Texas is not only the reigning king of cotton; it’s also home to the oldest working cotton gin in America: the Burton Farmers Gin.
King Burton and Lady B
Photos by Caleb Kerr
Few places hold as much significance in Texas history as Washington County.
It was there, at Washington-on-the-Brazos, that Lorenzo de Zavala and other Texian delegates assembled in 1836 to sign a declaration of independence from Mexico, and establish the Republic of Texas.
For any contemporary Texan enamored by the proud history of this once-republic, a visit to Washington-on-the-Brazos and Independence Hall is as essential a pilgrimage as a visit to the Alamo.
But Washington County is also home to a lesser known vestige of more recent Texas history: the Burton Farmers Gin.
Less than an hour from Washington-on-the-Brazos, and just a few football throws from Brenham, is the small town of Burton. Most people miss it, driving east to Houston or back west to Austin on Highway 290. The speed limit around those parts is now 75 for stretches, so Burton can be a blur out the window, if you’re not looking for it.
Take the time to exit the highway, however, and you’ll drive back into time.
You’ll find a small town, just a few blocks across in each direction with Texas-y street names like Cedar and Brazos and Live Oak. And on Main Street, you’ll find the main attraction: the Burton Farmers Gin, and its proud custodian, the Texas Cotton Gin Museum.
First opened 100 years ago this month, in August 1914, the Burton Farmers Gin is the oldest operating cotton gin in America. At one time, more than 4,000 system gins of its kind operated in Texas alone. Today, the Burton Farmers Gin is the only survivor, and its 125 horsepower Bessemer Type IV oil engine, affectionately known as “Lady B,” is itself likely the only one still working anywhere in the U.S.
These facts have helped earn the Burton Farmers Gin recognition by the Smithsonian Institution; designation as a Texas Historic Landmark and a National Historic Engineering Landmark; and of course, inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Burton Farmers Gin operated continuously from 1914 until 1974, when it ceased commercial use for good. After producing nearly 52,000 bales of cotton in 60 years, the gin lay neglected among the wildflowers and the weeds for over a decade.
Then, in 1986, a wayward tourist from Ohio named Doug Hutchinson spotted the gin, and snooped around inside. What he discovered was a facility largely in disrepair and disarray, yes, but still home to countless untouched artifacts of engineering, industry, and agriculture. Upstairs in the manager’s office, Doug found all the original records and receipts from the day the gin opened, still stored away, untouched and ready for preservation.
Hutchinson called the Smithsonian Institution, which confirmed he’d found something special. They also advised that if Lady B and the gin machinery could get running again, the Burton gin could claim the title of the oldest operating gin anywhere.
Thus began Operation Restoration, an effort that spanned four years and exhausted dozens of dedicated volunteers and experts. Once the restoration was complete, Lady B fired up like new, powering the original Lummus Cotton Gin Company gin stands, with their gold leafed logos; the corrugated tin facade was repainted to match its original bright silver; a new roof protected everything from overhead; and most important: raw cotton could enter at one end, and come out ginned and baled on the other.
Today, the Burton Farmers Gin is cared for by the proud Board of Directors and staff of the Texas Cotton Gin Museum, led by Museum Director Linda Russell and her team of volunteers, the Boll Weevils.
When you go to the Texas Cotton Gin Museum, call ahead to make sure Linda is there. With sincere enthusiasm, Linda will teach you everything you can possibly know about cotton production. She'll give you a tour of the gin itself, with insider anecdotes and expert knowledge about day to day life inside the gin. Back inside the excellent Museum (well curated by Mr. Jerry Moore), she’ll hand you cotton bolls and gin saws and drag out cotton sacks, and even gin some cotton in a replica of the original gin, invented by Eli Whitney.
Spend an hour with Linda, and you’ll be humbled with appreciation for the extraordinary physical demands that cotton production made on early American farmers and plantation slaves. This, in turn, will help you appreciate the extraordinary innovations and engineering feats achieved by facilities like the Burton Farmers Gin.
Today, as always, Texas leads the nation in cotton production, exporting more than $1.6 billion in cotton & cottonseed. The Burton Farmers Gin doesn’t influence those statistics, as it just produces a few commemorative bales of cotton each year. To see one of these rare, historic cotton bales made the old school way, consider attending the Burton Cotton Gin Festival in the spring. And in the meantime, consider donating to the Museum, to preserve this Texas treasure for another 100 years to come.
Happy Birthday, Burton Farmers Gin.