JOHN AND MACK RUST are inventors of a commercially successful mechanical cotton picker, a machine that helped transform the South.
At one time, everybody in the cotton trade knew their names. The nation’s leading newspapers and magazines — Fortune, Harper’s, The New York Times, The American Mercury, Time, Literary Digest, The Forum — reported on their progress.
I learned of them in 1996, when I was digging through the morgue of The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, searching for files on an unrelated story.
The Rust clips dated from the mid-1930s and covered a period when the brothers lived in Memphis.
Curious, I photocopied the Rust files, determined to learn more, but a series of jobs took me away from the Delta. It wasn’t until 2009, when I came back to Memphis (temporarily), that I began filling in the blanks.
In my spare time, I visited places where the Rusts lived and worked. I made contact with relatives, including John Rust’s only surviving child. I was able to find photographs and records that haven’t been published. I gained new insight into what motivated John Rust. I gained an appreciation of how critical — and how competitive — the fight to build a working picker was, and exactly why it represented such a dramatic challenge and opportunity for the nation.
Best of all, tracing John and Mack’s story took me to places most Americans don’t learn about in history classes. Mining cooperatives in Oklahoma. Socialist colonies in Louisiana. Interracial communities in Mississippi. Progressive education in Arkansas. All places where people sought to rise above the meanness of poverty and hard labor, and build a better world. — Roland Klose, firstname.lastname@example.org