The First Cotton Gin I Ever Saw

 

SHPO, South Carolina Department of Archives and History

At age 91, Julian D. Brown Describes the cotton gin built by his great-grandfather, Moses Brown. Located in Browntown of Florence County, the gin house, writes Elaine Y. Eaddy (1981) "is still standing on its massive supports, and its gears and wheels, in their intricate hand carved symmetry, a beautiful example of the patience and ingenuity that built America.

"My great grandfather was a farmer. He had cotton to gin and so did his neighbors. He knew of Whitney's idea so he set about building a cotton gin.

Cotton Gin Drawing

To operate such a machine he needed a housing unit and wheels and gears that would protect and deliver power to his machine. These parts must be made of wood, but being a large land holder he had ample areas of the woods from which the needed parts could be made. Long leaf pines the turpentine man's ax had never found, were rich in resin that prevented weathering and termite damage. From such virgin long leaf pines he had his slaves work off surplus wood to leave a heart of fat wood for posts he set five feet in the earth to support his ginhouse. from hickory and oak trees he made wheels and axles. The first floor was ten feet above ground allowing space for machinery. The upper floor housed the gin and cotton bins.

Photo of Gears   Photo of Browntown Gin

At the center of the ground floor a journal bearing, was set well in the earth to hold the lower end of a king post twenty inches in diameter and long enough to reach anchorage at the floor above. Two feet from the lower end a mortise five by ten inches was chiseled through the king post to receive a beam thirty feet long at each end of which two horses were harnessed to furnish power. This center king post acted as the axis of a wood wheel fourteen feet in diameter. When the horses were started this wheel turned to drive the machinery. It was strong and accurate. On the circumference holes were drilled and spaced so as to be equidistant and sized to receive pegs that engaged smaller wheels. On the axles of these small wheels larger wheels were keyed from which belts moved through the upper floor to the gin pulley. Compared to the giant gins of today grandfather's was a toy. It had about twentyfive saws eight or ten inches in diameter, and turned at a moderate speed.

Photo of Axles

Early one ginday morning my father hurried off to grandfather's to help with the work for he had cotten to gin, Tho I was a tot of four years he let me go with him. I remember so well how I had to stand some forty feet from the ginhouse to be out of danger. The horses were moving in a circle and a long flight of steps leading to the gin loft posed danger for children. I stood close by a fence made of rails such as Abe Lincoln split in the long ago to pay for some clothing. I watched the men as they moved up and down the long steps bearing baskets of seed cotton up and returning with baskets of lint to be put in the press.

Not far away stood the press, also powered by horses, in which the lint was pressed into bales. This press was also handmade. A box made of heavy boards was stationed neat the ground. The framework that held the press box in place extended some ten feet hight and to this frame two blocks of hard wood were made fast. These blocks were 2 by 3 by 5 feet. In each of these blocks a semicircle was cut out so that when bolted together a circle was formed. In this circle winding grooves were cut like threads to match a ten inch center post on which ridges were chiseled that would fit the grooves in the blocks. When the center post was turned it would move up or down. Now, a press head to fit the press box was made fast to the lower end of the center post. This would press the lint down in the box where it was caught by hooks to hold it down. Now the horses were reversed and the screw post would move up to allow a refilling of the press box. This would continue until a bale of cotton was ginned and pressed, the required time being about one day. Tho this was slow, it was much betyter than teasing the lint from a shoefull of seed in the evening as children were required to do before retiring. It is easy to feel that children were glad to wear small shoes.

Sketch of Cotton Press

This cotton press stood in an open yard. To protect the works from the weather it was overed by a roof, pyramid in shape, with a square base and triangular sides meeting in an apex. This roof was anchored to the top of the screw post and as the horses made their circle the screw post turned the roof. I remember how strange it was to see a house top turning. Today the press is gone, but the old ginhouse stands a silent witness as one with bowed head and folded hands reminds the present that it stood once in the front of the cotton ginning industry.

Photo of the Actual Gin House