8/16/1990: Cotton Gins at Oakton and Clinton

by Virginia Jewell
(Last in a series)
(Appeared in The Hickman County Gazette, Clinton (Hickman County, Ky.) on Aug. 16, 1990)

Wiley Kimbro, who at various times was connected with all of the county’s cotton gins, explained that after the fiber was brought in from the fields, it was set aside in a storage area for the customer if he preferred a custom ginning. Otherwise it was purchased by weight on arrival and stored with the “company” cotton.

Kimbro said that Farmer’s Gin in Clinton processed around 1200 bales each season in the 1940s. Most picking took place toward the end of the week, so the gin customarily bought cotton Friday and Saturday and ran the machinery earlier in the week.

As the ginning process got underway, burr machines and cleaners removed leaves and other trash. Saw gins, similar to Eli Whitney’s original invention, pulled the lint from the seeds.

Hulls separated from the fiber were funneled into a pile outdoors where they were scooped up for the asking by people desiring to use them for mulch.

The seed were saves and trucked to Tiptonville, Tennessee where they were transformed into oil, fertilizer and livestock feed. Some see was saved for planting also.

As the process continued, the lint was further cleaned and pressed by a bale press into 500-pound bales about the size of a home refrigerator. Burlap bagging and steel ties bound the bales together before they were stacked in boxcars on the adjacent railroad siding.

Boxcars held 35 to 50 bales of cotton and when Farmers Gin was at the peak of the season in the 1940s, two or three cars were shipped out daily. When warehoused, the bales were compressed again to about half their original size. Mack Ward, former owner of Farmer’s Gin said, “There’s no telling how many boxcars of cotton Otis Simon loaded out himself!”

He said cotton bales were notorious for catching fire. Bits of trash or metal would become overheated in the ginning process and begin to smolder in the bale. “A bale would smolder forever. The only way to stop it was to take the bale outside, break it apart, and water it down.” At least on one occasion the gin, itself, burned.

D. L. Stroud of the Jackson Chapel community spent much of his life setting up gins in this area. He also serviced them — keeping the machinery running during the hectic ginning season. Such servicing included filing by hand the gin saws which separated the seed from the cotton fibers.

Farmer’s Gin was established in 1924 on its present locatoin. Owners through the years have been S. T. Spears, J. D. Davis, David B. Graham, Sr., F. C. Hopkins, R. T. Griffey, R. L. Bolin, R. G. Cunningham, Jack Johnson and Wiley Kimbro. In 1949 the firm was merged with the Clinton Gin Company operated by Johnson and Kimbro. When Mack Ward went to work at the gin in 1963, it was owned by Bolin and Kimbro but in 1967 Kimbro sold his interest to Ward.

Other gins operating in the county during the 1920s, 30s and 40s were the Oakton Gin and the Clinton Gin. Various owners of the Oakton Gin were the Tennessee Cotton Oil Company, the National Cotton Seed Products Corporation, V. A. Jones, D. J. Craddock, T. N. Simpson, P. M. Ringo, Jack Johnson, Wiley Kimbro, Henry Sublette and Tolbert Poole.

Clinton Gin owners were V. A. Jones, P. M. Ringo, D. J. Craddock, Jack Johnwon, Wiley Kimbro, and Henry Sublette. The Clinton Gin merged with Farmer’s Gin in 1949.

Prior to the Civil War there were gins at Moscow and Columbus. Only nine years after the county’s founding, a license was granted in 1830 by the county court to William H. Patton to bale and mark cotton at his gin in Moscow.

In 1867 between 1000 and 1200 bales were produced in the county according to Collin’s History. This cotton was shipped out of Columbus by rail and steamboat. Scenes of roustabouts handling the heavy bales at Mississippi River wharves, such as Columbus, prompted the lyrics to Oscar Hammerstein’s “Ol’ Man River:” “Tote dat barge! Lift dat bale!”

Before the Civil War, slaves had toiled endlessly on the great plantations, making cotton the South’s most important crop. This was probably true in Hickman County, also, but after the war, production of cotton for commercial purpose slacked off in this area with only small patches being grown to be spun and woven for personal use.

Again, in the early part of the 20th century, cotton was grown for commercial purposes in the county. In 1912 the Foresythe Cotton Gin was built in Columbus on the George Wright land with O. E. Avery and M. F. Foresythe as owners. This gin operated till 1914 but was forced to discontinue as there was no market at the time for cotton because of World War I.

Farmer’s Gin quit ginning in 1968 but retains its name from the days when it processed much of the county’s cotton. The name of the firm, which is located on Cotton Gin Road at the north edge of Clinton, is a reminder of another era.

(Postscript: Modern cotton growers are not plagued with some of the problems of the past. Germination is so dependable that seeds are hill-planted while herbicides control weeks, which makes chopping cotton a thing of the past. Also, the no-till method of planting has eliminated the dreaded weekly plowings.)

(End of Series)

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