Restoring a Pre-Civil War Cotton Gin

Southland Flywheelers Antique Tractor & Engine Club tackles restoration of a cotton gin built before the Civil War.

Red Idler Pulley

In order to make the saw shaft and the brush shaft turn in opposite directions, so that the bristles can remove lint fibers from the saw teeth during the ginning process, an idler pulley is required.

Photo Courtesy Bill Friday

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After Eli Whitney and H. Ogden Holmes patented the world’s first modern saw cotton gin in 1794, allowing vastly increased harvest capacity, planters increased their crops so rapidly that gin production could not keep pace. Independent cotton gin builders began supplying the need without regard to paying royalties to Whitney or Holmes.

A gin currently being restored by the Southland Flywheelers Antique Tractor & Engine Club, based in Hartselle, Ala., is one of those cotton gins. No name is visible anywhere on it, probably the result of the manufacturer’s attempt to avoid a patent infringement lawsuit, but we call it the Star. The Star was likely built using saws, brushes, shafts and pulleys from a foundry, which then shipped the parts to a carpenter who built the frame and installed the iron pieces.

Possible link to Texas foundry

Two notable features may provide a clue to the originating foundry: a small star cast onto each bearing grease cap and knurled bronze drums to clamp the bearing halves together.

M.L. Parry’s Star Foundry, Galveston, Texas, is a prime candidate. From the 1840s to the 1860s, Parry’s foundry built cotton presses and other gin equipment, shipping the equipment to local carpenters for assembly. Parry’s Star Foundry ceased operation in 1869. Thus far, we are unable to confirm that the Star Foundry built the Star gin; it’s just a theory.

The gin’s wood frame was made from poplar (also known as cottonwood), which grows in profusion all over the South and has long been a preferred material for carpenters in this area. Extensive research into early cotton gin stand construction styles also points to a pre-Civil War era origin, as later models eliminated the outriggers, used cast iron frames and added new features such as precleaner saws and automatic feed machinery. The Star has only the single saw shaft; cotton was hand-loaded in batches to the feed chamber.

The Burritt on the Mountain museum, Huntsville, Ala., gave the Star cotton gin to the Southland Flywheelers in 2010. Tracing the gin’s history from there, it was learned that the late Georgia Dunn donated the piece to the Burritt, having earlier received it from Hardwicke Kay, Corinth, Miss., whose deceased mother had purchased it from an area antique dealer. From there the trail went cold.

Bliss of restoration ignorance

After it was donated to the Flywheelers, the gin remained in a barn alongside several old tractors for most of a year until I took an interest in its restoration. Had I known just how bad a shape the old relic was in, I might have passed up the opportunity, but ignorance is often bliss and the project was tackled with enthusiasm.

Unfortunately, all 51 of the gin’s cast iron ribs had been snapped off at the top and bottom, making it very difficult to determine their original shape. The seed cotton feed chest was in pieces and the sidewalls were completely missing. The major portion of the gin’s wood frame was solid, although thoroughly riddled by boring insects, and a few of the wood frame members had rotted to dust. The idler pulley, which helps connect the saw and brush shafts and allows them to rotate in opposite directions, was completely missing, its attachment arrangement unknown. All 21 brush sticks were nearly bare; the horse- or hog-hair bristles had long since been eaten by mice. The few remaining bristles were too brittle to doff lint off the gin’s saw teeth.

All 50 saws were present and in good shape, except where rain had dripped through and eroded four of the 280 teeth on each saw blade. The 49 cast iron 3/4-inch spacer rings were all in perfect shape, as was the large threaded nut that squeezes the saw/spacer stack together on the shaft. The saws were terribly rusty, but after a wire brushing and Scotch-Brite burnishing, they were slick, sharp and ready to go to work. The input power pulley, made of a stack of 3/4-inch wood discs keyed to the saw shaft and joined by three long wood pegs, is sturdy enough for continued use.

The two remaining critical pieces of the feed chest front wall, which form the chamber that facilitates the rolling of the seed cotton bundle during ginning, were broken apart but usable. Cast iron pieces that had braced the edges of the front wall were snapped in two. The missing upper half of these edge pieces carried the hinge pins that allowed the wall to be lifted periodically to dump the seeds after the fibers were ginned away.

Replacing these missing edge pieces presented too much of a challenge, so an alternative method of attachment had to be devised. The sidewalls of the feed chest, which were completely missing, had picked up the hinge pins of the front wall, and were separately hinged to allow the entire chest with the ribs to lift, exposing the saws for maintenance. A “best guess” design based on geometrical constraints was required.

