In the not so distance past, by the beginning of October, fields of cotton would be morphing into puffy white bolls in fields across Cleveland and the surrounding counties. Once the cotton was harvested, it would be transported to one of the area cotton engines or “gins” to be cleaned and pressed into bales. Once a major part of the economy in the area, there is no longer any cotton grown in Cleveland County and all of the cotton gins in the area, including the one at Boggs Farm Center in Fallston, North Carolina are silent.
Cotton was once extensively grown in fields throughout Cleveland and the surrounding counties.
The slightly rundown buildings that make up Boggs fit in with the general appearance of the intersection of Stagecoach Trail (U.S. Highway 182) and Fallston Road (U.S. Highway 18). In its time this junction was a bustling convergence of area farmers and the general community. Today it’s likely that most traffic passes through without a second thought as to what commerce might have once been conducted there. Most of the original businesses, like the two general stores, Stamey’s and Dixon’s are long gone.
There’s still traffic in and out of the small storefront where livestock feed, agricultural chemicals and seed is still sold at Boggs Farm Center.
The rural communities and agrarian traditions of Cleveland County and the surrounding area is slowly falling into ruin and decay. With this decline, the relationships, sense of pride and lifestyles that were once associated with agriculture are being lost in favor of the convenience of big box stores.
Farm machinery hangs out under the overhang in front of the building that houses the cotton gins at Boggs. Some of the windows are broke and bits of tin are missing from the roof. Without knowing what formerly went on in this building, a passerby may think it was either an abandoned building or storage shed.
The front of the building at Boggs Farm Center sheltering farm machinery.
Massive steel machinery with exposed gears and belts, duct work and control boxes fill the inside of building. Dim light shining through the windows illuminate bits of cotton hang from beams, exhaust pipes and electrical wires like garland compete with spider webs in the building.
Bits of cotton hanging like garland in the building that houses the cotton gins at Boggs Farm Center.
Max Boggs installed the cotton gins in this building in 1929 and his son, Max Boggs, Jr. who just turned 87 and his son, Andy Boggs continued operating the gins in Fallston through 2015. At one time, the Boggs ran four gins in this building alone as well as three others throughout Cleveland County turning out thousands of bales of cotton during the few months a year that the gins were in use.
Andy Boggs (left) and Max Boggs, Jr. near the cotton gins at Boggs Farm Center.
Cotton is an extremely labor-intensive crop to produce. Until mechanized pickers became mainstream, cotton was hand-picked which was why, after slavery was abolished, those farmers with larger acreage had tenant farmers – most of them were African Americans but not all of them. These families lived on the land owned by the farmer and raised cotton and other crops which they sold back to the farmer as rent.
In order for cotton to be harvested, it needs to be removed from the bolls that surround it. This was an extremely labor intensive job.
Harvested cotton fiber that would have been sent through a cotton gin to be cleaned and pressed into bales.
In addition to the larger farmers who kept tenant farmers, small family-run farms also planted fields of cotton which was picked by members of the household. Frequently, area children would get time off from school during harvest time to pick cotton. Many a Cleveland County child would pick cotton for a farmer to earn money to go to the local fair which operates around the same time cotton was being harvested. Once the cotton was picked, they’d haul it to Boggs or one of the other gins in the area and sell it. The cotton would be ginned, baled and then sent on to one of the local textile mills in the area to be spun into cloth.
“A family could pick a bale of cotton in a day,” Boggs, Jr. said. “We used to think yields of a bale an acre was good and it was back then but today you’ve got to be well above a bale an acre to make any money at it. We didn’t go up in production and every other place starting out new did.”
The continuing advances in both picking and ginning machinery was another contributing factor to the decline of cotton farming in Cleveland county. The equipment that’s used now costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase and install. Given the yields of cotton in this area there’s no way a farmer would ever get his money back by purchasing and installing more efficient harvesting or ginning equipment.
“Production went down in the 1950s due to the boll weevil but we were still King Cotton here in Cleveland County,” Boggs, Jr. said. “We were growing more in this county than any other county in the state and did so up until about 1958 or 1959 when the mechanical pickers came in.”
After the harvest when the cotton would be brought into the gin, which would only run two to three months out of the year, Boggs would hire five workers to run the gin. In the later years he said that not only did it got harder to find people qualified or even willing to operate the gin but the cost of workers’ compensation insurance also became prohibitively expensive.
Gears that ran the cotton gin at Boggs Farm Center.
Gears that ran the cotton gin at Boggs Farm Center.
Max Boggs, Jr. and the scale that was used to weigh bales of cotton.
In the early 1970s, cotton prices took a dip in price but came back up again in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Boggs, Jr. said. In 2000, it went down so low that farmers in the area couldn’t afford to grow it. In addition, the mechanical pickers increased in price, size and speed but most farmers in the Cleveland County area couldn’t afford to buy one of these more advanced model pickers plus they were often too large to run on their smaller acreage fields.
“Down east they can make two, two and a half bales an acre now,” Boggs, Jr. said. “Their subsoil is so much better than ours. That’s kind of how it’s wound up – where ever it can be grown the cheapest.”
Now the four giant cotton gins along with the bale pressers are anachronisms in this time of extreme industrialization. The gins at Boggs used to turn out five bales an hour and at that time that was sufficient but today’s gins produce 50 to 60 bales an hour.
“That’s what put us out, we just got plumb obsolete,” he said. “There just wasn’t enough cotton being grown in in the area to justify buying back in it.”
The gins have the appearance of just having been turned off. Scraps of cotton fiber with seeds and bits of branches still cling to the wire teeth that combs out the seeds. Max Boggs, Jr. said that they would still run if he switched them on but there’s nothing for them to do now. He’d like to see the machinery all gone so that the building could be utilized for some other purpose.
Max Boggs, Jr.
Small farmers in the still rural communities of North Carolina continually face the trials of globalization and competing technology. Weather has always been a factor in farming and in this age of climate change, the challenges have become greater.
The continuing trends towards mechanization, agribusiness conglomerates and overbearing federal regulations are still making it difficult for small farm centers like Boggs to stay in business.
Today Boggs Farm Center already feeling the pressures of the swing away from hammered feed to pelletized feed, which they can’t manufacture without investing in expensive machinery.
“It’s a business but nothing great,” Max Boggs, Jr. said. At least it doesn’t take many hands to operate. As the county becomes more populated with less farming it’ll continue to keep dwindling down,” he said. “It might be a slower process but it’ll probably change like the cotton did. It’ll go to where it can be grown the cheapest.”
Andy Boggs standing in the grain elevator at Boggs Farm Center.