Copyright © Janice Tracy, Mississippi Memories

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Horse Gins of Attala County in the 1800s

Left: A cotton press operated by horsepower, from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, p. 61,
Published October 7, 1871

While reading through reference materials that document the early development of Attala County, I have often seen the mention of a "horse gin." As a Mississippi native, I certainly know about the "cotton gin," but I found the term "horse gin" intriguing, mainly because I did not know what it really meant. I assumed it was a type of machine that was operated by one horse, or more, but I didn't know how it was used or why it was needed. As I searched for information about the horse gin's operation, and its purpose, I found some interesting facts.

In early Britain, horse gins were used for extracting coal from below the ground's surface, and the devices were referred to as "whims." In Attala County, Mississippi, they were used to "gin" cotton. The horse gin itself was a device that "harnessed" the energy created from the "horsepower" generated by mules or horses that walked in a circle. With the aid of a horse, a man could harvest fifty times more cotton than before.

According to a "Brief History for Towns and Communities of Attala County," prepared by the Attala Historical Society, a number of horse gins were operating in the county before and after the Civil War. Used for cleaning the cotton fibers from the seeds and seedpods, the early gin was a potentially dangerous device, and its accidents involved more than an occasional one with a mule or a horse. Although the gin operation itself greatly impacted the South's cotton production, it was the leading cause of accidents involving the operation of machinery in the 1800s. Ginning in those days was a manual operation, a process that involved hand-feeding of the cotton onto a spiked machine roller. Often, the operation resulted in mangled fingers, a hand, or even an arm.

According to a manuscript entitled "The Manufacture of Cotton Gins, A Southern Industry, 1793-1860," by Dr. M.C. McMillan (deceased) Auburn University Auburn, Alabama, a factory owned by T. G. Atwood in Bluff Springs, Attala County, Mississippi, produced an average of 350 gins a day in 1860. Since the blades on the saws in the gin were made of "heart pine," the South had a monopoly on gin-manufacturing operations simply because of the abundance of pine trees. In addition to the factory in Attala County, Mississippi had another factory, Beckett and Tindell, located near Aberdeen, which produced an average of 250 gins a year. The only other factory in Mississippi made only 52 gins in 1860. In Attala County, the operation of horse gins was eventually discontinued in the two decades after the Civil War, when many of them changed over to steam engines as a source of power.

As family researchers, most of us want to know details about our ancestors, where they lived, how they lived, and how they made their living. This is all part of developing the persona of a now-deceased relative, someone we can never really know. In Attala County, Mississippi in the 1800's, farming was the primary occupation of many residents; the crops that resulted, timber, cotton, and corn, required harvesting that involved machinery. And the occupation of some of these early Attala County residents was "gin operator."
Although the list below is not comprehensive, it does show the names of some of those who owned and operated horse gins in Attala County during the early to mid 1800's. The community or town where the operation was located is also shown.

Biggs, Johnnie - East Union

Brister, Cal and his brother Si - East Union

Cade, Jim - Rocky Point

Daniel, A. F. - Sand Hill

Fancher, Henry - Bear Creek

Hanna, George - Knox

Hughes, Ed - Pleasant Ridge

Jennings, F.H.D. - Conehoma

Ray, B. F. - East Macedonia

Ross, John - Conehoma

Short, John T. - Annis

Weeks, Jabez - White's

Wheeless, Amos - Tabernacle

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