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 gets it running on steam power.

| July 2016

  • George McCrary’s E. Van Winkle cotton gin was a fancy show piece before restoration.
    Photo courtesy the Southland Flywheeler Antique Tractor & Engine Club
  • A view of the doffing brush chamber, where the brush sticks rotate counter to the saws and clean freshly ginned cotton from the saw teeth and blow it back to the condenser. These are the original brush sticks, so most of the hog hair fibers are missing.
    Photo courtesy the Southland Flywheeler Antique Tractor & Engine Club
  • The side wall of the Van Winkle feed chest shows a bit of bragging: The gin won first prize at the 1881 International Cotton Exposition in Atlanta.
    Photo courtesy the Southland Flywheeler Antique Tractor & Engine Club
  • A cotton gin party at Burton Marsh’s offered the first opportunity to exercise the Van Winkle gin.
    Photo courtesy the Southland Flywheeler Antique Tractor & Engine Club
  • Gene Marsh, Burton’s son, with the Continental engine on the gin trailer.
    Photo courtesy the Southland Flywheeler Antique Tractor & Engine Club
  • Gene and the Van Winkle gin on the trailer with the condenser behind it. The gin was in operation when the photo was taken, hence the bloom of cotton wads.
    Photo courtesy the Southland Flywheeler Antique Tractor & Engine Club
  • The Troy steam engine, rescued and ready for duty.
    Photo courtesy the Southland Flywheeler Antique Tractor & Engine Club
  • E. Van Winkle Gin & Machine Works is a complex of industrial buildings on an 11-acre site served by three separate rail lines in northwest Atlanta.
    Photo courtesy the Southland Flywheeler Antique Tractor & Engine Club
  • First exhibition of the restored Van Winkle gin and makeshift condenser at the 2011 Morgan Co. fall fair. The Van Winkle was not equipped with accessories for drying bolls or pre-cleaning leaves or sticks from the bolls before sending them onto the saws. In demonstrations, Flywheelers volunteers used carefully handpicked cotton grown on the club’s farm in Hartselle, Alabama.
    Photo courtesy the Southland Flywheeler Antique Tractor & Engine Club

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.