I’m not much of a drinker, but I must admit that my ears perked up when Carol asked me to join her on a trip to Prattville, Alabama, where the town of 36,000 was fighting to save its gin factory. Not a gin mill — which is slang for a low-class tavern. An enormous factory.
Different kind of gin, too.
I should have guessed it, given the location in the “Heart of Dixie,” as Alabama, in America’s Deep South, is often called, where cotton was king and is still an important row crop. This spectacular, 160-year-old factory made cotton gins — short for cotton engines — the machines that processed the cotton crop. It was built by a transplanted “Yankee” northerner who had planned the town, 21 kilometers (13 miles) north of the state capital of Montgomery, and lent it his name.
Daniel Pratt built Alabama’s first cotton gin, and, in the big factory building, more gins than anyone else in the world. He turned little Prattville into an industrial bastion of mills, fabrication buildings, and the gin factory that, together, rivaled the colossal mill towns of New England.
The brick, ivy-covered factory, a complex of five enormous buildings across Autauga Creek from downtown Prattville — ceased operations in January. And the survival of that rare vestige of the Industrial Revolution — one of the most important in the South — has been touch-and-go. The complex of factory buildings “is what makes Prattville Prattville,” Mayor Bill Gillespie Jr. told the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper.
It’s a town that has been growing fast — tripling in size in the past 30 years.
That’s because of its highly rated schools, long-time resident Ann Boutwell says, and because of what she calls its “progressive attitude.” Even the town newspaper is called the Progress.
Prattville has always had an affinity for fresh thinking, local realtor and town booster Louise Jennings told me: “A lot of folks who work at three military bases in Montgomery pass through here, and many of them retire here when their tours are done.”
Some of those military retirees are front and center in the town’s determined campaign to save the big gin factory — the symbol of its industriousness that sets it apart from sleepy Southern county seats where fragrant magnolia branches shade courthouse squares, old railroad depots, and statues of Confederate soldiers.
In the years before the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s, Daniel Pratt’s gins found their way onto thousands of cotton plantations in Alabama’s Black Belt — named for its fertile black soil, not its racial composition — as well as throughout the Southeast and in overseas cotton-growing countries such as Russia and Egypt.
In the American South, the gins supplanted the work of African-American slaves who, by hand, laboriously pulled sticky, pea-sized seeds from the white fiber in cotton-plant pods, or “bolls.” If they were lucky, they had a small basket of cleaned cotton fibers to show for their labors at the end of the day.
Through history, cumbersome “roller gins” attempted, not very successfully, to squeeze seeds out of the cotton. The modern cotton gin, invented by New Englander Eli Whitney in the late 18th Century, changed all that. Whitney’s gins could rid enough bolls of seeds and twigs to produce a bale or so of cotton in a day.
But these hand-cranked gins — and later ones whose drive shafts were turned by mules walking in circles all the day long — did not lessen the planters’ appetite for slave labor.
Quite the contrary. As cotton prices soared and bustling spinning mills up North clamored for more and more cotton, southern planters made small fortunes, and they intensified their search for slaves to grow and pick cotton. By 1860, one in three Southerners was a slave.
Daniel Pratt owned a couple of slaves, but mostly he was an entrepreneur and inventor, a transplanted New Hampshireman who had proved his mettle making cotton gins in neighboring Georgia. In 1832, he and his wife, Esther, set out for wild, practically uncharted Alabama to the west, which was just 13 years into statehood. Fearing raids from the area’s fierce Creek Indians, his Georgia partner passed on the opportunity to join them.
On the banks of rushing Autauga Creek where falls produced ready power for a water wheel, and later a turbine, Pratt built what came to be called “the New England Village of the South” — a company town that rose around the gin factory. Today the gorgeous cascade and looming factory form the backdrop for tourist and wedding-party photographs every nice day.
“We like to say that Daniel Pratt was a southern Renaissance man,” says Ann Boutwell, the former teacher and guidance counselor who has been leading Prattville’s fight to save the historic factory. “In the 1850s, a national business journal recognized Prattville as the most highly industrialized village of its size in the United States.”
In agrarian Alabama, remember.
Boutwell’s appreciation of the town’s founder wilts beside the esteem for him expressed — in flowery gushes — in a 1904 biography and “Eulogies on His Life and Character,” edited by a “Mrs. S. F. H. Tarrant.”
She was an Alabamian and ardent Pratt admirer:
From the Yankee lad, with his pack upon his back and his one shilling in the pocket of his coarse trousers, leaving his home where the blue mountains kiss the bluer skies, to wander through the brush and bramble of a new land; and rising, step by step, up the toilsome steep that self-made men do climb with bleeding feet, achieving fame and fortune — founding the greatest industry of a great State and living out a grand and noble life set to grand and noble purposes, and at last coming to the end of a career that must for a very long time serve as a glorious incentive to youth, and dying with a million people as his mourners — there is a pen-pathway in which no man will dare to walk hastily and leave footsteps that will last through a moment in history.
Even I have never written so long and effusive a sentence! As for the shilling in Pratt’s pocket, it must have been a collector’s item from the nation’s colonial days. And if you have a clue what a “pen-pathway” is, please write and enlighten us!
Pratt went on to invest in coal and iron mines in what became a much bigger industrial center — Birmingham, whose iron mills would transform the city in the Appalachian foothills of northern Alabama into the “Pittsburgh of the South.”
But Pratt kept his grand home in Prattville until his death in 1873. The gin factory passed through many hands but was still cranking out cotton gins as late as 2009, when the company moved heavy operations to India.
