Tidbits of Shelby County History
When Cotton was King

This week’s article is about the history of cotton production in Shelby County in the 1890s. It was written by John Krueger and published in the Light & Champion with an unknown publication date.

Long before the production of chicken was the leading agricultural producer in Shelby County, cotton was definitely king.

The production of cotton in the county started before the mid-1800s, but it wasn’t until that time it really began to come into its own.

By the 1850s, an access of 15,000 bales of cotton per year were being sent down the Sabine River. There were several gins throughout the county. Center had two and each other town in the county had at least one each. There were gins throughout the county as the late 1800s approached. Each town in the county has one or more gins and there were some in communities such as Lout Town and Flat Fork as time went on.

In the late 1800s, the county’s population had risen above 14,000. There were 30 sawmills and over half of the 45,000 acres of cultivated acreage in Shelby County was planted in cotton.

In 1890 there were 10, 992 bales of cotton produced by the county. Other industries, such as cattle and hogs, were also produced to account for some 33,000 animals raised.

The first cotton gins in the county were steam powered. Some were later run by tractors and then were self-powered by gasoline engines. By the 1950s there were even some in the county run by diesel.

The County’s Famous Bale – There was a certain amount of pride taken for those in the county producing cotton.

In 1875, Joanna Hooker’s uncle, Hardy Hooker, offered Joanna half of the $500 prize money being given by the Marshall Fair if she could separate all the trash from the cotton before it was ginned.

Although Mr. Hooker offered to help, she declined, and the bale of cotton won the prize money. And, as promised, Ms Hooker received $250 of the prize money. And that bale of cotton was no ordinary bale. The cotton was sold to W.B. Heard of Marshall for 15 cents per pound. He, in turn, sent it to the Texas State Fair that year where it took the first premium of $250.

In 1876, it was at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, competing for the “Gold Medal”. Although there was no record found, it was assumed it won because that one account stated that the Liverpool, England, Cotton Exchange purchased it. The New York Cotton Exchange decided it the “world’s best” should be brought back to the United States and it was.

According to Tenaha resident Albert Burns, approximately 35,000 bales of cotton was produced in the county in the late 1920s.

But with all the flat land in West Texas, farmers began to move out of the East Texas area. The depression in 1929 didn’t help the situation either.

“When the depression hit in ’29, the cotton industry went to nothing,” Mr. Burns said.

“Out in West Texas there was a lot of flat land and they found that they could produce more out there. And the one-horse farmers couldn’t compete with the big farms out west. Out there they could get 16 mules hooked up at a time and it was easier to produce the cotton there. So the labor factor is what took it away in this area.”

Burns said there used to be gins all over Shelby County. “There were gins in Tenaha, Paxton, Flat Fork which is located halfway between Center and Tenaha.  One of the more modern cotton gins was owned by Mac Williams in Timpson.”

Mr. Burns said he remembers two or three in Timpson at one time. But after Mr. Williams closed his gin, the closest one was located in Henderson, which turned out to be the last gin in East Texas.

J. Spurgeon Bailey was a cotton ginner for over 40 years in Shelby County. He owned another larger gin in Logansport, LA, on the bank of the Sabine River for many years.

He closed his gins after World War II in the 1950’s when the farmers of the county no longer planted cotton. He had customers from Huxley, Dreka, Ashton, and other surrounding communities.

Spurgeon and his cousin, J.T. (Jim) Bailey brought Paul’s Store Cotton Gin in 1917 from Mr. A.E. Henry when J.S. Bailey was on y19. Later he bought Jim’s half and was sole owner of the gin. This gin operated until the 1950’s when there was no more production in the county. Then he was forced to close it. He was always praised for having “clean bales.”

The cotton seed house was beside the gin- if the farmer wanted to sell the seeds, they were blown into the seed house, but if he wanted to keep them, he would have them put back in the wagon, so he could use them to plant next year’s crop or sell them later for a higher price – or use them for feed for animals. (Note: my father’s baby brother was accidentally killed when a load of cotton was taken to the gin and the seeds were place back into the wagon. The baby had gotten sleepy and laid down in the back of the wagon. No one noticed him and the seed was placed on top of him. He was only three years old. Such a sad accident.)

Cotton was mainly hauled to the gin in a wagon drawn by two mules. He would drive onto wooden scales, while being sure the mules weren’t on it. An employee then vacuumed the cotton up into a tube that put it into two grain stands that separated the cotton from the seed.