1898 was a depression year; cotton was selling for barely 5 cents a pound. Out in the fields, the wages for cotton pickers had dropped from the going rate in the early 1890s of about 50 cents per hundred pounds, which was what an average adult could pick in a day, down to 42 cents.
But most cotton in those years was grown not by wage laborers but by tenant farmers or sharecroppers. Tenants paid plantation owners about 2 bales of cotton (1,000 pounds) each year for a 40-acre plot; sharecroppers split the crop with the landowner, 50-50 or 25-75, depending on who provided the mule and who provisioned the family till the crop came in.
This lazy researcher was not readily able to learn how much the gin workers were paid, but we can be sadly certain that it was not much.
The neighbors who live along the west side of a block of 21st Street near Kater had noticed that their cold water wasn't cold any more. Right out of the tap, it was hot; one of them took its temperature and found it feverish, over a hundred degrees, which is hot enough for a nice hot shower.
They called the water department, which promised to look into it. But the guys we talked to Friday morning who'd been sent to look into it might be described as less than entirely sympathetic. "They're getting free hot water," is how one of them put it. "Free hot water, and they're not happy."
The water guys suspected a leak in the steam line that runs under the sidewalk along 21st Street, which sounds like a dangerous situation, though nobody was acting particularly worried.
The guys from the steam company, on the other hand, suspected erosion under the sidewalk in the aftermath of a water main break a couple of years ago; they believed there was no longer enough dirt down there to insulate the steam line.
For reasons we cannot fully fathom, both sets of guys were looking for evidence in the sewer lines. The crew pictured here took the low-tech approach, using shovels and eyeballs; another crew had fancier technology, basically a snake with a video camera at its head, transmitting images onto a screen set up in the back of a van.
We asked what they were seeing on the screen. "Nothing yet," they said. "Just sewer."
We asked what they were looking for. They kind of snorted. "Steam," they said.
By mid-afternoon, everybody had packed up and gone home. We're not sure if they saw any steam, but the neighbors are still getting free hot water.