Restoring a Pre-Civil War Cotton Gin

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

| June 2013

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.