Where you can visit the oldest operating cotton gin in America

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When I lived in Southeastern New Mexico, we would drive through the cotton fields of West Texas to go shopping.  During the harvest, remnants would litter the roads from the trucks as they delivered the cotton to the processing mills.

I remember one time when I begged my father to stop to grab a piece of raw, unprocessed cotton because I wanted to touch it and feel its texture.   Since I grew up in California, seeing cotton fields intrigued me.  I knew my clothes were made from cotton, but I had no idea how they went from raw to clothing.

When I discovered a tiny town just northwest of Houston with the oldest operating cotton gin and a museum on a drive one day, I just had to stop and check it out.

With a population of only 300, Burton, Texas, is undoubtedly what you would call a small Texas town.  Covering only 1.2 square miles, it sits smack in the middle of a thoroughfare that connects Austin to Houston.

As I drove into the tiny little town looking for the cotton gin and museum, I passed tiny clapboard-covered houses that seemed to have sat on their foundations for hundreds of years—the type of homes passed down from generation to generation.  About a mile off the highway, I came upon the gin and museum and was excited to go inside and learn all about this piece of Texas history.

The museum sits in what looks like an old country store—where folks sit outside on the benches and visit with a cold drink.

Bale of hay on scale in museum

The museum is not a large space, but it packs so much about the history of the cotton gin and the importance that cotton plays in our everyday lives.  Covering everything from the processing of raw cotton to the many everyday items made from cotton bitcoin mixer and cottonseed oil, I was surprised by how many products in my life are made from cotton and byproducts.

Products made with corn oil

Fun FactDid you know that cottonseed oil is used to make Crisco?  I had no idea.  I always thought it was made from corn.

Walking through the museum, learning about how cotton is essential to our day-to-day lives, I was excited to get next door and see the cotton gin myself.  I honestly thought I would walk around outside and peek in the windows, so I was excited when I was invited to tour the inside of the gin!

Outside view of Cotton Gin building with walking path

As we made our way toward the gin, I learned that the cotton gin was nearly destroyed by mother nature and neglect at one point in time.  Constructed in 1914 with $10,000 raised by cotton farmers, the gin stopped operations in 1974 as it couldn’t compete with the more modern facilities that processed cotton and the advent of polyester clothing.  With the gin shut down, it ended up overgrown and decaying.

Had it not been for its discovery by a Connecticut visitor who had contacts at the Smithsonian, the building would have been lost forever.  Having heard of the site, a team from the Smithsonian visited and informed the town that what they had was essential to the history of America, and they needed to preserve and protect it.

The cotton gin is now a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and a Texas Historic Landmark.  While it was restored using more modern-day materials and a 3rd floor added, the mechanics inside the building are original, and it still sits in its original location.

Cotton processing discard chute on Burton Cotton Gin

When it first opened, the gin operated using a steam engine, replaced in 1925 by a Bessemer diesel engine called the “Lady B,” which is still in place today.  The restored 16-ton engine is the oldest internal combustion engine of its age in America, and I must say it is pretty impressive when you see it in person.

Because the engine is so powerful and noisy, the locals complained upon its installation, so the tanks that were once used to store the steam to power the engine was buried in the ground and hooked up to the engine as baffles to stifle the noise.  If you stand in the right place outside while the engine is running, you can feel the ground vibrate from the power of the exhaust going through the pipes.

Burton Cotton Gin Baffles

Once we made our way up the steps to the second floor, we stopped at the gin office.  I learned that original transaction logs were discovered when the building was cleaned up and restored, showing dates and amounts paid to farmers.   These records are now kept in archives to ensure they are around for generations.

While the records may be safely stored away, the original telephone for the office remained on the wall where it had been placed decades before.  With the evolution of the phone to the cell phone, I can’t imagine what it was like to call back in the early 1900s.  I’m sure it didn’t go as quickly or smoothly as it does now.

Antique phone on wall in cotton gin

On the second floor, I was met by the massive Lummus Cotton Gin that, at one time, produced hundreds of bails of cotton.  Based on the invention by Eli Whitney in 1794, the gin has hundreds of razor-sharp blades that spin at high speed, stripping the raw cotton from the pod it grows in.

Lummus Cotton Gin manufactures stamp

Cotton Gin processing machine

Making our way past the cotton stripping machines, I couldn’t help but notice the raw cotton hanging from the rafters and equipment.  Everywhere I looked, it was as if the building reminded me why it was there.  I started to wonder how old some of the cottons could be.  Was any of it decades old and hanging in the drafty old building like ghosts from the past?

Cotton remnants on machine wheele

At the end of the stripping machines sits the bailing equipment and a completed bale of cotton.  While I have seen many bales of hay in my lifetime, this was the first time I have ever seen or touched a bale of cotton.  The texture was not quite as soft as I imagined it would be.

Processed bale of raw cotton

Walking through the gin and learning about the process it took to create one bale of cotton, I felt a sense of respect for those that did such grueling work.  From the workers in the fields who picked the cotton to those who stood in the steaming hot building keeping the machines moving, nothing about the process was easy.

Cotton Gin Baling Machine

With the heat rising in the building and me needing to get back on the road, we made our way back outside, where the same tractor and wagons used to transport cotton decades before sat, waiting for their turn to be useful again.  One more reminder of the simplicity of times past and how far we have come.