Although the owners kept a few hands at work inside the factory complex, the vigilant preservationists at the Autauga County Heritage Association were suddenly on high alert, having already been shocked by other events:
• In the 1960s, when what was then called the Continental Gin Co. moved its headquarters back to town from Birmingham, Prattville reluctantly accepted the condition that Daniel Pratt’s fine house on the gin-factory grounds be demolished to make room for a modern office building in which to center the company’s worldwide operations.
• In 2002, two historic cotton mills, across the creek from the factory, burned to the ground when five teenagers set them ablaze as a lark.
• And more recently, townfolk learned that a salvage company had bought an old cotton mill in Lanett, Alabama, 150 km (93 miles) away, and was razing it for its handmade bricks and heart-pine beams and flooring.
They were not about to let the same fate befall their factory buildings. After all, as National Park Service heritage chief Richard O’Connor wrote last December, “They are solid, well-built structures that have withstood the tests of time, weather and industrial change, and represent some of the last of their kind anywhere in the United States.”
Ann and John Boutwell had built a strong relationship with the gin company’s most recent owners — even though they were based in Europe. “When they told me they had decided to outsource most of the manufacturing of cotton gins that had been done here for almost 180 years,” Ann says, “I knew their days in Prattville were numbered.”
Sure enough. Right before Christmas last year, one of the owners told her that the property had been put up for sale, and the only interested parties were . . . salvage companies.
“He said, ‘If you want to save the buildings, you need to help us find another buyer,’” she told me. Or else, wrecking cranes would come rumbling in.
“After that meeting,” Ann says, “John and I went home and immediately got on the phone and started calling everyone we knew — officials at the Alabama Trust for Historic Preservation, developers that we knew all over the Southeast, wealthy people. We could not bear to lose the gin factory.
“We HAD to find a buyer” — someone who would “repurpose” the gigantic building as loft apartments, a hotel, or retail and restaurant space overlooking impressive Autauga Falls.
At a meeting of the heritage association in mid-February, at which Carol gave a spirited talk, if I may say so, about photography as a preservationist tool, anxious members and concerned townspeople got a hopeful — though not yet definitive — update:
The city planner had likely scared off the brick and wood scavengers by pointing out that it would take the city two years, minimum, to prepare and review the permits necessary to tear down such a historic relic, if in fact permission were even granted.
And the crowd was told that a “seriously interested” developer had been located.
The photographs that accompany this posting give you a good idea why little Prattville cannot bear the thought of losing its cotton gin factory.
Ann Boutwell tells me the town should know fairly soon whether saving it is a done deal. When I hear from her, I’ll let you know.
I didn’t want to clog the earlier narrative by explaining cotton gins in detail, though I think it would be useful.
After all, while kids learn in third or fourth grade that Whitney invented the things, if they live north of Kentucky or west of Texas, I suspect they — and you — have no idea what a cotton gin is or how it works.
Fortunately Ann Boutwell’s husband, John, is farmer — recently a wood grower but for years a cotton man. He told me all about the devices that Daniel Pratt produced by the thousands, and showed me one up close at the Heritage Association’s museum.
The first, hand-cranked ones, he says, were no bigger than a shipping box that one person could pick up and carry about — and did!
Then, on large spreads, along came “plantation gins” — bigger contraptions, but nothing dramatic in size. As I mentioned, their drive shafts were turned by mule power, relatively slowly as you can imagine if you’ve ever been around a mule.
The idea was eminently simple:
Cotton bolls, filled with seeds, were fed by hand into the top of the box. Except for the seeds, this was fairly clean cotton, because it had been hand-picked from the cotton plants. Today, the bolls are collected by machines moving through the field, so the fiber entering a gin is dirtier and filled with sticks and stones as well as seeds.
In today’s large gins, giant “impact cleaners” suck out the twigs and other trash and feed the cotton into the mechanism for seed removal.
There — just as in Pratt’s first models — the cotton is snagged by rotating blades that look like those on a circular saw. (Eli Whitney’s original gins used rotating spikes.) The box-size gins had just a few, slowly rotating blades. Nowadays in big, electric-powered gins, 60, 100 — even 200 or more — blades whir fast and grab hold of the cotton. Those monsters can turn out 50 bales an hour.
The blades don’t have big, nasty teeth that would tear the cotton to shreds. You can barely (and carefully) feel their tiny teeth with your finger. They grab the fiber and pull it though slots narrow enough to accept the cotton but block out the chubby seeds.
In Pratt’s big gin factory, three stories of interconnected leather belts and pulleys, connected to the water wheel outside, drove the lathes and fabricating equipment to make every piece of a gin save for its high-tensile steel saw blades.
This was not a Henry Ford-style assembly process where pieces are added as the gin moves down a single line, John Boutwell told me. “People made separate components in different parts of the building and in other buildings,” he said. “They were all brought together for final assembly.”
John told me that the old buildings need stabilizing, and soon. In the two current photos on this page, you can see some missing windows, and John says the roofs have holes as well. And the Historical Association would love to receive what’s left of the equipment and ledgers inside for an expanded museum.
What better place for it than in the old gin factory itself?
Ted's Wild Words
These are a few words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word that you'd like me to explain, just ask!
Lark. This is a songbird, of course, but the word also refers to some spur-of-the-moment activity done just for fun.
Scavengers. In addition to referring to animals that feed off carrion, this word applies to humans who collect items that others have discarded.
Supplant. To supersede or take the place of something. You can be pretty sure, for instance, that a new superstar will come along and supplant a former sports hero.