Remembering Rutherford: Rutherford families made mattresses with free cotton and tick

Greg Tucker, The Murfreesboro Post, March 23, 2016

The government had to do something with all that cotton!

This U. S. Department of Agriculture circular, released in 1939, promoted home production of cotton mattresses. This free program disposed of surplus cotton, provided rural families with a useful product and taught a new skill.

This U. S. Department of Agriculture circular, released in 1939, promoted home production of cotton mattresses. This free program disposed of surplus cotton, provided rural families with a useful product and taught a new skill.

In an effort to aid “cotton belt” farmers during the Great Depression, the U. S. Department of Agriculture purchased a vast quantity of surplus cotton. The raw cotton was ginned and stored in huge bales, filling government and private contractor warehouses. In February 1940, the USDA and the U. S. Surplus Marketing Administration inaugurated the “cotton mattress program.”

This cotton mattress program was designed to supply cotton, ticking and tools for making mattresses to rural families. (The “tick” is the stout case which, when filled with hair, straw, feathers or cotton, forms a mattress or pillow. “Ticking” is a strong woven linen or cotton fabric used to make a “tick.”) In addition to reducing the cotton surplus, the government intent was to supply farm families with quality bedding and to train rural workers for possible employment in a new trade.

Families of Murray School students on the Bradyville Pike participated in the program. “We slept on straw tick in the summer and on feathers in cold weather,” remembers Wayne Reed. “There were no cotton mattresses on the farms in our community during the Depression.”

Straw tick was bedding made of wheat straw. Feather bedding in the Reed household was stuffed with goose feathers. “I helped pluck the soft breast feathers off our geese,” says Reed. “They would grow back in a few months.”

The Murray School students took home notices about the mattress program and all were invited to participate. A huge bale of cotton was delivered and set in the school gymnasium. As the neighbors gathered on a Saturday morning, USDA Extension Service instructors arrived with ticking and tools. Reed remembers that the families of Frank Wilson, Loyce Gum, Oscar Jernigan, Herbert McCrary, Tom Murray and Jennings Toddwere among those ready to make mattresses. “It was a big program, lots of people,” says Reed.

Robert Stroop recalls that the Halls Hill community also participated in the mattress program. “Our place was centrally located and there was plenty of cool shade in the front yard where we had about two dozen big sugar maples,” remembers Stroop. A bale of surplus cotton was delivered to the Stroop yard.

Although all were familiar with sacked cotton and raw cotton, 13-year-old Stroop had never before seen a bale of cotton. When the bands were cut the cotton billowed like whipped cream. Sawhorses were set out and the Extension Service instructor began a step-by-step explanation, while 15 or 20 family members set to work. Stroop recalls the McKnight, Sneed, Peay and Lehew families were among those working with his family in the Stroop front yard.

The first step was to measure and cut the ticking for either a double or single mattress. The material was then sewn to form the tick or case for the mattress. When the tick was completed, parents and children all helped pack the cotton into the case. The instructor explained that the cotton should be packed as tight as possible before the tick was sewn shut. Despite the hard work “it was a big community party,” recalls Stroop. “For me and most of the kids, the best part was the food and ice tea on the grounds.”

The last step was to pull the mattress into shape by threading heavy cord through the tick and cotton, pulling the cord as tight as possible with special tools, and then securing it top and bottom with metal buttons or washers. “I was too young to remember much of the activity, but I sure remember seeing those foot-long needles being hammered through the mattresses,” says Earl “Moose” Lehew. Some of the folks struggled with knotting the washers in place while keeping the cord tight. Each mattress had to be threaded repeatedly in about a 12-inch pattern.

Most families finished a mattress in one long working day, but many worked a second or third day to make one or several mattresses. “We made one double and one single,” notes Reed. “They were good mattresses.”

Only rural families were eligible for the USDA cotton mattress program, and then only if their annual income was less than $400. A qualified family was entitled to 50 pounds of cotton with ticking and tools for each two persons in the family, not to exceed a total of three mattresses to a family. Fifty pounds of cotton was enough for one double mattress.

Rutherford County agents were liberal in their interpretation of the requirements and every rural family that applied for the program participated as long as materials were available. Approximately 1.1 million mattresses were sewn nationwide, consuming 55 million pounds of surplus cotton.

Rutherford County Historian Greg Tucker can be reached at [email protected].

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