Texas Cotton Gin Museum
Big Engine, Big Impact
Texas Cotton Gin Museum: Big Engine, Big Impact
by Lorie A. Woodward
Originally appeared in the November 2018 edition of the Round Top Register –Ed.
Photos courtesy of Texas Cotton Gin Museum
Residents within three miles of the Texas Cotton Gin Museum know when the Lady B, a 1925 Bessemer Type IV diesel oil engine that powers the Burton Farmers Gin, is fired up.
“The ground shakes when the Lady B is doing her work,” said Museum Director Steph Jarvis, noting that the 125 HP engine, maintained by cotton ginning professionals from across Texas, is put into service each April at the Burton Cotton Gin Festival. “While there are older cotton ginning structures in the country, the Burton Farmers Gin is the oldest operational gin in the nation.”
The gin, founded by 13 local farmers who raised $10,000 by selling 200 shares, opened in 1914 and operated until 1974. The original structure, constructed from cypress wood without a set of blueprints, was designed and built by Edward and Will Weeren of Burton, while the ginning equipment was designed and built by the Lummus Cotton Gin Co. of Georgia.
“When it opened, the Burton Farmers Gin became the third in Burton—and one of 4,000 in Texas at the time,” Jarvis said. “Our museum focuses on the era of the community cotton gin, which followed on the heels of the plantation era.”
Today, the “Official Cotton Gin Museum of Texas” is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated as a Texas Recorded Historic Landmark and a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.
“Cotton has been part of the cultural and economic fiber of Texas since its earliest years,” Jarvis said. “Even today, Texas produces more cotton than any other state in the nation.”
Through the years, cotton production shifted away from Washington County to the Brazos River bottom, the Blackland Prairies, Coastal Plains and the High Plains of Texas.
“Currently, there are only three farmers who produce cotton in Washington County,” said Jarvis, noting that in the early 20th Century cotton from the Burton-area was loaded on a train and hauled to one of Texas’ nearby ports for export.
The exhibits in the museum tell the story of cotton production to give context to the importance of the gin. The exhibits range from hands-on experience with cotton bolls, burrs and seeds to a look at sharecropping to a prototype of an early hand-cranked cotton gin.
According to Jarvis, historians believe that cotton has been cultivated for more than 7,000 years.
“Once wild, cotton spread across the world because fuzzy cotton seeds had the ability to float and traveled along the ocean currents,” Jarvis said. “The smooth-seeded cotton, known as pima or long-staple cotton, was carried from place to place by those who wanted to introduce it into new areas.”
With about 28 seeds per four-lock boll, the eternal conundrum was how to remove the seeds and other “waste” from the fiber. Until Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, people removed the seeds by hand.
“Before the cotton gin, which was originally a hand-cranked machine about the size of a bread box, it took a person 10 hours of work to produce one pound of clean fiber,” Jarvis said. “With the original cotton gin, a person could produce 50 pounds of clean fiber in the same 10 hours.”
Whitney’s original design, which relied on a series of serrated saw blades turning on a single axis, is the basis of the five 1925 Lummus Gin Stands that fill more than half of the second story of the Burton Farmers Gin.
“Whitney’s original design was enlarged and motorized,” Jarvis said. “When our gin was running at its peak, it could take 1,500 pounds of raw cotton from a farmer’s wagon and produce a 500-pound bale of clean cotton every 12 minutes.”
Before touring the gin, visitors watch a short film, “From Wagon to Bale,” to see the Burton Farmers Gin in action.
“Anybody who loves the history of Texas or the history of old engines needs to come see us,” Jarvis said. “In our gin, you can see how the Industrial Revolution stretched far beyond our cities and shaped the fabric of the countryside.”
Tracing the Museum’s History
In 1986, Doug and Donna Hutchinson of Burton, Ohio, came to Burton, Texas as part of a road tripping vacation. Howard Matthies, owner of Matthies Grocery & Feed, showed them the Burton Farmers Gin that had been shuttered since 1974. Impressed because the gin contained all of its original equipment as well as complete records for the 60 years it operated, Hutchison contacted the Smithsonian Institute. Smithsonian professionals told the townspeople of Burton that if they restored and conserved the old gin, the town would have something unique in the nation. Local residents launched a 501 (c) 3 called Operation Restoration Inc. in 1987 and raised the money to save the gin. In 1999, Operation Restoration evolved into the Burton Cotton Gin & Museum, Inc.
“Our future is built on our past, so it just makes sense to preserve it. I don’t know of many things that you can build that will succeed and survive without a clear understanding of what came before.” –Steph Jarvis, Museum Director
Texas Cotton Gin Museum
307 N. Main St.
Burton, TX 77835
[email protected] museum.org
Tuesday – Saturday
10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Museum Admission: Free (Donations accepted.)
10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Adults $6/ each
Students $4/ each
Children under 5 free
Group tours (for 10 people or more):
By appointment only with 24-hour advance notice. Schedule by phone or email.
Adults $5/ person
Students $3/ person
Don’t Miss! Annual Events
- Burton Cotton Gin Festival
- Third weekend of April, depending on Easter holiday