Texas cotton gin still working after 100 years

MICHAEL GRACZYK, Associated Press

BURTON, Texas (AP) — A three-story cypress wood frame structure covered with corrugated tin is a monument to 13 Southeast Texas farmers pursuing their dreams of making a living growing cotton, a crop viewed a century ago as “white gold.”

The project built in 1914 with $10,000 raised from the cotton farmers’ sale of 200 shares at $50 apiece is now primarily a museum piece. But the Burton Farmers Gin still fires up its 125-horsepower Bessemer diesel engine known as “Lady B” and can produce 500-pound bales of cotton, allowing it to lay claim as the nation’s oldest cotton gin operating at its original location and with original components.

“Our mission is to keep the legacy of cotton alive for all generations,” Linda Russell, director of the adjacent Texas Cotton Gin Museum, said.

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On Saturday, an annual festival in Burton, a town of about 300 people midway between Houston and Austin, will draw thousands to mark the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Burton gin, constructed in an era when the Texas had nearly 4,700 cotton gins. Now, even though Texas continues a long tradition as the nation’s leading cotton producing state, there are just 230 gins.

“Today gins are much different. It does kind of preserve what gins used to be,” said Tony Williams, executive director of the Texas Cotton Ginners Association.

One older gin in Mississippi still operates, but not at its original location, Williams said.

The cotton gin — gin evolved as a shortened form of the word “engine” — is one of the great early American inventions, credited to Eli Whitney who won the patent rights in 1794. His box with hooks inside and cranked by hand solved a problem that had vexed cotton growers and users worldwide for centuries: how to quickly separate the soft cotton from the hard cotton seed.

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Whitney’s invention about the size of a bread box separated 50 pounds of cotton lint and 100 pounds of seed in 10 hours, doing the work of 50 people. The Industrial Revolution then led to development of engines and technology to make gins bigger and faster.

Burton, founded in 1870 as a railroad stop, drew settlers of German heritage whose typical family homestead was about 50 acres. The list of original gin shareholders — 116 in all and limited to no more than six shares individually — is dotted with typically German first names like Fritz and Otto and Adolph.

Carpenters from town constructed the building. The gin equipment — a series of belts, pulleys, gears, shafts, bins and scales — bears faded or peeling labels of the manufacturer, Lummis Cotton Gin Co., of Columbus, Ga.

“It still makes me marvel,” says Russell, whose mother worked a cotton field.

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When the gin began production in 1914, it was powered by a steam engine and employed new technology known as a “system gin.” That meant it used air that sucked cotton from growers’ wagons like a big vacuum cleaner along a kind of assembly line, dropping picked cotton into five large bins called gin stands. Eighty saw blades in each stand processed the cotton and moved it to a compressor where it was squeezed into 500-pound cube-like bales.

It was state of the art.

By hand, a one-pound processed brick of cotton could take 10 hours.

Here, from the farmer’s wagon to the bale, took 12 minutes.

“Wrapped and strapped and on the bale dock,” Russell said.

Meticulous records kept by the gin operators showed 82 bales made in 1914. Two years later, production topped 1,300 bales.

In 1925, the diesel engine from Bessemer Engine Co., of Grove City, Pa., replaced the steam-powered unit. Production peaked at 1,680 bales in 1953, with most work taking place in July, August and September after the year’s crop was harvested.

“Lady B” was replaced in 1963 with an electric motor, but the industry and the economy was changing too.

The farmers’ children went away to school and found urban life more attractive. Polyester clothing debuted. Cotton fields became cattle pastures. New automated cotton picking devices required different gin processing equipment that the old-timers in Burton were reluctant to purchase.

By 1973, production had collapsed to 16 bales. A year later, it dipped to only seven and the doors were shut.

“It cost more to keep the gin open than what they made from it,” Jerry Moore, the museum curator, said.

The place was dormant for more than a decade. A research team from the Smithsonian Institution became intrigued and recommended a restoration that led to “Lady B” being overhauled and the structure freshened.

The first Cotton Gin Festival in 1990 helped raise restoration money. It’s become an annual event and this weekend’s will be the 25th, highlighted by the “Lady B” roaring to life and churning out a few cotton bales.

“It’s quite a big deal,” Cheri Collier, who works at the Burton Cafe, says of the festival and the crowds. “We only have 300 people and a peacock.”

According to local lore, the peacock escaped from a petting zoo at the festival a few years ago, and now struts around as a free bird in the town it’s made home.

The gin attracts thousands of visitors each year from around the world who get to tour inside the musty building, see the flecks of cotton that stick to some of the equipment and walk the same worn floor boards where the five-person gin crew toiled.

“That was their way of life, and we just have a renewed appreciation of what they did for our country,” Russell said.

The gin has won recognition from the Texas Historical Commission, became a National Historic Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.