Hit the Road
Burton Cotton Gin
Texas Cotton Gin Museum offers vivid reminders that a life labeled 100 percent cotton was 100 percent hard work for producers of state’s major crop

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    The Burton Farmers Gin, nearly a century old, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.
    Kevin Vandivier
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    The Burton Farmers Gin, nearly a century old, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark.
    Kevin Vandivier
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    Members of a farmers cooperative built the Burton Farmers Gin in 1914, and the community has preserved its cotton farming heritage by restoring the equipment and showcasing the gin through the Texas Cotton Gin Museum. The gin is the oldest operating cotton gin in the United States.
    Suzanne Haberman
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    Texas Cotton Gin Museum Director Linda Russell points out that Rowden cotton, a variety of cotton plant developed in the 1890s, cradles the Texas Cotton Gin Museum sign on the site of the Burton Farmers Gin.
    Suzanne Haberman
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    Guiding about 10 visitors on a tour of the historic Burton Farmers Gin, Jerry Moore, curator of the Texas Cotton Gin Museum, describes the steps required to process cotton from field to bale as though it were 1925. The gin operated from 1914 to 1974 and, in its heyday, could produce 60 bales a day, or a bale about every 12 minutes.
    Suzanne Haberman
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    Between 1925 and 1963, the power behind the ginning process at the Burton Farmers Gin came from this 16-ton, 125-horsepower Bessemer engine. In 1991, efforts to overhaul the engine of the ‘Lady B’ began. The engine gets used during the annual Burton Cotton Gin Festival for old-fashioned cotton-baling demonstrations.
    Suzanne Haberman
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    A battery of five gin stands runs along a 57-foot drive shaft on the second floor of the Burton Cotton Gin. Power from the 1925 Bessemer engine spun rows of saws in each stand to separate the cotton lint from seed.
    Suzanne Haberman
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    Linda Russell, director of the Texas Cotton Gin Museum in Burton, left, hands a cloud of ginned cotton fibers to visitors Alan Nash and Cameron Vann.
    Suzanne Haberman
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    Texas Cotton Gin Museum Curator Jerry Moore explains how the Burton Farmers Gin’s bale press used hydraulics to compress cotton fibers into 500-pound bales two at a time.
    Suzanne Haberman
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    The Burton Farmers Gin crew documented the details of every bale—including date, number and affiliated farmer—produced at the gin, and every bale was marked with a metal tag like the one Texas Cotton Gin Museum Curator Jerry Moore is holding.
    Suzanne Haberman
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    Texas Cotton Gin Museum Curator Jerry Moore, right, pulls apart a sample of cotton to judge its quality, strength and staple, or length of fibers, while visitor Charlie Vann from Washington County, center, and other sightseers look on.
    Suzanne Haberman
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    About 1,500 pounds of material from the cotton fields went into a 500-pound bale of cotton. Most of cotton’s weight is in the seed and trash, which the Burton Farmers Gin separated from the lint before the bale press wrapped the compressed pure white fluff into a rectangle sandwiched in jute fabric and secured the bale with six metal straps.
    Suzanne Haberman
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    The family behind the historic Burton Cafe pauses for a bite to eat after the lunch crowd wanes on a Saturday afternoon in Burton. Owner Lucia Zaranovic, standing, and husband Georg, right, serve up traditional German-style favorites such as melt-in-your-mouth jagerschnitzel in the company of son-in-law Clayton Crowell, left, daughter Anja—who creates confections such as apple strudel for the bakery case—and grandchildren Reese and Dillan.
    Suzanne Haberman
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    The Burton Cafe just off of U.S. Highway 290 was built in 1937 and, under the purview of several owners, has served as a social center for generations. The café was recorded on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991 and as a Texas Historical Landmark in 1992.
    Suzanne Haberman

Working as a hired hand on a Texas cotton farm in the 1920s, you’d be lucky to make a few cents a pound to pick cotton; if you were a family member, you worked for your supper. “If you were old enough to walk, you were old enough to pick cotton,” says Jerry Moore, curator of the Texas Cotton Gin Museum.

He’s describing work on a turn-of-the-century cotton farm while giving a tour of the Burton Farmers Gin, the oldest operating cotton gin in the United States at the heart of Burton, a town of about 350 snuggled in the rolling hills between Austin and Houston.

Built in 1914 by members of a farmers’ cooperative, the gin operated for 60 years and then fell into disuse after the demise of Burton’s cotton industry. More than a decade later, the community restored and preserved the historic landmark as a museum for the “love and honor for the history of cotton,” says Linda Russell, museum director.

On a summer afternoon, Moore guides about 10 sightseers, including Karen Preston of Leon County, on a tour of the cypress and corrugated tin complex and describes the labor of cotton baling as though it were 1925.

Preston nods at Moore’s description. She grew up on a farm in Northeast Texas, where her great-great-grandfather built the community’s first cotton gin. “It brings back a lot of memories of being on the farm, and families,” she says. “And their work ethic.”

For work it was. Starting in the field, pickers hand-plucked bolls and stuffed cotton into sacks. Moore unfurls a 12-foot-long cotton-picker’s sack and says a child would fill a pillowcase or flour sack. The contents then were emptied into a horse-drawn wooden wagon that, once full at about 1,500 pounds, the farmer drove to the gin to be weighed. The family kept on picking.

Outside the gin, above the weigh station, Moore points to a metal tube—the “grand vacuum cleaner”—that the farmer used to pipe cotton up to the second story. There, five gin stands separated lint from seed—a task Russell compares to “getting a sticker out of a puppy dog’s fur.”

Inside, Moore introduces the muscle behind the process: a 16-ton, 125-horsepower 1925 Bessemer engine. The “Lady B,” which takes up an entire room and smells like burnt diesel, powered the gin between 1925 and 1963 and still runs during the annual Burton Cotton Gin Festival.

After ginning, the cotton fibers are ready to bale. Russell hands a puff of ginned cotton to Houston resident Alan Nash during the tour. “Handle it like it’s a diamond … or a little baby,” she says in a singsong voice. Nash cups it with upturned palms, blinking with amazement. “It’s just as soft as a cloud,” he says. “It’s so soft.”

To bale those soft fibers, a bale press compacted the fluff into a 500-pound rectangle sandwiched in jute and secured with six metal straps. Over the gin’s lifetime, the managers weighed, tagged and documented every bale produced there.

As the tour concludes, Preston lingers in the museum lobby to chitchat with Russell about the cotton, farms and family. Before Preston leaves, Russell steals a hug and tells her she’s precious.

That’s the point of the museum and the exhibits, Russell says, “It gets them talking and remembering.”

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Suzanne Haberman, staff writer

2013 Burton Cotton Gin Festival

The annual Burton Cotton Gin Festival held each spring features cotton baling using the historic equipment, folk-life demonstrations and family activities; (979) 289-3378.

TAGS: History, Agriculture, Travel, Central Texas


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