Cotton is a girl’s best friend?
When my grandfather was a young man working as a bank teller in Calypso, NC, he aspired to become two things: the husband of Winnie E. McWhorter and a prosperous businessman. While his prospects with Winnie McWhorter were quite good, he still had quite a ways to go toward prosperity. If one wants to be a respected member of the business community, then one has to act the part. In North Carolina in 1915, cotton was king, and on it the entire economy depended. The slightest tremor in the price of cotton would send reverberations throughout the entire state. In the fall of 1915, the price of cotton collapsed. The businessmen of the community gathered together and discussed what they could do to mitigate the effects of this calamity. In a strategic move foreshadowing the extensive system of price supports to be instituted by Franklin Delano Roosevelt 18 years later, the businessmen decided that the way to alleviate the price collapse was to boost demand. While admittedly a very localized response, these businessmen decided that each of them would purchase a bale of cotton. If their actions were mimicked throughout North Carolina, disaster would be averted.
My grandfather was in a bind. Most of the other businessmen were older, more prosperous and had the extra cash needed to buy a bale of cotton. It wasn’t that R. L. didn’t have the cash, but it was that his money had been saved for the express purpose of purchasing an engagement ring for Winnie E. McWhorter, the schoolteacher daughter of the Johnny Appleseed of public education in Eastern and Piedmont North Carolina, Zach Davis McWhorter. In the end, R. L. knew that Winnie was just as civic minded as he was and would have wanted him to buy a bale of cotton rather than an engagement ring. R. L. also knew that Winnie was astute enough to know that allying himself with the established business community was a decision that would pay dividends for years to come.
When the time came to propose marriage, R. L.--after checking with Winnie--asked her father’s permission. With permission granted, R. L. officially proposed to Winnie. He then revealed that in place of a ring, he could only give her a bale of cotton stored in a warehouse. He assured her that once the bale of cotton was sold, at an expected profit, she would be free to purchase a much nicer ring than what he would have otherwise been able to afford. Winnie loved R. L. and she didn’t need a ring. The proposal was accepted, they were married the following summer on August 30, 1916, and honeymooned at the recently opened Grove Park Inn in Asheville, NC.
Unfortunately, the price of cotton never recovered. Eventually, Winnie’s bale of cotton, along with the rest of the cotton in the warehouse, was sold at a loss. While R. L. was to become a successful and prosperous businessman, the early years of his and Winnie’s marriage were economically tough times. Both R. L. and Winnie had to work to make ends meet, R. L. at the bank and his farm supply business and Winnie teaching school. What little money they did manage to accumulate went for more important things than an engagement ring. In time, through hard work, R. L. and Winnie began to prosper and accumulate some savings.
R. L. wanted in the worst sort of way to purchase Winnie an engagement ring. But always with a twinkle in her eye, Winnie refused his offers.
If he wanted to buy her a ring, then that was his business, but she mischievously insisted that the time for an engagement ring had come and gone. Winnie had far too much fun with the bale of cotton story to ever let R. L. off that particular hook. For years and years, Winnie enjoyed telling the story of the engagement bale and counseled her granddaughters and prospective granddaughters-in-law to make sure that they got a ring before they accepted any proposals. The frequency with which Winnie would dispense advice about getting a ring would generally increase if she thought R. L. was within earshot.