Antique Tractor

Antique wagons sitting in sun

While the gin does not actively process cotton anymore, they fire up the engine yearly for the Burton Cotton Festival.  On the 3rd Saturday of every April (or the 4th Saturday if Easter falls on the 3rd weekend), the Festival is free to attend.  It celebrates Burton’s history and the importance the gin played in building Texas and the cotton industry.

The Texas Cotton Gin Museum is open daily from 10a-4p and has free admission.  There are daily guided tours of the cotton gin from 10a-2p, which are $6 for adults and $4 for students.  There are also special rates for groups of 10 or more, which makes it a perfect place to take a school group.

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This Post Has 20 Comments

  1. Beth

    Im so glad to find your blog. I live in Arlington and always looking for ‘Texas Road Trips’. This looks like a neat little town to check out this cotton gin museum. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Lynnette Vyles

      Hi Beth! Thanks for the kind words. We’re so glad you enjoyed the post and hopefully, you’ll be able to visit the Cotton Gin one day. It’s not a bad drive from Arlington, just a few hours or so. Arlington is full of fun places to go as well, hopefully I’ll get back there soon and discover some hidden gems.

  2. Damaris

    I love history so enjoyed reading this so much!

    1. Lynnette Vyles

      Hi Damaris! Thanks for stopping by and we’re glad you enjoyed the post. There is so much to find out there, that’s what makes travel so much fun.

  3. Lauren

    How cool is this! And you’re right, so Texas! A lot of history wrapped up in there I’m sure. It would be interesting to just see it with my own eyes. Gotta love these impromptu stops eh!

    1. Lynnette Vyles

      Hi Lauren, thanks for stopping by. I’m excited for April and to see it actually running and processing a bale of cotton. I’m sure it’s exciting to see. We do love these great finds along the roadside, that’s what makes it an adventure.

  4. Gabby

    Fascinating post! I would love to see the remnants of a cotton harvest blowing over a road! I’m curious though, why is it called a gin? Seems an odd choice of words … I originally thought your post was going to be about alcohol 🤣

    1. Lynnette Vyles

      Thanks for visiting Gabby. The word “gin” is short for engine which drives the process. I never thought of how it sounds like it would be a process for alcohol…funny!

  5. Emese

    What an interesting piece of history! I had no idea Texas would have a cotton gin (and honestly I was intrigued, I had no idea what gin meant in this context). I’ve seen cotton fields in Arizona, and I understand the need to touch it when you see it – I did it, too. Thanks for sharing the info about this place; something to visit if I end up in the area.

    1. Lynnette Vyles

      Hi Emese! I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I must admit, I had heard the term “cotton gin” before but never really understood what it meant until my visit. Being able to walk through and listen to the passion my host had about the process and history was so fun. I can’t wait for the festival and to see the whole thing in action. It’s a definite must-see if you’re in the area, especially if you enjoy historical places like I do.

  6. Sue

    Great post & your passion & excitement really come through. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt cotton in its natural form. I love seeing historic places like this & imagining what life was like when it was fully operational. Thanks for sharing

    1. Lynnette Vyles

      Hi Sue! Thank you so much for your kind words, I am so glad you enjoyed the post. I loved finding places like this and learning about how things were done in the past. It makes me appreciate what I have now so much more. It was so fun to walk through the mill and be able to see and touch pieces of equipment that were decades old. I’m super excited to be able to attend the festival in a few weeks and see it in action.

  7. Alma

    Fascinating! We once did a tour through a cotton mill in the UK and found it equally interesting. Such grueling work!

    1. Lynnette Vyles

      Hi Alma! Thanks for stopping by, we’re glad you enjoyed the post. It’s always interesting to see how things were done decades ago. Here in Texas, it is so hot in the Spring and Summer, I can’t imagine how grueling it would have been without air conditioning.

  8. Nadia

    What! I drove right passed! Love visiting old school museums like this! Adding it to our next Texas road trip!

    1. Lynnette Vyles

      Hi Nadia! What a bummer that you missed it. Definitely worth adding to your next road trip. If you’re taking a road trip near Houston, there is also a fairly new museum near the Stephen F. Austin State Park that is interesting as well. Check out the post about the San Felipe de Austin museum that I shared as well. I think you’ll find it interesting as well.

  9. Marilyn

    I share some similar memories on the many road trips across the Queensland and New South Wales state border and the fields of cotton. Along with the remnants of puffs of unprocessed cotton lining the sides of the open road. Along with the opportunity to stop and pick up some cotton still partly enclosed in its seed pod. Fond young teenager memories. Then I had the opportunity to read the rest of the harvesting process and practice of preparing the cotton wool for baling. Cool post.

    1. Lynnette Vyles

      Hi Marilyn! Thanks for stopping by, I’m so glad you enjoyed the post and it brought back some fond memories. I think it’s interesting sometimes how certain places will bring back memories and make us smile. The whole process intrigues me and I can’t wait to go to the festival in a few weeks and see the cotton gin in action.

  10. Laureen Lund

    I absolutely love finding small places like this to learn about Americana. Really great information. I’m saving for my next road trip!

    1. Lynnette Vyles

      Hi Laureen! Thanks for stopping by, I’m so glad you liked the post. I’m just like you in that I love finding little known places on the side of the road. They are always so full of history and the people that take care of them have such a passion for it, that makes it even more special. It’s definitely one to add to the Road Trip files – I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as I did!