Week 6: Chandler and the Arizona Cotton Industry

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    Cotton has been grown in the Salt River Valley for hundreds of years.  The Hohokam grew a form of short staple cotton they used for food and clothing.  The seeds of the cotton plant were cooked, ground, and formed into cakes.  Cotton fibers were spun into yarn used to create clothing and other textiles.  Yarn was an important trade commodity with surrounding Native American groups.

    By the late 1890s, the United States Department of Agriculture was looking for crops from around the world that could be grown in the arid West and Southwest.  A USDA employee, David Fairchild, was responsible for introducing several types of food including avocados, dates, grapefruits, cucumbers, onions, seedless grapes, and chickpeas.

    In 1898, during a trip to Egypt, Fairchild sent back to the United States several different varieties of long staple cotton.  Some of these seeds he sent directly to Dr. Alexander J. Chandler in 1899.  Chandler regularly experimented with different types of crops on his Chandler Ranch.  Dr. Chandler planted these seeds on his ranch in Mesa and successfully grew several varieties of Egyptian long staple cotton.  Fairchild visited Dr. Chandler in 1902, and had a photo taken with the thriving long staple cotton plants.

    The American textile industry was looking for a native cotton strain that would produce long, strong, brilliant white fibers, similar to or better than available Egyptian cotton.  Following Chandler’s success with growing long staple cotton, the USDA created several experimental farms throughout the United States with the goal of developing this type of cotton.  By 1907, the USDA had created an experimental agricultural station in Sacaton to further develop every aspect of cotton from planting, growing, and irrigation methods to mixing different strains of cotton in the Valley.

    In 1908, several varieties of cotton were combined to create a new variety that was known as Gila cotton.  Two years later, a single plant in Row 382 on the Sacaton Experimental Farm mutated to create a plant with larger three section bolls and sharper leaves.  This plant also had the type of fibers that the textile industry was craving.  The new strain was originally known as American-Egyptian long staple cotton.  The USDA renamed the strain Pima cotton to honor the Pima Indians who had labored in the fields to yield this new product.

    After five years of testing, a few hundred acres of the new Pima cotton were planted in the Salt River Valley in 1916.  By 1918, virtually all cotton produced in the Valley was Pima cotton.  From 1918 to 1933, Pima was the only variety of cotton produced in the Valley.

    The success of Pima cotton led to the explosive growth of the cotton industry in Arizona.  By 1913, cotton growers associations were being organized across the Valley in Tempe, Mesa, Chandler, Glendale, and Phoenix.  Soon, dozens of cotton gins were being built to process cotton.  Thousands of acres were planted to Pima cotton, and thousands of pickers were employed to clear the fields.  The success of these early farmers lured large corporations, like the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, to invest in cotton ranches in the Valley.  Over the course of the next century cotton became an important economic driver for Arizona.

    From those few seeds received from David Fairchild in 1899, Dr. Chandler became a trailblazer in the Valley by demonstrating that Egyptian style long staple cotton could thrive in the desert Southwest.  In doing so, he gave rise to the modern cotton industry, a staple of Arizona’s 5 C’s.

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