More Than a Dawg T-Shirt

Published 12:23 pm Sunday, January 21, 2024

I can’t help thinking about our farmers. They were tenacious and never gave up on growing their crops. They fought the hard soil, the heat, droughts and the insects. Therefore, I wanted to write the  history of another of our most popular crops, cotton. We will go from planting, on to the invention of the cotton gin, through the ginning process and end with the ghosts that love to haunt these fields. Let’s drive through our area and tailgate in a shady spot. As we watch the machinery gather up the white gold, we will enjoy some fried chicken and a sweet tea.

Also known as “Georgia snow”, cotton is one of the mainstays that makes up the backbone of our agricultural industry. These precious and versatile fibers are used in everything from Georgia Bulldog T-shirts, to bed sheets and jeans and on to animal feed.

The dictionary defines cotton as: “a natural, vegetable fiber of great economic importance as a raw material for cloth. Its wide spread use is due largely to the ease with which its fibers can be spun into yarns. Cotton’s strength, absorbency and capacity to be washed and dyed, also makes it adaptable to a considerable variety of textiles products.” Thus, we see that cotton is a staple from which many diverse items can be made.

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Cotton has an interesting history that can be traced way back to ancient times, making its exact origin impossible to pinpoint. Scientist have found that cotton existed up to 7,000 years ago, in the Tehuacan Valley of Mexico. We know for certain it has also been grown and used for cloth in India for at least five thousand years. Cotton was also used by the ancient Chinese, the ancient Egyptians and the native North and South Americans. It was one of the earliest crops grown by European settlers here in America, having been planted at the Jamestown Colony in Virginia in 1607.

Processing cotton starts soon after harvesting is completed. This is when many cotton farmers chip or shred the stalks with machines. The residue is plowed under and the land is usually left rough until spring. Planting time varies from the beginning of February to the beginning of June.

The cotton plant itself has a distinct look. It’s like a small tree or shrub and on it are immature flower buds which are called “squares”. When it blossoms, they develop into oval shaped blooms that split open at maturity. This is when it reveals a beautiful mass of fine, white seed hairs called, “liters”. These cover a large number of brown or black seeds. When fully mature and dry, these hairs group together and form thin, flattened tubular threads. The length of the individual fibers range from 1.3 to 1.6 cementers. Because of its tubular shape, it can be spun into cloth.

A few types of cotton are grown commercially. These range from the small tree type that is planted mainly in Asia, to that which is common in America. This is a low, multi-branched shrub that is grown as an annual. There are also exotic species of cotton which include the long fibers of Egyptian and Sea Island cottons. The Egyptian type was brought to the United States in about 1900. Sea Island cotton also traces its arrival date as being in early 1900s. This type thrives in the unique climate of the sea islands that are located off the southeastern coast of Georgia as well as the islands of the West Indies. As with Egyptian cotton, Sea Island cotton has white, lustrous fibers, and their length is longer than any other type of cotton. This allows it to be used in the spinning of extremely fine, and exotic yarns.

To have a successful cotton crop requires a long growing season with plenty of sunshine and water for plant growth and dry weather for harvest. In general, these conditions are provided by the subtropical climate in the Southern states in America which is known as the Cotton Belt and stretches from northern Florida up to North Carolina and westward to Texas.

The true value of cotton was realized in the 1790s, by the Georgia farmers who knew that they had a chance to build a livable economy. The textile mills in Britain needed more and more raw cotton and we were able to supply it, if we could overcome one problem. The fluffy, white fibers used to make the cloth are tightly attached to a seed. The best way to remove these fibers had always been to pull them off by hand. This took a lot of time and many workers to produce just a small amount of cotton each day. Many of our longtime residents, remember stories told to them by the older folks in their families. Some of them can remember working in cotton fields and getting sore backs from bending to pick the prickly bolls off the plants and how much their hands hurt after work. While the invention came too late for some, after Eli Whitney’s first cotton gin was invented in 1793, cotton was processed in great quantities and the Southern economy began to flourish.

Eli Whitney, who was born in Westborough, Massachusetts, in 1765, was destined to become the inventor of the cotton gin. However, this was not the goal that he set out with in mind. First, he decided to get a college education and worked hard for six years to try and earn his tuition. He was admitted to Yale College and graduated in 1792.

In 1793, Whitney came down to Georgia, traveling by stagecoach. This is when he met Catherine Greene, the widow of the Revolutionary War hero, General Nathaniel Greene. She invited Whitney to visit Mulberry Grove, the Greene’s cotton plantation, on the outskirts of Savannah. He told her of the tutoring position that promised to pay well enough to get him out of the large debt he had incurred while putting himself through school. However, when he arrived in Savannah, he found that his employer intended to pay him only half of the previously agreed upon salary. Now, he had a large financial problem. When he went to Mulberry Grove, he told Catherine Greene about his dilemma. Being very kind, she insisted that he stay at the plantation until he could find another position. Never having seen a cotton plantation before, he was enthralled. Now, Whitney began to observe the difficulty the workers had separating the cotton seed from the fibers.

