When Cotton Was King
in Navarro County Texas


Cotton Industry Index


When Cotton Was King in Navarro County

By Mary Love Ferguson Sanders
Originally published in "The Navarro County Scroll", 1974
Reprinted with permission of the Navarro County Historical Society

Although traditionally the Democrats have held sway at the polls, King Cotton, emerging from millions of bolls, ruled for many years with a firm hand the economic destinies of the peoples of Navarro County.  In this paper I don't propose to present an exhaustive statistical study of the cotton industry in the county but rather to briefly recall to mind the mechanics of the cotton production, processing and marketing, chiefly through the reminiscences of a few friends: Louis Shwarts whose father, grandfather, and two sons have, with him, been in the business of buying and selling cotton for nearly a hundred years; of James E. Fortson, Sarah and Kate Holman, J. D. Poindexter and his sister, Mrs. Rufus Shell, of W. A. Lang, Robert Hamilton, Charles Barnaby and my husband Lynn Sanders, Jr.

First, a bit of background may be useful.   Before the coming of white settlers into what would later be Navarro County, natives grasses grew hip-high on the blackland prairies of north central Texas.   Later, as land was plowed and cultivated, it was thought that the prairies were only suitable for the growing of grain, corn and wheat in particular, and that cotton would grow only in the rich black bottomlands along the creeks and rivers which were eroded and replenished by yearly overflows and by the so-called five ten year floods which rolled down these waterways and covered the field for miles around.

Before the Civil War, slave labor had worked the cotton fields throughout the South.  It was thought in East Texas, for instance, that only Negroes could survive the intense summer heat in the cotton fields because of their previous acclimatization to the heat and humidity of West Africa.  After the war had removed this source of labor, wages were paid to freed slaves for field work, then, by 1870, share-cropping had become an accepted practice, with the landowner receiving one-half to two-thirds of the crop.  Small land owners, many of them newly arrived from the war-impoverished states in the Deep South, worked their own land and hired field hands as needed.  Later, farmers began to recognize the fact that the upland prairies were also well suited for growing cotton, and as cotton acreage increased it was found that the leasing of land on the 3rd and 4th was more conductive to successful farming than sharecropping.  In many cases a man who leased a farm worked harder and produced better cotton and corn crops than a man who merely rented his land for a lesser share of the profits.

The capriciousness of Texas weather, a large increase in cotton production, low prices and the boll weevil, were only a few of the problems which confronted the cotton farmer, large or small.

Also, lack of warehouse space more or less compelled the farmer to sell each year's crop at the end of the season rather than hold it and watch the baled cotton deteriorate through the winter months while waiting for a price increase.  In 1911, with cotton selling for 8 cents a pound, Governor O. B. Colquitt of Texas called a meeting in New Orleans, of the governors of other cotton producing states, in an effort to search for answers to some of these problems.  Among other things, this conference recommended the systematic reduction of cotton acreage in order to artificially regulate the supply of the product with the corollary that increased demand for a scarcer commodity would bring about an increase in prices.  This program was not successful since farmers generally disliked the idea of cooperative ventures for crop regulation.  A more useful result of this conference was legislation which called for an increase in the number of bonded warehouses, furnishing the farmer and cotton buyer some leverage in regard to the time they sold their cotton.  Another stop-gap solution was the 'buy-a-bale' movement whereby concerned citizens, not necessarily farmers, bought bales of cotton and held them through the winter in an effort to create a better marketing situation.

During World War I the price of cotton as a valuable commodity jumped up and continued to rise rapidly, holding through periods of minor fluctuation until around 1930 when the world-wide depression again pushed the price of cotton dangerously low levels.  The dreaded of '5 cent cotton' in Navarro County has always been the bugaboo which threatened both large and small landowners, and finally, in the early 1930's it became a fact.

