Southland Flywheelers Bring Van Winkle Cotton Gin Out of Deep Slumber

The Southland Flywheeler Antique Tractor & Engine Club in Alabama restores a circa-1880 cotton gin and get it running on steam power.

Van Winkle cotton gin

George McCrary’s E. Van Winkle cotton gin was a fancy show piece before restoration.

Photo courtesy the Southland Flywheeler Antique Tractor & Engine Club

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George McCrary, Mooresville, Alabama, inherited a cotton gin dating to the 1880s. Manufactured by E. Van Winkle Gin & Machine Works, Atlanta, Georgia, it hadn’t been used since the early 1900s. Originally powered by a steam engine, it had no accessories for drying bolls or pre-cleaning leaves or sticks from the bolls before sending them onto the saws.

Through careful research and a growing body of experience in gin restoration, the Van Winkle was restored to running condition – and briefly paired with a steam engine – by members of the Southland Flywheeler Antique Tractor & Engine Club, Hartselle, Alabama.

The gin’s early history is lost with George’s ancestors. Serial No. 1734 is stamped into one of the frame members, and a casting boasts that the gin won first prize at the 1881 International Cotton Exposition in Atlanta.

The gin was configured to use with a condenser, a chest with a rotating screen drum fitted behind the gin exit chute to capture the fast-moving stream of ginned fiber, removing the air and pressing the lint into a bat, which folds smoothly and gently into a hopper. But when the gin was found in George’s barn, no condenser was found with it.

Flywheeler member Burton Marsh, Greenbrier, Alabama, had known of the machine most of his life. One day he asked George about it. Soon it resided in Burton’s barn, though George retains ownership. And there it sat for many years, a marvelous conversation piece, but still a static display.

Members eager for another gin project

Then the Southland Flywheelers Club took possession of an historic relic: an 1850s gin obtained from the Burritt on the Mountain historic museum in Huntsville, Alabama. Restoration of that machine – dubbed the Star, because of the Texas-style stars cast on the bearing grease cups – was the subject of a June 2013 article in Farm Collector.

That project necessitated extensive research on the history of early cotton gins. When the Van Winkle came along, interest in making it operational built rapidly. All of its parts were present and in good shape, except the brush sticks, which, like those on the Star gin, badly needed replacement.

Burton and I pulled the saw shaft from the gin and slipped all 50 saw blades from the shaft. Measuring 10 inches in diameter and crusted with rust, each blade sported about 280 still very sharp teeth. The blade spacers were made of poplar, 3/4-inch thick and 5 inches in diameter. Cut cross-grain, almost all broke into two or more segments as they were removed. With no option for replacement, the piece sets were kept associated for later re-insertion. A wire wheel was used to remove the crust from the blades, and although they really needed polishing, that didn’t happen. We re-assembled the shaft and put it back into the gin.

Forecast: a blizzard of cotton fluff

When “Gin Party” day arrived, 15 curious folks assembled at Burton’s house to bring the Van Winkle back to life. No one in the crowd had ever actually been close enough to a gin to know how to operate it: how fast to run the saws, how to feed in the seed cotton, or how to control the blizzard of fluff from the rear exit. My Ford 8N tractor with a rear PTO pulley was belted on, a tarp was draped behind and the fun started.

Our best wisdom was that we should shoot for 400 rpm on the saws, which, un-noticed by us, relayed to 1,600 rpm on the brush drum. We elected to add cotton slowly rather than risk overloading. The saws started rolling, cotton was dribbled in, and the whole rig choked down as the locks clogged into the rib blade slots (known as tags in the commercial gin business). Every one of us 15 “experts” offered advice on how to make it better.

On the second try, we managed to keep everything going. The sky turned into a blizzard of cotton fluff. Everyone there had clumps stuck on shirts, hats and mustaches. The tarp was wrapped into a pocket around the chute, but that just let the fluff out the sides. A screen was draped over, providing little improvement. Examination of the cotton lint revealed masses of broken-off brush fibers made of hog hair, brittle after 130 years of weathering and mouse grazing.

After an hour of frustration, clogged ribs, tractor malfunctions, and finally the violent escape of the fast-spinning brush drum pulley into the crowd (thankfully no one was injured), we gave it up for the day.

Finally, a successful demonstration

The next attempt at operation came a few weeks later, during the Flywheelers fall show at the Morgan County Fairgrounds in Decatur, Alabama. This time we incorporated a close-fitting screen box around the exit chute to capture the lint. Having had no success with adding small amounts of bolls at a time, once the saws came up to speed, we filled the seed chest as fast as we could. Miraculously, the entire mass started rolling, just like commercial ginners had told us it should. The cage rapidly filled with beautiful ginned fiber.

This remained the mode of operation for many shows around the area for two years, making for a very popular attraction wherever the gin was exhibited, even as far away as the Houston, Mississippi, spring show. At the Soulé Steam Days in Meridian, Mississippi, the Van Winkle was belted to and rotated by a full-size (but woefully under-pressurized) E.H. Wachs steam engine. New brush sticks were fitted with plastic fibers instead of hair. Various ideas were tried, but it was clear that the gin needed to be mounted on a trailer with a dedicated engine, eliminating the frustrating job of aligning the tractor and gin pulleys each time.

Jackshaft smoothes things out

I traded for a 16-foot utility trailer, and Burton and I started assembling the rig. A 5 hp hit-and-miss engine was belted on, and we tried it out at the Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, spring show. That outing was a disaster. The engine wasn’t nearly strong enough for the job and worse, it locked up and refused to run again until Burton got it home and it cooled off.

