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.
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.
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.
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.
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.