Thursday, July 19, 2007

Driving into History

You’d be hard pressed to walk into a cotton office and not see this picture hanging on the wall. Here’s the story:

Portraits in a New Orleans Cotton office. The small picture shows 14 men at work in his (Edgar Degas) uncle's cotton office. Michael Musson is sitting in the foreground, checking the cotton; René de Gas is reading the paper; Achille de Gas is leaning by the window; Musson’s partner James Prestridge is on a stool, discussing a deal with a client. Musson’s son-in-law, William Bell, is offering the wares to a client, to inspect the quality.

There are many famous old names in this industry; Hohenberg, Loeb, Dunavant, Bell, Allenberg, and Weil to name just a few. They were around in 1872 when Edgar painted this picture and remain prominent in the cotton industry to this day.

The office I walked into Tuesday, is linked closely with this history. Of course, walking in, I didn’t know that. I Only knew I was calling on a “country buyer” who was well know in this region. I spent a pleasant morning with one of his sons, instructing him on our software. We finished installing and setting up just before lunch time. The father, a dignified older gentleman insisted his son take me to lunch while he “watched” the office. But before we left, he asked me to indulge him in a tour of his “gallery”.

Indeed, the walls of the office were lined with cotton themed pictures and memorabilia. We started at the front, with the Degas picture. It is a limit ed edition lithograph, given to my client at a 100 year anniversary party for the company he worked in.

Next in line were some equally well known pictures by South Carolinian artist William Aiken Walker (1838-1921), photographs of river boats carrying cotton, slaves working in cotton fields, and town squares where cotton bales were stacked for bidding and eventual sale. At each picture he stopped and relayed the province of the image and how it related to his life, the life of his family, or his connection to this industry.

It is not a lie to say this was the most pleasurable 45 minutes of my trip. Indeed, I’d wished he was the one taking me to lunch, instead of his son, my contemporary. It’s not everyday I get to spend time in the presence of someone who’s spent the last 61 years in this industry, who started out as a 15 year old boy working in a “credit clothing store”, who after World War II began working in a classing room for one of the main-line cotton merchants, and now calls the heirs to those multi-million dollar businesses, “son”, because he worked side-by-side with their granddaddies.

I think one of the best stories he told me on Tuesday, centered on the painting of downtown Arab, Alabama. In the picture he pointed out the drugstore his great-grand uncle owned and the local bank across the street. Next he pulled a yellowed newspaper clipping off of his desk and said, “I’d like to read something to you”. In his sonorous voice he read an account of his great uncle being asked to make a phosphate drink for delivery to a car parked curb-side. One of the occupants of the car, a young woman, entered the pharmacy, purchased two “strong cigars” and inquired about the wealth stored in the bank across the street.

The young soda jerk assured her there was no money in that bank and served the requested drinks. Many years later, that young man had reason to visit Washington, D.C. and the Department of Criminal Justice. While walking along the corridor, his gaze fell on the picture of a young woman. Inquiring about her, he learned who she was, and immediately relayed his meeting with the young Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow days before they robbed a small bank in Louisiana.

Now, family stories have many components, and it could be possible there are some wishful recordings in many a small town newspaper account. But I’ll stake my life on this; I am witness to some quickly fading history – and each time someone tells me their stories about my industry I am thankful I had just a second or two to spare to hear a yarn composed of cotton.

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