If you're on Front Street this week and notice cameras, a 1930s-era truck, and men in suits and felt hats, it's not Craig Brewer's next film project. The Cotton Museum at the Cotton Exchange, scheduled to open at the beginning of the year, is staging a re-enactment of
Memphis' cotton heyday.
"We have restored what's called our trading board to 1939," says museum director Nora Tucker. The museum is using 1939 as its benchmark because that was the year Marion Post Wolcott photographed the region and the Cotton Exchange. "We have photographs that document what they were wearing, what the pricing was like, and how many people were hanging out."
When the museum opens, it will be the first time the public is invited onto the floor of the Cotton Exchange, once the center of the local cotton industry.
"Our finest artifact is the Cotton Exchange floor itself. The Cotton Exchange built that building in 1924. That was their trading floor; it's where their meetings still are. It was members only, and it's never been used for anything else," says Tucker.
When it was founded, the exchange had 170 members and was a place to gather and disseminate information. At one point, there were two telegraph offices located inside, a ticker tape machine that generated cotton prices from across the country, and several phone booths where representatives could call their offices, tell them if the price had gone up or down, and decide if they wanted to buy, sell, hold steady, or ship. The museum is using these same phone booths for oral histories from retired porters who used to move bales of cotton on Front Street, Cotton Carnival royalty, and today's sellers of genetically modified cotton seeds.
Last week, three kings of cotton -- Mark Lange, president of the National Cotton Council; William Bearden, author of Cotton: From Southern Fields to the Memphis Market and an award-winning documentary filmmaker; and Calvin Turley, founder and president of the Cotton Museum and president of Turley Cotton -- were panelists for a discussion about cotton and Memphis' culture and economy.
Bearden has been working with the museum for about a year and a half. "As we went along, I started being more and more aware of the power of cotton," he says.
I know what you're thinking: Cotton has power? Over what? Tube socks? Undershirts? Tighty whities?
As the commercials say, cotton is the fabric of our lives, and it doesn't ring more true than in Memphis where it factors into our prosperity, our culture, and some of the skeletons in our closet.
"If you go to the Rock 'n' Soul Museum, the first exhibit you see is a cotton seed sack," says Tucker. "The second is a plow."
The museum's first temporary exhibit is tentatively titled "Plantations and the Blues." The museum had been working with owners of farms and plantations to find artifacts, and they started talking about the rise of the blues.
"A lot of early blues musicians who became famous lived on plantations," says Bearden. "Blues gave people a way to get out of the cotton fields and out from behind a mule."
I don't know about you, but I don't spend a lot of time thinking about cotton. I see the commercials. There's a cotton boll on the city's symbol. It's in my new deodorant. That's about it. But perhaps surprisingly, the Memphis Cotton Exchange still has about 95 members.
"A lot of people think the cotton industry has vanished," says Turley. "It hasn't."
Within the last 15 years, U.S. cotton purchases have doubled. And there are 1.7 million acres of cotton fields within 100 miles of Memphis.
"It's still a significant business," says Tucker. "One of the goals we have for the museum is to make people aware that it's not just past history but the current story. It's just like music. Yes, Stax closed. Sun had its era. But there's still a music industry here. There's a lot of cotton business too."
But the fact remains that Front Street isn't Cotton Row anymore.
"I went to work on Front Street in '73," says Turley. "It was a very unique environment, kind of like a fraternity, if you will. I could see without any question that it was fast disappearing and it seemed worth saving."
Turley cites a number of reasons why one of Memphis' industries has become invisible. Instead of gathering information at the Cotton Exchange, for instance, buyers and sellers can simply look at their desktop computers.