Texas Road Trip – The Oldest Operating Cotton Gin In America
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 can remember one time when I begged my father to stop so I could grab a piece of raw, unprocessed cotton because I wanted to touch it and feel its texture. Since I grew up in California, seeing the fields of cotton intrigued me. I knew that my clothes were made from cotton, but I had no idea how they went from it’s raw state 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 small clapboard-covered houses that seemed to have sat on their foundations for hundreds of years—the type of homes that get 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 itself sits in what looks like an old country store—the kind where folks sit outside on the benches and visit with a cold drink in their hand.
Once inside the museum, I met a lovely couple who run the museum and have what seemed to be an endless amount of knowledge about the cotton gin and area.
The museum itself 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 and cottonseed oil, I was surprised by just how many products in my life are made from cotton and byproducts of cotton.
Fun Fact – Did you know that cottonseed oil an ingredient 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 for myself. I honestly thought that I would walk around outside and peek in the windows, so I was excited when I was invited to take a tour of the inside of the gin!
As we made our way towards 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 surely 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 is also a Texas Historic Landmark. While it was restored using some more modern-day materials and a 3rd floor added, the mechanics inside the building are original, and it still sits in its original location.
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 still in use in America, and I must say quite 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 were 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.
Once we made our way up the steps to the second floor, we stopped in at the gin office. I learned that when the building was being cleaned up and restored, original transaction logs were discovered, showing dates and amounts paid to farmers. These records are now kept in archives to ensure they are around for generations to come.
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 make a call back in the early 1900s. I’m sure it didn’t go as quickly or as smoothly as it does now.
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.
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 was reminding me of why it was there. I started to wonder how old some of the cotton could be. Was any of it decades old and hanging in the drafty old building like ghosts from the past?
At the end of the stripping machines sits the bailing equipment along with 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.
Walking through the gin and learning about the process it took to create one bale of cotton, I felt such 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.
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.
While the gin does not actively process cotton anymore, they fire up the engine one time a year for the Burton Cotton Festival. On the 3rd Saturday 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 and 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.