New Deal efforts, reminiscent of Governor Colquitt's 1911 cotton conference, created the AAA (Agricultural Adjustment Act), where cotton was destroyed in the fields, a program which was met with derision by the traditionally conservative independent farmer who could not accept the government's predictions of 'prosperity through destruction."  The AAA was later declared unconstitutional.

A favorable market returned with the advent of World War II, but by this time the growing headaches of a diminished supply of economical labor, increased production costs in the form of expensive machinery, fertilizer and pesticides, transportation problems, the appearance of synthetic fibers as competition, plus additional governmental controls, harassed the hard-pressed cotton farmer, problems which have multiplied through the last 25 years.  Cotton sits on a shady throne but is supported by the fact that agricultural experimentation has provided greatly improved strains of seed where tall cotton stalks in the creek bottoms once were high enough to bury a Model T Ford up to the tops of its doors, now smaller, bushier, higher yield cotton is planted, the shorter stalk accommodating mechanical harvesting equipment.  Rather than combat the many complicated governmental controls, many farmers have found that it is easier and more profitable to turn their less productive fields back into grassland, and in Navarro County cattle now gaze where cotton once grew and where buffalo had roamed the prairies before the coming of the white farmers.

From field to factory cotton undergoes a series of complicated processes, natural, mechanical and commercial, before it emerges as a finished product.  These processes constitute important industries in themselves: cotton ginning, compressing, oil extraction from seed, and textiles, plus associated supportive and peripheral industries such as transportation, fertilizer and food manufacture, and machinery manufacture to name only a few.

"In the early days", according to James E. Fortson, "cotton used to be a year --round business.  A farmer would pass up a good price of prairie to to clear a patch of timber, figuring that if trees would grow there, cotton would also.  Therefore he cut cordwood and took it to the gin in the winter time, receiving ginning credit for the cord-wood, since ginning equipment ran on steam, powering by a wood-burning furnace".  By common practice a farmer has the option of selling his cotton seed after ginning, directly to the cotton seed oil mill and paying the ginner in a separate transaction, but the most usual way to pay for ginning has always been to sell the seed to the ginner, who then balances the established cost of ginning against current seed prices to determine whether the farmer owes the ginner money or vice versa.

Jim Fortson has many interesting and entertaining stories to tell connected with the cotton gin at Rice.  Back in 1894 his father, Joe B. Fortson, Sr. and his uncle, John Fortson, were farming and were in the custom hay bailing business when they decided to build a cotton gin.  They located some used ginning machinery in Dallas at the Murray Co. but they didn't have a power unit; finally, after much searching, they heard that Capt. Robert Hodge at Porter's Bluff had salvaged a steam engine and boilers from an old river steamboat, hauled out of the Trinity River by Capt. Robert Hodge, with a team of forty oxen, the sale was made and this power equipment was hauled by wagons and mule teams from Porter's Bluff to Rice and hooked up to the ginning machinery.  The Fortson brothers borrowed $200 from a bank in Kerens and their ginning business was underway, ginning every year since 1894, though later with improved equipment and power sources.

In the 1920's other gins in Navarro County, along with the Rice gin, converted to oil, semi-diesel or electricity.  Today the cotton gin, an extremely complicated piece of machinery, is by all accounts still a "beast" with it's own personality, often needing to be "babied along" by those who are best acquainted with its peccadilloes.  According to Jim Fortson, a gin will cease to function properly at the most inopportune time, due to malfunction of one of its most obscure parts for which a replacement is never easily obtainable.

In response to a question concerning the cost to the farmer of ginning his cotton, Mr. Fortson related an amusing anecdote dating back to the time when farmers hauled their cotton to the gins in large wagons pulled by teams of mules.  Rob Witherspoon owned and operated a gin at Chatfield and one day when a farmer brought in a load of cotton to be ginned there was considerable conversation and disagreement concerning the price of ginning, 5 cents a 100.  The farmer was somewhat quarrelsome and finally said he'd take his cotton to Rice gin where he thought he could get the job done for less money.  At Rice, however, after the seven mile haul from Chatfield,on a hot day, the price was quoted to him: "5 cents a 100", whereupon the disgruntled farmer said, "Well, if I've got to do my ginnin' with a rascal, I might as well go back to the old rascal": And with that, he turned his mules and wagon around and hauled his cotton all the way back to Chatfield.

