When Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in the late 1700s, his invention re-created the American cotton industry. Two hundred years later, a vintage cotton gin in North Carolina re-creates the past.
“The cotton gin was somewhat revolutionary for the industry,” says Dr. Ray Medford, Gastonia, N.C. “It allowed farmers to grow a lot more cotton, and do a lot more with it. But when the boll weevil hit in the late forties, it really caused a great deal of problems for the southeast. In our county, it was the end of cotton.”
Ray is one of a handful of members of the Gaston Agricultural, Mechanical, and Textile Restoration Association (GAMTRA) in Gaston County, N.C, who made it their goal to find and restore a cotton gin for their group. None of those involved in the project had any actual experience with a cotton gin. But what they lacked in experience, they made up for in sheer determination.
The group’s hand-fed, single-stand gin (and its companion bale press) was made by the Continental Cotton Gin Company between 1900-05. Single-stand gins were developed for use on individual plantations. Their “big brother,” the four-stand gin – actually, four gins running simultaneously – was a commercial operation drawing growers from a large area. Later gins were almost always four-stand, Ray says.
The number of saws (in a cotton gin, circular saw blades separate the fiber from the seed) in the Continental gin – 50 – also gives clues about the machine’s past.
“Most single stand gins had 80 saws,” Ray says, “which gives more capacity.”
The GAMTRA gin was found in Crawfordville, Ga. The H.C. Langford family was instrumental in procuring the gin for the group. (H.C. Langford is since deceased; his sons, Bill and H.C. Jr., remain active in GAMTRA.)
“I was told about it by a friend who’d seen it from a deer stand on the property,” Ray recalls. “The trees had really grown up around it.”
The gin was originally purchased by a black doctor, J.W. Gaines, “who had, as best as we can determine, 19 children, to help with the enterprise,” Ray says. “As far as we know, the Gaines family was the only one ever to operate the gin.”
And no one, he says, had operated the gin for at least 50 years. Restoration work was badly needed.
“There were two major challenges when we got our gin,” Ray says. “The saws were extremely rusty, extremely dull. But we found an elderly gentleman, in his late seventies if not eighties, who borrowed a saw sharpening machine designed specifically for cotton gin saws, and he sharpened all our blades.”
The saw sharpener was a story in itself, he says.
“It’s an original piece,” he says, “a hand-operated thing with lots of whirligigs.”
The other major hurdle? “Just behind the saws, there’s a cylinder the width of the machine (about six feet), covered longitudinally with brushes. Mice had eaten all that horse hair,” Ray says. “We had a great deal of difficulty finding someone to make brushes like that. When we did, the price quoted to rebuild the brushes about knocked our socks off.”
Ultimately, the craftsman agreed to donate his labor, if volunteers would install the brushes.
GAMTRA volunteers completely rebuilt the bale press.
“It has something like two pieces of original wood in it,” Ray says. “It’s more symbolic than a restoration.”
A 1920 Fairbanks-Morse semi-diesel engine is used to power the gin.
“It’s 37 1/2 hp,” Ray says. “It doesn’t even know it’s pulling this gin.”
The engine was salvaged out of the woods in Gaston County, and was given to the group by G.W. Wilson (who, with two sons and a grandson, still helps run the engine each year at Ginning Days). Originally used on a cotton gin, it had not been used for at least 45 years.
“It was pretty dilapidated,” Ray says. “The gentleman who let us have it said we had to get it running before we took it out of the woods. We did it in 45 days.”
GAMTRA operates its gin once a year, at its annual show in October just west of Charlotte in southeast N.C.
“This year, we baled two bales of cotton in a building that looks like it came out of 1825,” Ray says. “It’s all hand-built, and pegged together. We let the timber lay outside before we started construction. It looks pretty authentic. People will ask us where it was moved in from.”
The cotton gin is a major draw.
“People come from Maryland, West Virginia, even New York, just to see how cotton is ginned,” Ray says.
The gin (short for engine) could probably be run by two people, “but that’d be working you awful hard,” Ray says. GAMTRA opts for four workers. Because the gin is hand-fed, one worker’s job is to pour cotton out of a basket into the feed hopper. As the cotton moves into the saws, the fiber is blown out to the condenser. The fiber is then manually moved to the bale press.
“Imagine a square box two stories tall,” Ray says, describing the bale press. “One of the sides pulls out half-way up (it’s hinged at the bottom). When you put the cotton fiber in, it lands on the bottom. An engine screw press the fiber into the top part of the bale, where ‘fingers’ hold it. It generally takes us five to six presses to make a bale.” One bale is put on display, and onlookers are invited to guess its weight.
“This year, it was 315 pounds,” Ray says. “Bales around here typically weigh around 500 pounds, but our gin is small.”
Raw material for the gin is provided by a nearby farmer.
“He allows us to use his cotton,” Ray says. “We gin and bale it, play with it, and then we return it to him.”
Although he’s found records of 19 gins in Gaston County, Ray says the Continental is a rare gin in his area. But it’s not the only one of its age still operating.
“We contacted the company that made it, and they said a few of this model are still being used in Third World countries. They were probably purchased as used equipment here, and shipped out.”
GAMTRA members have poured their energies into preserving a way of life that is fast disappearing.
“A bunch of us noticed that a lot of the heritage of this county relevant to the blue collar worker was disappearing,” says Ray Medford. “So we formed this group.”
GAMTRA held its 11th annual show – Cotton Ginning Days – October 1998, attracting more than 300 exhibitors.
“The first year, we had probably 15 exhibitors,” Ray says. “But this is getting to be one of the better attended shows in the southeast. In addition to cotton ginning, we also have log sawing, drag saws, a sawmill, shingle saw, and rock crushing. We also have a big display of McCormick-Deering tractors and steam engines. We have one collector who brings his entire collection … there’ll be a line of 30 or more red tractors.”
The show is held on a 110-acre showgrounds, and no admission is charged.
“At one time, this was the county poor farm,” Ray says. “Now it’s a county park, and since ’88, it’s been a permanent exhibit.”
GAMTRA membership is diverse.
“We have about 75 members,” Ray says.
“Probably 10-12 are typical of antique engine/tractor people. A lot of our members do not own anything in the way of collectibles: They’re just interested in it.”
In recent years, a local historic preservation society has joined forces with GAMTRA. Working together, the two groups have located some old structures– barns and houses from the early 1800s– and are relocating them to the showgrounds for permanent display.
“We’re setting up a home site of a typical cotton farmer,” Ray says. “We have an old mule barn in place now, and we’re finishing up work on the home.”
The vintage cotton gin, though, remains a strong draw.
“In recent years, there’s been a tremendous increase in the amount of cotton grown in North Carolina,” Ray says. “And there’s been a tremendous advance in the technology of cotton gins. The new ones turn out a bale every couple of minutes.”
But what do people come to see? A 95-year-old hand-fed gin that generates a couple of bales in a weekend. FC
For more information: Cotton Ginning Days, in care of Dr. Ray Medford, 2623 Shaw Avenue, Gastonia, N.C., 28054; (704) 864-7329. The show is traditionally held on the second full weekend in October.