The Little Gin That Could

steph jarvis, my turnCan you say a building watches over a community? Well, I think it can and I know one that does.

These days in a part of Texas where most people don’t naturally think “cotton,” sits a building whose history was dependent on it. The 1914 Burton Farmers Gin is in little Burton, Texas, population 300. I am proud to say that its preservation is part of my job every day.

As museum director at the Texas Cotton Gin Museum, I help care for the gin along with one fellow staff member and some great volunteers. With the gin as our amazing tool, we share its history and connection with the larger story of cotton in our state and across the United States (and really the world). But I get ahead of myself as I often do. First let me backtrack and share some of its history.

From the late 1800s onward here in central Texas, cotton gins were in every little community. Often there were several gins in one place, as is the case for Burton. In 1913, there was enough cotton being grown that the two existing gins in town weren’t enough and a third was planned by a group of German farmers.

Aug. 3, 1914, Burton Farmers Gin opened for business and operated until the ginning season of 1974. So for 60 years, the gin was a central part of the community and outlasted all other gins in town. And in fact, thanks to a revival in 1986, it’s outlasted even more than that. It’s truly one of a kind in the United States.

Because of its unique situation of being in its original location, having its original ginning equipment, and being run by the largest engine of its age and type, it is now the oldest operating cotton gin in the country. The gin is run at least twice a year with the most activity being at our annual festival where 3 or 4 bales are ginned in the same way they were for 60 years. So after 104 years, this building is still doing what it was built to do. What an amazing feat!

And while the gin doesn’t operate commercially, I would venture to say it operates for a “higher” purpose. It offers both its body and soul on a daily basis for the purpose of history and to share the story of cotton and ginning for future generations.

Over the course of the year, we have about 6,000 total visitors come through the museum and grounds to experience this history.

Along with the preservation of the gin itself, I am always thinking about how we can best preserve the history and share it with our visitors. And as is true for so many museums these days, finding the best ways to do this can be quite challenging. So I take a walk through the gin and think. Really, what better source of inspiration is there than the gin itself with its hearty cypress beams and corrugated tin panels?

And as I walk through the gin, my mind wanders not only to all those who worked there but also to all the families and people who picked the cotton that was brought here. My grandma, Dorothy Landua Schulenberg, was one of them. She and her family were paid to pick the cotton grown by their neighbors and it was part of what she did to help her family.

One of the saddest things for me is that I never asked her many of the questions I would now, partly because I didn’t even know what to ask at the time. But each time I visit with folks and mention my grandma, I share what I do know — that she was a part of the cotton history of this area.

One of the things that helps me quiet that sadness is to remind myself of what I can do. Every day I try my best to keep this history alive, and by doing that I am honoring her memory and the memories of many others. And I feel blessed to have this chance.

— Steph Jarvis; Burton, Texas

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