history, but about the collective history of AASLH members, both individual and institutional, and the work we do for the field of state and local history.

Tim Grove_cotton field in Huntsville AL

I will never forget the two summers I grew cotton on the National Mall. I was working as program manager of the Hands On History Room (HOHR) at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. This learning center for all ages featured thirty-five or so hands-on activities based on primary source materials and reproduction objects. Visitors could ride a highwheel bicycle, send a telegraph message by Morse Code, assemble a Chippendale chair, make rope, try a treadle sewing machine, harness a fiberglass mule, examine Navajo pottery, and many other activities. The HOHR introduced people to the historical process and allowed them, in a small way, to do the rudimentary detective work of a historian. One activity was called “You be the historian.”

A popular activity in the room was a hand-cranked cotton gin. Most people have never seen how a gin works, although they learned about Eli Whitney and his gin in school. I could see the light bulb going off in visitors’ heads as they threw raw cotton into the feeder, turned the crank and watched in amazement as fluffy cotton came out on one end and seeds at the other end. It was almost like magic. In five or six turns visitors could see how the gin made cotton production much easier.

Visitors could also try on a standard sack used to pick cotton. Some of them had grown up picking cotton and oh, the stories they would tell. Childhood boll fights, bloody hands, sore backs… Then there were the northerners who had never seen a white field dripping with cotton awaiting harvest. As a Yankee, I still remember the first time I saw a field of mature cotton. Many visitors questioned how cotton grows and what the plants look like.

Tim Grove_Tim on right and maker of a roller gin

Demonstrating the roller cotton gin (me on right)

One year I had an idea, I approached Smithsonian horticultural staff about planting a cotton patch. Would cotton even grow in Washington? They agreed to try and we ended up with about thirty plants, spindly at first, but soon thriving in the warm Washington sun.  By late summer I was counting the number of bolls (seed pods) on each plant. Anxious for harvest, we soon learned we needed to prepare for battle. The squirrels, rabbits, rats and birds of the neighborhood had somehow recognized a new source of food. We tried to keep them out, but that first summer we lost the battle.

The following year a good-sized crop reached maturity and in early September the ultimate hands-on activity commenced. We decided to seize a teaching moment and harvest the crop in front of visitors. Every few days I encouraged volunteers to join me in the cotton patch. A crowd watched as we gingerly tore the fiber from the bolls, in full view of the Washington Monument. Under no pressure for high productivity, we could take our time and prevent stabbing our fingers on the sharp bolls. Our audience could go into the museum and then gin cotton.

We only raised cotton for two years, and that was almost fifteen years ago, but if the topic of cotton comes up at a party, beware! I unleash a torrent of knowledge about cotton and gins. I can’t help myself. My friends stand stunned as I attempt to enlighten them on the fascinating history of this invention. They have no idea this Northerner has picked and ginned cotton and guided the construction of a gin. And by the way, Eli Whitney did not invent the cotton gin! He invented a type of cotton gin. Yes, cotton gins have been used in some form or another since the first century. But that’s another story. Read more about my cotton experiences in A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History.

[p.s. I wrote an article about the HOHR in History News, Autumn 1999 – “I Never Knew History Could be so Fun!”]

 

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