For those who cranked up the Bisland Cotton Gin for the first time on that fall morning in 1892, there was no boll weevil, local labor shortage, resistant pigweed or the comforts of air-conditioning, just a small community tightly bound by the urgency of harvest.
Cotton was 8.5 cents a pound in 1892. Grover Cleveland won the presidential election that fall. Nobody cared that he was reportedly a bit dull.
On a packed-down, dirt plaza surrounding the Bisland Gin, mules and horses would have pawed and snorted by the bale chute or in unloading lanes. Perhaps their owners were fidgety too, anxious to deliver cotton to the gin before the next storm.
During that harvest and ginning season 120 years ago, a tropical storm formed in the Gulf of Mexico in early September and moved north right through the heart of the Delta over the next five days.
Time was measured by the gin whistle or the cast of a shadow. There were few times for breaks. A biscuit with honey might carry you to lunch. Gin safety was knowing where to be or not to be at any given time. Needless to say, fleetness of foot was always a handy skill to have.
In the early years, the Bisland Gin ran on steam, but it switched over to a one cylinder, two-stroke diesel engine in the late 1920s. An hour produced three bales, each wrapped in jute and secured by metal bands and pairs of rough, gnarly hands, some perhaps missing a digit or two.
The townspeople of Cannonsburg, Miss., were grateful that the gin supplied jobs, and its generator, two hours of electricity each night.
But over time, competing gins got bigger, faster and more efficient, and Bisland’s once-cutting-edge technology couldn’t keep up.
In 1954, after 62 harvests, its wooden stands clacked to a stop. Cotton left the community of Cannonsburg, located just northeast of Natchez.
The story of the gin could have ended there, with the forces of Mother Nature mulching the wooden stands and building to the ground.
But thanks to the efforts of a handful of people who recognized the historical value of the old relic, the Bisland Gin was relocated, restored and in 1984, restarted. It was idle for a few more years, and was cranked up again in the late 2000s.
Today, it is reportedly the oldest, still-running gin in America, operated once a year at the Mississippi Agriculture & Forestry Museum Fall Festival in Jackson, Miss.
When the Bisland Gin runs, it’s like watching a piece of live history.
The heartbeat of the plant is the engine room. The gin is powered by the same single-cylinder, 55-horsepower oil engine which replaced the original steam engine. It was built in 1929 by the Continental Gin Co. of Birmingham Ala. This engine drives a flat 14-inch-wide, 50-foot-long belt that turns three gin stands which contain 70 saw blades each.
The gin stands were manufactured by the Gullett Gin Co., of Amite, La.
Water cooled engine
The massive engine is cooled by water, pumped from a water tank. After the water runs through the engine, it is pumped to a huge, vertical cooling tower outside the gin and drops back down into the water tank for reuse.
On a recent day, during the museum’s five-day fall festival, the engine is carefully cranked by volunteer mechanics Matt Temple and Chaston Bullock.
When the engine’s two big flywheels are spinning fast, they blast the whistle once to let the ginner, Fred Temple, who is Matt’s father, know they’re ready. The ginner responds with two blasts of his own. Cotton begins flowing through the plant.
On hand to help Fred Temple run the old gin during the festival are Bobby Skeen and Bob Stanley, Cotton Board regional communication managers for the Mid-South and Southwest, respectively.
“It’s truly fascinating and a must see for anyone who has a passion for both history and agriculture,” Skeen said of the gin.
In the old days, to get started, mules or horses pulled a cotton wagon under the suck pipe. A person was always holding the reins on animals to keep them from bolting and running away.
The Gullett fan delivers about 4,000 feet of air per minute to suck cotton into the gin.
Incoming seed cotton from the wagon or storage houses is separated from the airflow by a curved perforated scroll and a rubber sealed vacuum at the bottom of the separator.
The seed cotton drops onto a flat belt containing steel spikes which convey the seed cotton to the storage hopper above the feeders.
A gate at the top of the hopper controls the flow of cotton to the feeders. The saws that pull the lint from the seed are 12-inches in diameter.
The lint flows to the battery condenser and then into an 8-foot deep box, where it is compressed, wrapped and secured. It is weighed, then pushed down a chute to an empty wagon.
The gin will surprise no one with its speed, partly because it was built to gin hand-picked cotton, and the ginner has to reduce speed for the extra foreign material. But even at full throttle the gin ran slow. Even so, it had all the bells and whistles of the time when it was erected by Peter Bisland.
Of the cotton running through the gin at the fall festival in Jackson, three picker basket loads were donated by Thomas Hairston, a 16-year-old, third-generation cotton producer from Silver City, Miss.
He harvested the cotton with his John Deere, one-row cotton picker, (a Model 60 tractor with the picking unit mounted on top, which was built in 1958) that he restored himself.
Thomas, along with his grandfather, Peter, the first business manager at Midnight Gin, Midnight, Miss., Thomas’ father, Robert, a current board member at Midnight Gin and Midnight Gin Co., ginner Robert Royal were also on hand to watch the gin run.
After the doors closed on the gin in 1954, it was sold to Charles McMahon, who had hopes of turning the gin and the nearby small general store into a museum in Cannonsburg. However, the gin sat for another 28 years before McMahon decided to donate the gin to the Mississippi Agriculture & Forestry Museum, in Jackson.
The original 2,890 square-foot rough cut, heart pine building that housed the gin had deteriorated too badly to be restored. However the gin machinery was well preserved.
The gin was moved to its present location by Greenville, Miss., gin mechanics Bobby and Hilton Tarver and their father. The Tarvers then spent several months returning the gin to operational condition.
The move was completed in 1983, and the first bale of cotton was ginned at the new location on August 14, 1984.
In Jackson, the Bisland Gin sits in the middle of a small town created by the museum. It features a fully functioning grist mill, black-smith shop, replica of a frontier doctor’s office and period homes, functional country store, barns, stables and a church.
Once again, the Bisland Gin has found a home.