Rib redesign

Replacement brackets were fabricated from flat stock and screwed into place to re-form and stabilize original sections of the seed cotton feed chest. Crude hinges were set to allow the front wall to lift, exposing the saws and ribs. The missing sidewalls had rested on top of the end ribs to seal the cotton inside the ginning space, and the contour of each rib’s upper surface was carried all the way to the inner sides of the main gin body, leaving a shadow on those walls. The shadow could be traced, thus preserving the critical missing rib contour. Several remaining inches of some of the lower rib stubs reached far enough above the attachment tab to show the cross-section of the middle portion. The upper and lower rib end tabs preserved the mounting hole spacing patterns, and both of the wooden upper and lower rib attachment bars were present and in good shape.

With that design knowledge, coupled with the extracted geometrical features, it was possible for my brother, Curt Friday, Columbus, Miss., to craft a wood pattern duplicating an original rib. A double-check of the angle of the rib’s upper surface at the gin point and angle of the saw teeth as they passed between the ribs confirmed that the reproduction was accurate. Curt enlarged the dimensions of the wood rib pattern to allow for 7 percent shrinkage of the molten iron in the mold. Working with members of Alabama Art Casting, plans were made for fabrication of a complete set of new cast iron ribs.

A trial iron pour at the Soulé Live Steam Festival in Meridian, Miss., in November 2011 provided the correct dimensions for a subsequent set of 12 wood patterns. These were packed into sand molds in January 2012 and a new set of ribs was poured at Tannehill State Park, McCalla, Ala. The entire process was great fun and instructive for the Flywheelers and the Art Casters.

Unfortunately, very few of these cast ribs were sufficiently true to form for completing a matched set, so a new method was needed. A set of hot-rolled iron bars was procured and machined to shape by Ray Ferguson, Harvest, Ala., using a CNC end mill. These were bent using a peg-jig to the proper contour by Larry Lemmond, Hartselle, Ala., and inserted into the Star.

Keeping it authentic

All four shaft bearings were present and in excellent shape. The lower halves are lined with babbitt bearing metal, but not the uppers. Both the saw and brush shafts were straight and sound. The brush drum was built with four pairs of wooden discs 11 inches in diameter. The discs carry sections of galvanized metal to seal under the brush sticks. Galvanizing of metal predates the Civil War, thus maintaining the probability of a prewar manufacture date for the gin stand. Each disc has 21 mitred grooves around the perimeter measuring 5/8-inch by 3/4-inch to hold the brush sticks. New brushes were ordered to specification and fitted with high-strength plastic bristles. Those were nailed into the grooves and bound with baling wire around each disc pair for extra strength, as was original practice.

A spare pulley from Flywheelers member Burton Marsh, Greenbrier, Ala., was incorporated into the shaft power transfer mechanism as an idler, with a belt from an old peanut plow, to make the saw shaft and brush shaft turn in opposite directions. This allows the brushes to doff lint from the back sides of the saws and blow it out the back of the gin. Though a bit crude, this fix worked fairly well.

And then there’s that color. The gin body has a strange blue color (see photos in the Image Gallery) similar to that seen on other very old wood structures, including an equally old cotton gin similar to the Star owned by the Smithsonian Institution. An observer at the annual Soulé Live Steam Festival identified the tint as “buttermilk blue.” An Internet search turned up a description of dried buttermilk mixed with deep blue synthetic ultramarine powder, an aluminum/sodium silicate mineral. A source was found for the ultramarine powder. A mixture of these powders with linseed oil will revitalize the gin color, including the new structural pieces.

The Star was demonstrated at the Burritt museum Spring Farm Days, ginning cotton from recent crops grown and hand-picked on Flywheeler Farm. The gin was powered by a 1948 Ford 8N. It wasn’t smooth, and it wasn’t entirely efficient, but it worked, as witnessed by Flywheeler Club members who were helping at the Burritt and 250 school children on a field trip. This 160-year-old relic has come to life once again. FC 

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— Retired scientist Bill Friday, Huntsville, Ala., collects and restores old tractors, grist mills, cotton gins, engines, pumps and tools. He is a member of the Southland Flywheelers Antique Tractor & Engine Club. Contact him at bill.friday@earthlink.net. 

— Southland Flywheelers Antique Tractor & Engine Club.