It was on a hot summer day, while setting on the porch of the plantation house that Whitney and Phineas Miller, Catherine Greene’s caretaker, began discussing ideas that might make them some money. Miller was also interested in a project that would help Mrs. Greene recover from the heavy debt that she found herself in while trying to operate her large, but only marginally profitable, plantation. The subject soon turned to cotton.

As the young teacher talked and listened to Miller, Catherine Greene, and the other plantation owners, became convinced that there had to be an easier way to extract the fiber from the seeds. Finally, after hours of trial and error, Whitney produced a proto-type cotton gin that performed the functions without a hitch.

Eli Whitney’s original invention consisted of a box containing a roller, with curved wires that resembled the teeth of a comb, which surrounded it. Cotton that had been picked was fed into the box. As the roller turned, which was done by hand, the teeth passed through the fibers of the cotton and pulled them off the boll leaving the seeds, which fell into a box, below.   

Whitney had one last puzzle to solve and that was how to get the cotton fibers off the wires. Some people say that it was Catherine Greene who solved this when she suggested that something like a hair brush might help. Whitney added a brush covered cylinder to pull the fibers off the wire spikes, and his machine was complete. Today’s automatic gins use these same basic principles as this first one.

Within six months, Whitney built his first machine, which he called the “cotton engine”, which later was shortened to gin. It could do in one hour what it took several workers to accomplish in ten. The cotton gin was an immediate success.

Whitney and Miller soon became partners and told the nearby Georgia landowners that their goal was to build enough cotton gins and put them in convenient places throughout the region. This would allow the growers to bring their cotton and have it processed. Then, pay for the processing would be with a share of the clean fibers. Amidst the glowing success, a serious problem arose. The demand for the new machines outgrew the ability of the two men to build them. Since Whitney was familiar with New England machine shops, he returned there and hired men to manufacture the gins, while Miller stayed in Georgia, handling the administrative and logistical aspect of the new partnership.

It soon occurred to Whitney that his cotton gin, as revolutionary as it was, would be extremely easy to reproduce if some unscrupulous person decided to do this. Whitney and Miller had been careful not to divulge the details of their design to anyone and even refused to allow cotton growers to watch the gin while it was processing. Whitney decided that he better apply for a patent and did so in June, 1793.

Everything went well until in March of 1795, when a fire destroyed Whitney’s New Haven, Connecticut, factory. Also, as Whitney had feared, counterfeit cotton gins were now flooding the market. Whitney did bring lawsuits but most never came to trial. Between this and the fire, he was never able to overcome his losses. When the Supreme Court denied the renewal of his patent, Whitney gave up. He left Georgia and went back to Massachusetts where he opened up a factory for mass producing firearms, a business that eventually made him a wealthy man. Eli Whitney died in 1825.

However, in Georgia, the growth of this popular crop continued. Despite the fact that Whitney did not gain personal success from his invention, it did have a great impact on the South and caused cotton to become the number one crop.

Before we explore the building where the ginning takes place, let’s stop for a moment and take a deep breath to become acquainted with the smell of the rich earth and the odor of damp mustiness that comes from the farmer’s fields where cotton has grown for generations in southwest Georgia. While in the building, we will need ear plugs or ear muffs for our tour. Once inside, you will know why, for the process that turns the huge truckloads of dirty cotton bolls into brilliant, snow-white bales, takes place amidst deafening sounds that comes from the cleaning and drying machines.

Ginning is based on the repetition of pulling apart the cotton to clean it and then heating the fibers to dry them. This process starts, as soon as the trucks loaded with cotton arrive at the gin. A large machine sucks the cotton out of the trailer and into another machine composed of large, leather like, spiked wheels. These wheels mash, slash and tear the cotton fibers apart to remove dirt, leaves and stalk particles.

Next, the cotton fibers travel to another machine, which once again beats and tears at the cotton fibers. At this point in the ginning process, seeds are taken from the fibers. These seeds fall into a box at the bottom. They then are processed separately to produce several by products.

The seed free cotton next travels through a dryer/grinder, where it is warmed to a toasty 220 degrees. It is again torn apart and continues on to another dryer where it is heated to 180 degrees. All this drying is necessary to remove the six to seven percent moisture found in cotton fibers.

The cotton is further processed by repeated combing which gives it greater purity. After the final process, the cotton is pure white, soft and fluffy. However, the processing is not quite done yet. Now, the cotton goes to another machine where it is pulled and compressed under 4000 pounds of pressure, into a marketable cube.

These are now graded and tagged according to the United States Department of Agriculture standards. The cleaner the cotton, the better the grade. These cotton fibers are stored in warehouses and then shipped all over the United States and the world. Buyers from as far away as Turkey and China purchase our local cotton.

Nothing is wasted from the cotton plant. The seeds that were separated are now sent on to oil mills where the lint is taken away. The bare seeds are now cracked and the kernel removed. The meal that remains is high in proteins. This is used as feed for cattle. The lint, too, becomes a product that is used for padding in furniture and automobiles, for absorbent cotton swabs and is also used in the manufacture of plastics and rayon.

Today, the loud noises of modern cotton gins are heard across Georgia. In approximately 45 minutes these machines can turn about 20,000 pounds of cotton still in the bolls, into ten bales ready for shipment to a textile factory. This home-grown treasure has been turned into white gold.