No one knows why 17-year-old J.A. Harris didn't sell the bale of cotton he hand-picked in the late summer of 1890. But today, the bale sits in the foyer of USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, in Bartlett, Tenn. It is by most accounts, the oldest cotton bale in existence.
Here's what is known of the bale's history, from two letters written about the bale and an interview with Jimmy Knowlton, chief of standards and engineering at USDA/AMS in Bartlett. Knowlton learned of the bale while working for USDA/AMS in Clemson, S.C.
According to a letter from Porter Barnes, Atlanta, Ga., to Arthur W. Palmer, Washington, D.C., dated Feb. 29, 1928, young Harris produced the bale on his father's farm. It was the first bale of cotton gathered on the farm that fall. After ginning, Harris carried the bale from the gin to his home in Knoxville, Ga., where it remained for the next 35 years.
Perhaps Harris thought the bale would be a good investment. Certainly, he could have used the money from selling it that fall. The 1890s were not a time of great prosperity on the farm.
But Harris' plans, if there were any, were never revealed. On Nov. 26, 1925, he was killed in an automobile accident. He was 52 years old.
His sister, Mrs. J. L. R. Usry, was administrator of estate and had to sell the old bale. But 35 years of storage had taken a toll on the relic. It had to be carried back to the gin “and put in merchantable condition.”
Barnes's letter stated, “The bale had been in one position all these years and the end of the bale was damaged — all this damage was picked off. In putting new bagging on the bale at the gin, it was to some extent pulled apart and then put in the gin press and repacked. The cotton is now in good condition and the staple is very strong — in fact it is stronger than cotton raised last year.”
Apparently, Mrs. Usry then purchased the bale herself and returned it to her brother's house where it remained until 1928, when word of its existence filtered to Palmer.
Palmer was likely a USDA staffer interested in purchasing the bale. Barnes apparently was asked to authenticate its history.
Barnes explained a small problem in getting information about the bale to Palmer. “I had to wait for the mud roads to dry south of Griffin, Ga., hence the delay in getting the information about the bale of cotton belonging to Mrs. J.L.R. Usry.”
He also wrote of his attempts to verify the bale's age. The ginner of the bale had long since passed away, but he did locate the ginner's son, J.E. Bryant of Knoxville, Ga., who worked at the gin as a boy of 16.
He told Barnes that the gin hadn't operated since 1892-93, meaning the bale had to be at least that old. “Mr. Bryant says he knew Mr. Harris and heard him talk about the bale,” Barnes's letter said.
The ginner who helped restore the bale in 1925 confirmed that the bale, “was never put in a warehouse, but was weighed at the gin and after picking off the damaged cotton… it weighed 590 pounds.”
Barnes continued in the letter to Palmer, “I talked to Mrs. Usry about a price for this cotton and at first she wanted a big premium, but I told her we could only give at the most 5 cents above the marketplace for cotton in that section and she finally decided to sell at that price. I told her I would give you the above information and as soon as I heard from you I would let her know about buying the bale.”
USDA Cotton Division acquired the bale from Usry in 1928. Knowlton isn't sure what happened to it after that, but assumes it was stored at Clemson.
On Feb. 20, 1939, J.M. Cook, associate cotton technologist, division of cotton marketing for USDA in Clemson, sent a letter to M.E. Campbell, senior cotton technologist, division of cotton marketing, USDA, Washington D.C., informing him that several samples from the old bale were being sent for classing.
Five days later, Campbell wrote back:
“On opening the samples, we detected a rather strong odor of mildew and I am wondering whether, to your knowledge, this bale has been damaged by water in its present storage space at Clemson.
The letter continued, “The samples were stapled at 7/8 inch (4 samples) and 29/32 inch (4 samples); slightly neppy and nappy, strict middling in grade; slightly irregular in fiber distribution; strong in strength; medium in body; normal in composite character. The sample was described as slightly rough in preparation.”
In 1996, after the bale was moved to its current location, USDA's Cotton Division took samples for High Volume Instrument determination of the bale's quality. The results: color grade, good middle spotted; staple length, 29/32; strength, 23; and micronaire, 5.2.
The bale was then placed in a glass container to prevent deterioration.
Saved on a whim or perhaps as an investment, the bale hardly appreciated in value as much as the young Harris might had hoped, only $28.50 over 38 years, when his sister sold the artifact at a 5-cent premium.
But the bale's value is not in the age of its fiber. It's in the memory it invokes of wiry, dogged fingers pulling the fiber from the stalk, a cotton sack fighting against a pair of stooped, sweaty shoulders, and a mule-driven cart full of cotton plodding over rough dirt roads to a gin, in another place and time.
Thanks to a 112-year-old cotton bale, these souls and their times are not forgotten. Maybe young J.A. Harris knew what he was doing after all.