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Lessons in Cotton Gins

1858 May Cotton Gin House and Gin Stands Restoration

The cotton gin project that has seen the most recent progress is the May Gin House at Tannehill State Park, west of Bessemer, Ala. The house and contents were moved and re-assembled in 1991 from the May Plantation near Knoxville, Ala., about 20 miles to the west. The upper floor and walls of the house are all of new construction 1-by-12-inch pine lumber, and it now has a tin roof. Huge hand-hewn beams underneath that span the entire 34-foot width of the house width are original, as are the large corner and edge posts. The 1881 Gullett 50-saw gin stand that came with the house included an overhead mechanical feeder and condenser. Since the building was first constructed in 1858, this was not the original gin stand. There is a second gin with ORR cast into the bearing grease caps, but no manufacturer’s name. A sign provided by the park indicates that it was built around 1850 – and it looks like it! A ship’s wheel manual cotton press and a 600-pound capacity cotton scale are in the house, along with lots of other equipment, some cotton related and some not. These last items are from various donors around the state.

The Gullet cotton gin. 
The Gullet cotton gin.

The Gullett automatic cotton feeder. 
The Gullett automatic cotton feeder.

The Gullet cotton condenser. 
The Gullet cotton condenser.

Underneath the raised gin floor is an animal power system, most of which came with the house. This consists of a huge upright pine log trunnion that pokes up through the floor into the second story near the gins, with cross bar bracing on top and a steel spike bearing underneath. Two crossed beams that stuck through holes in the base of the trunnion were harnessed to four horses or mules in order to send power to the gin above. A 9-foot horizontal wheel is attached just under the floor above. A spur gear is wrapped around its perimeter, which is mated to a bull gear on the end of a horizontal shaft. This shaft carries an 8-foot wood pulley that also extends through a slot in the floor. A belt wrapped around this pulley went to the gin, and then returned to the lower side of the pulley through a separate hole in the floor. The trunnion post and horizontal shaft are original to the gin house, but the wheel and pulley are of new construction, patterned after the pieces of the original that are piled in a corner near the gins. A sketch of such a system in operation is provided.

Stabilizing the horizontal power shaft bearing block. 
Stabilizing the horizontal power shaft bearing block.

On that first work weekend, I made a complete survey of the house – contents and their relative locations, size of the place, and what tasks needed to be done, in some sort of order. The front porch and ramp were coated with red algae which was so slick as to be dangerous when wet – that had to be pressure washed. The Gullett gin would be done first, as it is the more complicated, and therefore will be more fun to watch. It mainly needs a new brush drum, since the old one was rotted to the point that interpreting its design and dimensions was difficult – but not impossible. Its saws and ribs are all present and though rusty, still serviceable with some wire brushing and burnishing, and the cast iron frame is sound. The mechanical feeder mounted above the gin enabled workers to simply pile lots of cotton into the hopper and let the conveyor feed it at a controlled rate into the saw chest. The conveyor was in bad shape with both straps broken and many slats missing. The condenser is in decent shape, though I don’t know enough about it yet to be sure it will operate.

Pressure washing the front porch and ramp 
Pressure washing the front porch and ramp – old algae can be seen at left.

The much smaller and simpler ORR 50-saw gin needs new brushes and some refurbishment to the brush drum. A 12-inch pulley on the back end of the saw shaft from the power input is broken in half, and will have to be replaced with a new one. The saws and ribs in this machine are also in rusty but sound shape. Cotton was hand fed directly into the saw chest, and no condenser is present, though there almost certainly had to have been one originally to keep the ginned fibers from flying away.

On my second work trip, I stayed in one of the park cabins, much more comfortable and convenient. I had help from Harry Wise and his family. The park maintenance staff provided access to water, but it was too far from the house for my hose to reach, so the pressure washing had to wait. The Gullett gin and condenser were jammed against the back wall, such that in future operation, cotton tumbling from the condenser could not fall free for collection. The overhead feeder blocked any safe access to the gin and so had to be removed first. It was rigged to a pair of block and tackle pulley systems from the rafters so that the heavy end could be raised slightly. The gin stand was levered out from under, and the feeder lowered to the floor. This allowed the condenser to be pulled forward for cleaning. Pieces of the brush drum were gathered for reverse engineering and replacement in my home shop. Three large leaf bags of dust, cotton wads and wood scraps were left in the dumpster when I quit for the weekend.

Reproduction of the Gullet brush drum, ready for the brush sticks. 
Reproduction of the Gullet brush drum, ready for the brush sticks.

Back at home, a fair reproduction of the Gullett brush drum was crafted and fit onto the original steel shaft. Brushes for both gins have been ordered and should be in hand before the next work session. Charlie Thorpe traveled with me on the third work trip this past weekend. The drum was set into the gin stand – but was found to be an inch too long to fit – so it is now back in my shop. The ORR gin brush drum was removed and also brought back to my house. Work began on the animal power system to correct a weakened thrust bearing block on the horizontal pulley shaft. A pry bar moved it back into position and braces were placed to keep it stable. An attempt was made to stabilize the top of the trunnion with a guide rod down through the brace beams, but there is still a part of the original rod under the braces which prevented a new one being placed. The cross braces were too tightly attached for removal to give access to the top of the trunnion until I can return with a much larger steel pry bar. Sufficient hoses were on hand this time to allow complete pressure washing of the front ramp and porch. Now it is safer and looks much better. Sand-laden paint will be applied next trip to prevent a repeat of the algae problem.

Several more work trips will be required before this old house is again ready to show the public how cotton is processed. I say “is” because all of the old gins I’m working with as well as all of the modern ones still use old Eli Whitney’s original idea – a toothed wheel reaching between ribs to drag the fibers from the seeds. He would be proud!

New to Cotton Farming

cotton gin house 

Since I didn’t grow up around cotton farming, I was late coming to appreciate the industry as a whole, starting with the crop, through the picking and ginning. Spinning is tweaking my interest now.

Four years ago, the Southland Flywheelers Antique Tractor and Engine Club began to plant and harvest crops as part of our Fall Morgan County (Ala.) Fair Show, including peanuts, sorghum, corn and cotton. These were mainly to allow us to show off our antique equipment used for these processes. A corn picker on a Farmall tractor gathered that crop, and a grist mill turned the grain into fine corn meal, which was baked onsite into corn bread. Sorghum cane was stripped, cut, squeezed and then cooked into molasses. Peanuts were dug with a special plow, and then the boiled delicacies were sold to visitors – the only money our club recovered the first year for our show. Cotton was grown so folks could hang on a pick sack and walk down the rows gathering the locks from open bolls.

Then last year we added a plantation sized cotton gin, which I got to run. So now I’ve planted, thinned, picked and ginned the fluffy stuff for the first time in my life. But the bug hasn’t been so easy to tame. I’ve been touring all of our local commercial cotton gins to see how the big guys do it.

cotton gin 

Our club acquired an ancient 1850s era plantation-sized gin that caught my imagination, and I brought it home to attempt restoration. An extensive article has been submitted to Farm Collector magazine describing this long and fascinating project, which is now coming to a (hopefully) successful fruition – ginning cotton with it at our first show this spring.

below view 

But it gets worse. Then I found that a complete gin house had been relocated to the Tannehill State Park near Birmingham, Ala. It needs lots of work to become operational, and I have volunteered to tackle that project. A rotted down cotton gin has been located in a nearby swamp and dreams are trying to gel where this equipment could be restored and placed into a planned gin house at the local Burritt Museum. This web log will chronicle efforts as these projects roll along. Stay tuned!



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