Cotton gins fell to industry change
Cotton gins fell to industry change
By Larry Dale
Daily Courier Staff Writer
Part 1 – July 7, 2009
ELLENBORO – This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Colfax Gin being owned by the McDaniel family.
Ed McDaniel said recently that his father, Van McDaniel, bought the gin in 1959, adding that it had been built in 1928.
In addition to operating the gin, Van McDaniel was a farmer.
“We had a gin at Hopewell (in 1947) before we did here,” Ed McDaniel explained. “I was around it quite a bit. We still have that gin. It’s just used for a little storage is all.”
The Colfax Gin is no longer an operating gin, although the facility sells lawn and garden supplies.
The gin, which got new state-of-the-art equipment in 1956, is a victim of the changing cotton industry.
The Colfax equipment gins what is called a flat-bale, Ed McDaniel said, but the industry standard is a universal density (UD) bale.
“It’s a smaller bale,” he said. “It’s more compact about shipping, I guess. They tried to get a universal bale, I guess all over the world. That started being the process 25 to 30 years ago. They started. But just in the last five to eight years it got almost impossible to sell the flat bale.
“That was partly because of the automated equipment in the mills where they have machines that will get a certain amount off of each bale. There’s different densities of cotton there. I guess the right blend is what they call it.”
The Web site Cotton USA reports that an estimated 99.9 percent of the U.S. cotton crop is in universal density bales.
Robert McDaniel, one of Ed’s brothers, said a flat bale was supposed to be 480 pounds, but it “varied right much, at least 430 and not over 550. Mills didn’t want them too big and they didn’t want them too small. Back in the days when they (growers) brought them in one at a time, it was really extremely hard to get them right on 480.”
That was especially true, he said, when the cotton was brought in one bale at a time with a mule and wagon.
The gin in Ellenboro was one of a number of gins that operated during the heyday of cotton in the county.
“We did custom ginning,” Ed McDaniel said. “I’ve heard in the ’30s there was like 30 something thousand acres of cotton in Rutherford County. There was also cotton up in the Gilkey area. There was some gins in Rutherfordton, one or two. The ice plant, that was a gin in Forest City.”
The McDaniel family still grows cotton. “We’ve got about 90 acres of cotton this year,” Ed McDaniel said. The cotton is grown just east of Ellenboro.
The McDaniel family has seen cotton farming change over the years.
One key change is in the size of cotton fields.
“There was a lot of cotton grown on small farms with mules, back in the ’20s and ’30s,” said Robert McDaniel. “They were picking cotton and corn by hand. Six to 10 acres in cotton, not much, 10 acres of corn, one to two acres of sweet potatoes and an acre garden, didn’t take much money.
“Cotton around here, most of it was changeover to tractors after World War II,” he continued. That change helped knock small farmers out of cotton growing; many couldn’t afford tractors, and so having a small acreage became impractical.
“There was a cotton allotment and people had a little allotment and farmed it with mules, five to 10 acres, and it wasn’t feasible to switch over to more expensive equipment for that much cotton,” Ed McDaniel said.
Another key change occurred when cotton stopped being picked by hand and began being mechanically picked. The price of a cotton picker put more cotton farmers out of business.
“Most of the cotton continued to be picked by hand through 1963,” Robert McDaniel said. “In 1963 you could get plenty of people to pick cotton, but in 1964 you could hardly get it picked at all. Several pickers, after they got done picking in Georgia, came up here and picked. There wasn’t any mechanical pickers around here except one or two.” Cotton is planted about the first of May, Ed McDaniel said, and the farmer has to do weed control all during the summer.
“Very seldom is much picked before Oct. 1 now,” he said. “When it was picked by hand you didn’t have to wait as long; I guess there wasn’t as much fertilizer under it. You picked what was open by hand.”
The Colfax Gin shipped some cotton seed by rail, Robert McDaniel said. He said he thinks it was in the 1930s, during the Great Depression years, so there was plenty of cheap labor and they loaded the seeds by hand.
“And they’d just pick up somebody when they got ready to load,” he added, “and some of the old records show they paid them 10 cents an hour. Sometimes they wouldn’t work but half an hour and they’d pay them five cents.”
The boll weevil was the bane of cotton, and it took a heavy toll at one time.
“The first boll weevil year was ’49,” said Ed McDaniel. “And in 1950 they just about destroyed the cotton crop. People started using some kind of insecticide. Actually, here, it never was all gone. But in other areas of the state it (cotton) has left and not come back.”
Science is always working to make farming more productive, and Roundup Ready crops is one method of fighting weeds.
“Cotton, along with some other crops has been genetically altered to where it is resistant to that chemical (in the herbicide Roundup),” Ed McDaniel said. It won’t kill cotton. There’s another cotton called Liberty Link, and another herbicide can be used on it to kill everything but the cotton. The problem with that is some weeds have got some resistance. Nature can always fight back.”
In addition to cotton, the McDaniels have corn and soybeans, and they recently were harvesting some wheat.
Farming is always dependent on weather, and Ed McDaniel recalled that the worst hailstorm that he remembers was in 1970 or
“It damaged quite a bit of our cotton,” he said. “It was about the worst hailstorm I’ve ever seen for several miles; it wasn’t very wide. It was just a little bit north of here.”
But sometimes everything works out right for farming. He noted that 1993 was a good year, when prices were high for their harvested crops.
Ed McDaniel said row crops are not coming back much, but he adds, “We’re getting some organic farmers. If anybody wants to do organic farming, if they can make some profit at it, I think it’s an opportunity to do that.”
Row crops, he said, have suffered because “it’s such an investment in machinery. There’s growers in Cleveland County that’s farming a thousand acres. But they’ve got a million dollars investment in equipment, I guess.”
Ed McDaniel said he is glad he went into farming and added that he really wouldn’t want to do anything else.
With brothers Sammy, Robert and Ed, and a sister, Mary, involved in farming and the gin site business, the Colfax Gin remains a family tradition.
Reprinted with permission from The Daily Courier. Copyright owned by The Daily Courier.