Eliminating the scourge of U.S. cotton — the boll weevil — offers opportunities for U.S. cotton production. According to Hal Lewis, cotton breeder and former director of research for Cotton Incorporated, producers might benefit again from growing the high fiber quality varieties commonly grown before the invasion of the weevil.

“The parent stocks of American upland long staple were derived from Mexican cottons,” says Lewis, who lives in Conway, Ark. “The Mexican cottons possessed enough genetic diversity to provide the length, fineness and other characteristics contained in the American upland long staple varieties.

“In the letters and papers of William Dunbar, who lived in the early 1800s, it was stated that the new cottons from Mexico, when brought to Mississippi, were of rich color, very silky, fine and strong. For example, the Mexican variety Alvardo had long and fine staple. Another Mexican variety, Belle Creole, was improved and grown by H.W. Vick of Vicksburg, Miss., in the 1830s and 1840s.”

Vick grew these Mexican varieties and selected the ones adapted to his area. In the early 1840s, he released Jethro, a silk cotton variety. In 1846, a small packet of Jethro seed was sent to J.V. Jones of Herndon, Ga., who grew the cotton in 1847 and 1848. In 1849, he had enough seed to plant an acre from which a bale was produced. This bale was sold on the nearby Augusta market where it was pronounced by merchants as the best cotton ever sold on that market — even better than Sea Island cotton.

Some of this cotton was shipped to a world exposition in London where it created a whirlwind of attention because of its high quality. On the basis of these reports, the production of Jethro and other upland long staple varieties was expanded significantly in the U.S. Cotton Belt. These varieties were reported to be long (1.25 to 1.5 inches), very fine, and lustrous. “They probably weren’t exceptionally strong as far as individual fiber strength. We have better strength today,” Lewis says. “However, they were fine, which means in order to make a 22 yarn, you could put five times as much fiber into that cross section of that yarn as you could if you were using coarse cotton.”