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Darrell Huckaby - 'Cotton Mill Math' a primer from a different age

I was late for a speaking engagement last week at the First Methodist Church in downtown Athens. I was a bit concerned because, as you know if you have ever been in downtown Athens at noon - or any other time - parking can be a bear.

I was lucky enough to find an empty meter near a side door of the church and even luckier in that I pulled in right beside Lewis Gainey and his charming wife, DeLois. Lewis Gainey was one of my major professors when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Georgia, back in the previous century. Way back in the previous century.

Most people remember their grade school and high school teachers. Most of us don't remember so many of our college instructors. I will never forget Lewis Gainey. He tried his best to teach me golf. The fact that I didn't learn to play the game well enough to break a hundred is an indictment of my ability, not his. Later I assisted him in teaching beginning swimming in the Stegman Hall pool.

Lewis Gainey is from Cairo. The one below the gnat line in deep South Georgia. Not the one over in Egypt. He came to Georgia to run track for Speck Towns and never left. He taught in the physical education department at the school and served as an assistant track coach, head track coach and as an administrator in the Athletic Department in a career that spanned 40 years. He really is a heck of a guy and he gave up his Thursday afternoon golf game to come and hear me speak. That really touched me.

I was even more touched when DeLois greeted me with a kiss on the cheek and a gift bag full of goodies. Tucked inside, among the tissue paper and fattening candy, was a brown-backed book that I took to be a Cokesbury Hymnal. It was not. It was something much more rare.

What the Gaineys had given me was a book entitled "Cotton Mill Mathematics." They couldn't have chosen a more appropriate or appreciated gift. The book had a 1927 copyright date. Babe Ruth hit 60 homeruns in 1927 and Charles Lindberg flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean. The year 1927 was a long time ago, understand. According to the book's forward, it was written to help "young people of working age and adults already familiar with the cotton mill to learn math."

Imagine! A math book for lintheads. What a grand idea. "People familiar with the cotton mill." That would have been me and my mama and daddy and everybody else I knew growing up - and I have spent hours reading through the book. I even did some of the word problems and I hadn't willingly done a word problem since. Well, shoot, I'd never willingly done a word problem.

A whole long list of folks had contributed to the writing of the book. Some were from "Clemson College" and a half-dozen of them worked for Bibb Manufacturing Co. Porterdale people, in other words, helped write that math book. What a treasure.

It started really simply. Chapter one was devoted to teaching folks how to read numbers and there were exercises that instructed people to take words and convert them to digits - with examples like, "Georgia has two million six hundred eighty-two thousand and seven cotton spindles."

There were also questions about yarn and sizing tallow and how much a girl in a spinning room would make over an eight-hour shift.

The section on algebra had all sorts of formulas dealing with twists per inch and twist change gears and other chapters dealt with picker calculations, warp contraction and the gross weight of a bale of cotton. And there were problems concerning shuttles and fly frames and roving yarn - and I understood every reference in the dad-burned book.

Those are the kinds of question I could have related to back in school. I always got questions about ducks and chickens and trains starting from different places on different tracks. I had never even ridden a train, and the only chickens I knew that much about were the ones my mama cooked for Sunday dinner.

Cotton Mill Math. Who'd a thunk there'd ever been a book like that?

It's funny how paths cross and diverge and re-converge as we go through life. We never know how we impact those people we encounter and they don't always know how they impact us. But I am glad that, after nearly 40 years, Lewis Gainey and I still cross paths, and with her wonderful book about cotton mill math, his wife DeLois has hit a grand slam homerun in Darrell Huckaby's record book.

Darrell Huckaby is a local author and educator. He can be reached at dHuck08@bellsouth.net.