The Legacy of ‘King Cotton'

The Burton Farmers Gin opened in 1914 as a cooperative cotton gin in Burton. Farmers paid $50 a share and most owned two shares. The gin closed in 1974. (Photo courtesy Texas Cotton Gin Museum.)
Texas was one of the top cotton-producing states in the nation before the Civil War. Today, the state’s farms churn out millions of cotton bales annually — from 3.5 million in 2011 during the depths of the state’s drought to a record-setting 8.4 million bales in 2005.

“Cotton is still king, in that Texas is the largest cotton-producing state in the U.S. and the number one crop grown in the state in terms of value,” said Tony Williams, executive director of the Texas Cotton Ginners Association.

Two hundred and thirty-two cotton gins process the state’s cotton, producing up to 70 bales per hour. Not surprisingly, they’re located in the counties where most of the cotton is cultivated. “By far, the concentration of cotton acreage (and gins) today is in the South Plains and Panhandle areas,” Williams said. “But we still have significant production along the coast, the Blackland Prairie, the Brazos River Bottom, the Rolling Plains, the Concho Valley, the Trans-Pecos and the El Paso Valley.”

Early Cotton Ginning

Members of Stephen F. Austin’s colony brought the first cotton gins used in Texas, according to the Handbook of Texas Online. To attract settlers, Austin advertised land along the Brazos and Colorado rivers as perfect for growing cotton. By 1828, there were four or five cotton gins in the colony.

The term “King Cotton” describes the crop as the main economic driver in cotton farming areas during the early 1900s, when the number of gins in Texas peaked at 4,000. “Many communities exist today because immigrants migrated to Texas to grow cotton, settling in areas and establishing communities and businesses to serve local farmers,” Williams said.

“Round Top and Carmine and all those little communities had at least one gin so the local farmer didn’t have to go 10 miles with his wagon load of cotton to have it processed,” said Jerry Moore, curator of the Texas Cotton Gin Museum in Burton, in Washington County. “That’s why there were so many gins in Texas.”

The 1914 Burton Farmers Gin, part of the museum, is the oldest operating gin in the nation. This two-story cedar and tin building houses a crown jewel from the King Cotton era. The barn-like landmark, appended by a water tower and tall exhaust pipes, dominates the landscape a stone’s throw from Burton’s town center. It’s a logical placement, since the gin was once as important to the community as was its mercantile, churches and railroad depot. “In a lot of communities, the cotton gin was the center point because it provided jobs, and for the farmer, it provided a service that they had to have,” Moore said.

Thousands of gins like Burton’s served their local communities and helped fuel the economies of their home counties. Cotton was a cash crop for the farmer. “While many Southern farmers grew wheat and corn, those crops were often grown to feed livestock and themselves; cotton was the crop they grew to buy goods they needed and to pay for their homesteads,” Williams said.

“Some of the money (farmers earned) would stay in the county,” Moore said. “The Burton Farmers Gin was a co-op with shareholders, so a lot of money went right back to the shareholders, who in turn spent that money at the mercantile and dry goods store. That money was cycling back through the local economy all the time.”

Burton at one time had three gins, and other businesses catering to the county’s farmers were located nearby. “Right next door (to the Burton Farmers Gin) was a shoe shop. The shop is where the farmer got his shoes repaired and where he got his tack and harnesses repaired while he waited in line at the gin. Across the street is the mercantile,” Moore said. “There was a cotton seed oil mill in (nearby) Brenham. A lot of the work within the community was in some way associated with the cotton gin.���

The Burton Farmers Gin once produced up to five bales of cotton an hour and up to 50 bales a day during ginning season, which stretches roughly from late July to the first week in November. 

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Texas had about 4,000 gins in 1926 that processed a total of 5.4 million bales of cotton. Cotton was grown in the majority of Texas counties at the time, but especially in Central and East Texas on small family farms, Williams said. For example, in 1926, Williamson County had 69 cotton gins, Ellis County had 68, McClennon County 65, Collin County 58, Navarro County 55, Bell County 51, Kaufman County 50 and Dallas County 42, according to Moore’s research.  

 


Efforts Preserve, Share Cotton Farming History

Today, many old gins stand shuttered and empty, their machinery long since sold for use elsewhere or dismantled for scrap. Some have been repurposed as restaurants, such as in Crandall, Brookshire and Belton. Hundreds of those historic gins mark the landscape of Texas counties, illustrating the important role cotton has played in their histories. A number of counties are helping to preserve what they can of their cotton legacy. 

The county historical commissions in Matagorda and Austin counties are conducting surveys of cotton gins within their respective counties. Grace Holtkamp, chair of the Austin County Historical Commission, said Austin County at one time had as many as 100 gins. “This is where Stephen F. Austin had his first settlement,” Holtkamp said. “The early 300 main land grants were given in this county. There were big plantations here and their primary crop was cotton.”

