Notion of no cotton a benchmark in time

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 16, 2008

A week after what may have been the last visit to Vicksburg by a steamboat came word that the last bolls of cotton could be being picked, too.

In a city born of river commerce, both are pretty big news.

Nothing about either development, however, is sudden. The Delta Queen, which made ports of call at City Front for 60 years, had been operating on congressional extensions of its exemptions from today’s safety standards. A wooden superstructure is just too risky, the feds say. The DQ may or may not get another extension and it, the Mississippi Queen and the American Queen may or may not get new owners. Certainly there remains a demand for leisure travel on the Mississippi.

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As for cotton, American textile mills have been on the decline for decades. And even the high-quality fiber grown here and once shipped to foreign mills is being replaced by cotton grown nearer those mills. Other fabrics also have made inroads against the staple, although it is still preferred for many uses.

Although most cotton shipped through the Port of Vicksburg was grown in the Mississippi Delta, Warren County often has had substantial cotton farms, up to 20,000 acres as recently as 20 years ago. But here and statewide, the shift to more profitable corn, wheat and soybean crops has reduced peak planting from 1.6 million acres that produced 2.4 million bales in 2001 to 365,000 acres producing about 680,000 bales this year.

The days when gins were ginning every few miles from Memphis to Vicksburg gradually gave way to today when only one gin, at Eagle Lake, has been operating in Warren County. It’s future is murky, at best.

Crop farming is cyclical. Records make it clear that farm owners have increased and decreased cotton acreage in the past. No plant has yet been found that has blossoms more suitable for transforming into fabric. We haven’t seen the last of the bolls along the highway.

Still, the notion that there may be none grown here at all in 2009 would be a benchmark in time and yet another turning point in local history.