The Last Cotton Compress, and the Dying Art of “Calling the Press”
Not too long ago, while cleaning out the home of my mother-in-law in Coushatta, my husband Rick found an unusually titled LP record, “Cornbread for your Husband, Biscuits for your Man: Mr. Clifford Blake Sr. Calls the Cotton Press” (1980) and an accompanying report by folklorist Donald W. Hatley. My mother-in-law was a fan of the annual Louisiana Folk Festival at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, put on by NSU’s Louisiana Folklife Center, which also published the above materials. Now they are a part of our History Center collection, and I was on a mission to find out what a cotton press is, and if such a thing existed in Bossier. Happily, it has nothing to do with ironing (and “calling the press” has nothing to do with newspapers) and most definitely, these hulking pieces of machinery existed in Bossier.
A cotton compress, or “press”, reduced bales received from cotton gins to roughly half their size or more and made the long-distance transportation of cotton feasible. Larger farms or small-town businesses had compresses that used a screw-type mechanism powered by mules or horses. Later steam compresses could make a 4x4x6 ft 500 lb. bale of cotton squeeze to a concrete-like block 8-10 inches thick. This extra compression was important for shipping longer distances on steamships and, especially, railroad cars.
Clifford Blake Sr. began working at the Natchitoches Warehouse and Compress in Natchitoches Parish in 1927 at a young age and soon began “calling the press.” According to Blake, calling the press meant narrating the action of the press in a kind of song and call-and-response, which made the men who operated various parts of the machine work faster. According to Dr. Hatley of the Folklife Center who interviewed him, Blake said, “You press fifty bales more an hour when you[‘re] calling the press.”
Dr. Hatley reported, “Blake relied on a call and response pattern, sometimes “hollering” a spiritual and at other times a blues lyric. Blake would keep everyone on task by hollering out specific orders. For example, he would first tell the leverman, “Let her fall, let her fall.” Then he would tell the men to hurry up and bring the compressed bale up and kick it out of the machine. His line “sun is almost down, sun is almost down, Captain” shows how Blake worked to constantly hurry the press workers.
Most importantly, having a caller coordinated the efforts of a large team in what could be dangerous work. Blake, who had worked as a boilerman in addition to caller, couldn’t work the press himself after February 14, 1967, when he lost his footing while riding the press (a wild ride, from the roof to below the floor level) and the machine crushed his leg.
The Natchitoches Compress company closed by the 1990’s. Cotton is now pressed into a "module" in the field and by a hydraulic press at the gin before shipping out. Computers can operate presses now. It is often shipped by truck rather than train, and the trucks can go to the cotton, rather than having to get the cotton to a station, eliminating the need for compress buildings and warehouses alongside the tracks.
Here in Bossier Parish, the last-known compress in use was owned by the McDade brothers of Fillmore and existed until the 1950s on the farm five miles south of old Bellevue, the former Parish seat. The large arms of the compress would be turned by horse (or mule) power. It was constructed by the farmer himself, Alex McDade (Col. A.J McDade) with the help of his 4 sons and one worker. It was a screw-type compress and the total length of the screw beam was about 30 feet, 18 feet of which were threaded. According to Alex McDade’s nephew, Abney Scanland, it was no surprise that he made his own cotton press and gin. He also made his own tools and implements, tanned his own leather, made his family’s shoes, surveyed his own land, and doctored his family: “At the time Father McDade settled in Bossier Parish [pre-Civil War], a man couldn’t just take a bit of change and buy what he wanted. He just had to be able to do and make for himself. If he wasn’t, he didn’t last very long. In those days, it wasn’t a question of who you were or what you had so much as what you could do.”
Please come to the History Center to learn more about Bossier’s farming history. And speaking of cotton, come to the History Center on Wednesday, May 17th at 2:00 PM to hear a special program on “Louisiana Brown Cotton: From Boll to Blanket” with Tony Mullins of Sarepta Brown Cotton. The History Center is adjacent to Bossier Central Library at 2206 Beckett St, Bossier City, LA. We are open M-Th 9-8, Fri 9-6, and Sat 9-5. Our phone number is (318) 746-7717 and our email is firstname.lastname@example.org
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- The last known cotton press in Bossier Parish. Owned by the McDade brothers of Fillmore, which existed until the 1950s. Photos from the Nov. 20, 1947 issue of the Bossier Banner
- Clifford Blake, Sr. Photo from the Louisiana Folklife Center, Northwestern State University
- Clifford Blake, Sr. from June 22, 1980 “Shreveport Times.” Times photo by Lloyd Stilley
Article by: Pam Carlisle