Way down south in the land of cotton …

Gainesville Remembered

Published: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 at 12:26 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 at 12:26 p.m.

Blame the evil boll weevil. Every child who's grown up in Florida in the last 75 years or so knows why the cotton fields disappeared from our state.

But did you know that during the Civil War, Alachua County produced the largest crop of long-staple cotton in the state? Three-thousand bales at a cash value of $630,000.

Florida entered the cotton trade when the state came under U.S. control in 1821. Settlers from North and South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee, with land grants in hand, poured into Florida. They set up cotton plantations in the north and central part of the state, and production thrived.

Florida's cotton was considered high grade: At the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and the 1878 Paris Exposition, Florida Sea Island cotton won medals. H.F. Dutton & Co. used Florida cotton exclusively for its Willimantic Spool Thread Company and paid the farmers with gold, which was a boon to the local economy.

In 1902, Alachua County still produced 3,462 bales of cotton and boasted 297 active cotton gins.

But in 1892, the boll weevil, a cotton-bud-eating beetle, had crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico into Brownsville, Texas, and was making its way through the cotton-growing regions in the South. By the 1920s, all areas faced dramatic losses in production.

So the state's agricultural economy began to change. Large farms were broken into smaller farms, government programs encouraged farmers to grow less cotton, and the Florida citrus industry was developing. By 1970, the United States produced only 1/7 of the world's cotton.

Today, thanks to the USDA's successful Boll Weevil Eradication Program, the pest has been eradicated in the state, and under the program's strict regulations, the cotton industry, in a small way, has returned to Florida.

Have a memory to share? Email Alicia Antone, executive director of the Matheson Museum, at executivedirector@mathesonmuseum.org.

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