Last fall, the commission dedicated a Texas Historical Marker for the Cotton Gin industry in the western part of Austin County. The building is now used as city government offices. “It’s still pretty intact,” Holtkamp said. “The machinery is still there and they’ve been able to get one of the cotton presses to work.”  Holtkamp said the western part of the county once had a cotton gin about every five miles.

When the research project is complete, the Austin County Historical Commission will post its findings at www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~txaustin/, where readers already find a variety of Austin County historical information.

Matagorda County Historical Commission Chair Ona Lea Pierce (Holtkamp’s sister), said she thought tracking down historic gins in her county was a worthy project. “We decided we need to do this before there’s nobody around who knows where these were,” Pierce said. “I’ve just started talking to people. This is going to be a long project.” Pierce said she knows cotton was once farmed extensively in the county, especially at the plantations established before the Civil War along Caney Creek. One historic gin at Tin Top has been torn down, while another in Blessing is now used as storage by a local farmer, she said.

The Texas Cotton Gin Museum’s displays educate the public about cotton farming’s place in Texas history, focusing on the technology of ginning through the ages, the tools used in the production of cotton and what it was like to pick cotton by hand. Docents lead tours through the dusty gin building Tuesdays through Saturdays and describe the mechanics of how the plant’s hulls, stems and seeds are removed from the cotton lint, how much a farmer could expect to be paid per pound for his crop during the early 20th Century (which the Burton gin’s records show ranged anywhere from 11 cents to 23 cents per pound) and how much a bale of cotton weighs (500 pounds). During its annual Cotton Gin Festival in April, volunteers start up the noisy Lummus gin and produce a few bales of cotton to the delight of a fascinated crowd.

“Rural Texas — the way that it was years ago — is disappearing,” said Washington County Judge John Brieden, a museum supporter. “Agriculture has become run by large companies and not by individuals as it once was. The Burton cotton gin was a co-op owned by the farmers. That was more the norm 100 years ago. We’re preserving that.”

In Lubbock County, considered the state’s cotton farming hub since the 1960s, the American Museum of Agriculture includes exhibits on cotton farming and processing, including a cotton ginning display. 

Former County Commissioner Alton Brazell is credited with gathering much of the museum’s holdings. Brazell began collecting agricultural artifacts during his 36-year tenure as commissioner. These became the Lubbock County Historical Collection, which the county has permanently loaned to the museum. 

Lubbock County Commissioner Patti Jones serves on the museum’s board today as its vice chair. She speaks from experience about the county’s cotton farming legacy. For generations, her family has farmed cotton in Lubbock County.

“Around the turn of the century, the first irrigation well drilled in Lubbock County completely changed the face of agriculture in this area,” Jones said. “My grandparents came in the early 1900s from East Texas. At that time, everybody was on a small scale compared to today. Back in the 1930s, a family would probably live on a quarter section — 160 acres. That was a family farm.” Today, Jones and her family cultivate 1,750 acres of cotton on the edge of Lubbock.

Jones said cotton farming is a significant part of Lubbock County’s agricultural heritage and development, and that is story worth telling. “If you looked at the (historical) economic picture of each year for Lubbock County, you could relate that to whether there was a good cotton crop or a failure in the cotton crop,” Jones said. “It drove the economy. If it was a good crop, the farmers bought more equipment, more clothes, new vehicles. But if it was a bad year, then you didn’t see that kind of activity happening. That even holds true to this day.”

Author’s note: Published sources used for this story include “Cotton Ginning” and “Cotton Culture” in the Handbook of Texas Online; the “Number of Cotton Gins and Number of Bales of Cotton Ginned for Texas: 1900 - 1984,” U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of the Census; and “A Plan for the Coming Season” in History Ahead: Stories beyond the Texas Roadside Markers by Dan K. Utley and Cynthia J. Beeman, Texas A&M University Press.

Captions, from top: 

Volunteers at the historic Burton Farmers Gin keep a close eye on the Lummus gin stands as they separate cotton seed from cotton lint during the annual Cotton Gin Festival. (Photo by Liz Carmack.)

Members of the Texas Cotton Ginners Association gather for their 1918 convention in Dallas. (Photo courtesy Texas Cotton Ginners Association.)

The Burton Farmers Gin today is part of the Texas Cotton Museum (designated the Official Cotton Gin Museum of Texas) and is the oldest operating gin in the country. (Photo by Liz Carmack.)

Cleaned cotton is pressed, wrapped in burlap and secured with metal bands into a 500-pound bale at the historic Burton Farmers Gin. (Photo by Liz Carmack.)

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