 A 28 hp Continental Red Seal engine was purchased from club member Burwyn Brewer at a Flywheelers spring show and installed on the gin trailer. The Continental featured an integral clutch, which made for much-needed ease in slowly bringing the gin online with the engine at full speed. The engine and gin ran in opposite directions, so the belt was twisted a half turn. A bigger problem was that the minimum engine speed was still too fast for safe operation of the gin. Having learned from the errant pulley at Burton’s Gin Party, we had reduced to maximum 150 rpm saw speed.

A jackshaft (obtained from club member Matt Calahan) was loaded onto the trailer, simultaneously allowing the engine to be turned around, thus matching the rotation directions, and reducing the final rig speed to a comfortable level for both the engine and gin. The Van Winkle gin was built with a condenser pulley on the brush shaft. Club member Walter Clement located a sad relic of a condenser of unknown manufacture or age. After some loving care, it was restored to (mostly) satisfactory operation, with new wood, a new screen for the drum and a new exit press roller.

After a long day of moving the pieces around to optimize the relative positions of the engine, jackshaft, gin and condenser, everything was bolted to the floor. The engine revved up and cotton was loaded into the hopper. The result was quite satisfactory, except that the condenser still lacked some fine-tuning. And at the next show (again in Meridian), the engine exhaust stack blew oil drops all over the gin, trailer and bystanders, necessitating a complete rebuild the following winter.

By that point, the rig was show-ready. The Continental engine started at the touch of a button. The clutch was eased forward and the gin revved up to speed. A tip from Jimmy Newby, a commercial ginner from Athens, Alabama, led us to fill the roll chest with ginned-out cotton seed prior to adding any locks, thus polishing the blades, ribs and chest walls. After 20 minutes, the chamber would be filled with seed cotton and fiber bats would start rolling out of the condenser – well, mostly, but then this machinery is well over 100 years old, and it was restored by a bunch of enthusiastic but otherwise “learn-as-we-go” amateurs.

Stage one: success!

The next step had to be an attempt at converting the rig back to steam power, the way the Van Winkle was designed to operate. A Troy upright engine awaited in my back yard, itself a miracle of restoration, having been pulled from a swamp, one of four engines removed in 1980 from a sunken gravel barge. It was small for the intended task. Calculations showed its 4-inch piston and 4-inch stroke delivering no more than 5 hp, even at 300 rpm (originally it ran at 700 rpm pulling an Engberg generator, but that was lost to the swamp decay).

Burton had a small boiler on a trailer, which also calculated to be marginal for providing sufficient volume of steam at the needed pressure to carry the intended load, but we were determined to try it. The engine weighed about 1,000 pounds, and the boiler a couple hundred more. The total weight was at the upper limit of what the trailer could handle, so if that didn’t work, we would revert to using the Continental.

But one can calculate forever and not really know how things will work out. So we loaded the engine into the back of my pickup truck, cozied up to the gin trailer and connected in a belt, twisted to make the rotation compatible. A 1-inch air hose was attached from a large tank with 150 psi air. This left us with no clutch, but there is a tensioner in the jackshaft belt, so it was propped in slack position. When the air came on, the idler was eased down and the gin spun up. It filled with ginned-out seed, and continued to run when seed cotton was loaded in, creating a beautiful roll in the feed chest and spitting out fiber from the condenser. Stage one was successful.

Van Winkle rises to the challenge

Then Burton’s boiler trailer was moved alongside and Walter Clement’s 1-inch steam hose was connected to the Troy. A two-stage Logan hydrostatic steam oiler was put in the line, and, to my amazement, it began functioning immediately. A pressure relief valve was placed on top, with a whistle for completeness. When steam pressure came up, with the jackshaft rolling and the idler eased down, the gin again started producing lovely fiber from the condenser.

The Van Winkle was back in its original element, and seemed to be as happy as the operator team. Gin owner George McCrary dropped by with neighbor Woody Peebles, pleased to watch for the first time his ancient machine working.

Edward Van Winkle (1841-1923), the maker of this device, would also be proud. His factory, built in about 1880, was the largest supplier of cotton gin equipment at the time. It remains intact in Atlanta, protected from demolition by neighbors, and is now listed on the National Registry of Historical Places. It serves as home to the Goat Farm Arts Center.

Taking the safe route

All of the units were transferred onto the trailer, with the belts re-laced to fit, still using the jackshaft to make the relative speeds compatible. A water tank and pump were added, belted from the jackshaft, to refill the boiler as needed. Wood was tucked into corners, leaving just enough room for the operator to stand on the rear edge of the trailer and operate the gin.

But this presented a problem for operating at local shows – a wood fire as hot as we could make it could generate just enough steam to pull the cotton gin, requiring constant maintenance to keep the firebox full of flames. But this heat could not be throttled back when the operator stopped to talk to onlookers. It was not hard to envision a scenario in which the pressure relief valve might suddenly start spewing excess steam, alarming the crowd.

So a propane gas rig was constructed with a pressure valve set to turn the gas flame on and off at appropriate times – on when building pressure and when the pressure drops back down during usage, and off when the pressure is maximized but still less than the setting of the safety valve.

After several attempts, we finally concluded that we couldn’t push enough propane through the burner to produce the necessary amount of steam to do the job, and the project was terminated. The steam engine and boiler were removed and a more reliable Case gasoline power plant was installed. So we missed the first show of the season (our own Flywheelers spring show and swap meet), but there are plenty more on the calendar and we will resume demonstrating the obscure art of creating cotton fiber to a population that at least understands its importance – clothing in particular. Let the fun begin. FC

For more information:

– Retired scientist Bill Friday, Huntsville, Alabama, collects and restores old tractors, gristmills, 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.