It has been interesting to note that a complete folklore has gradually built up around gins and ginners and you will notice that these "yarns" also tell us a lot about the early times.  Another story from Rice concerns a nice old fellow who worked at the gin when it was a "two story"gin, so-called because the pulleys, drive shafts and hydraulic system were all at ground level or below, for ease of maintenance, leaving the floor seven or eight feet above with free space for handling the cotton.  This old fellow was minus a finger on one hand for the sake and comfort while working around machinery he cut off the finger of his glove which corresponded to the missing finger on his hand and made a neat little patch over the closing.  One day during the ginning season he sneezed unexpectedly and as he put his hand up to his face his upper false teeth flew out of his mouth through the gap left by the missing finger.  Naturally he was distressed: he looked everywhere for his teeth on the second story where he was working when the catastrophe occurred, but the teeth had evidently fallen through an opening to the lower level, between two large boxes which held loose cotton.  Everyone searched and he even offered a rewarded to the finder.   Although his coworkers assured him that he could by a new set dirt cheap from a Corsicana undertaker, he still hunted for his teeth long after the ginning season, finally coming to the sad conclusion, however, that the missing dentures had fallen into the well in the gin where lint and dust settled.  Naturally no one wanted to climb down into this deep, wet, unsavory spot, bet the old fellow finally talked a young Negro boy into climbing down and dredging around in the mud and lint with a long handled wire basket concocted just for this purpose.  Sure enough, six months after they were lost, the dentures were dredged up in the wire basket, as good as new, and the happy old fellow wiped them off and popped them back in his mouth, claiming he knew he'd been right to keep hunting.  Best set of false teeth a fellow ever had!

H. L. Scales who came to Corsicana in the early 1900's from South Texas had the distinction of owning what was at that time the largest cotton gin in the world, located on a switch end of the H. and T. C. Railroad on Collin Street between the Navarro Cotton Oil Mill and the main railroad line.  His assets, enhanced by ownership of a rich blackland farm in the Chambers Creek bottom and interest in a cotton oil mill in Corsicana allowed him to build a large home on the corner of 14th Street and 4th Avenue, said to have been built partially with lumber brought from California.  In a few years, Mr. Scales sold him home to Joe Shwarts, uncle of Louis Shwarts, and went to New York City a wealthy man but ill advised investments wiped out his fortune made in cotton in Navarro County and he eventually took his own life.  His home was later sold to John Thompson, then to Joe B. Fortson, Sr. and is now owned by Vernon Flanagan who is in the process of restoring this fine old home.

During the heyday of the cotton industry in Navarro County, 1915-1930, there were 55 or 60 gins in the county. Today only a few gins are still in operation in the county at Rice, Powell, Dawson, Kerens, Frost, Emhouse and Barry, and none in Corsicana.  While the cotton industry is still a potent factor in statewide business, its importance in Navarro County can be measured to some extent by comparison of acreage devoted to cotton production in 1925 with today's average production, as much as 300,000 acres under cultivation as compared to the 40,000 to 60,000 acres now in cotton, this latter fluctuation reflecting changing government programs and variable weather conditions.  Today, an annual crop of 32,000 bales is about average for Navarro County but during the "cotton boom" - 1915-1930 - there were years when 90,000 bales or better were ginned in a single year and farmers considered 75,000 bales to be a small crop.

This production was on the basis of about one bale to every four acres.  "In the early days", Louis Shwarts recalls, "it was no trouble at all to sell 1,000 bales of cotton on the streets of Corsicana on a Friday or Saturday during the cotton season".

Aaron Shwarts, grandfather of Louis Shwarts, began his career as a cotton man back in the 1880's, buying and selling cotton as well as hides for the prosperous leather market.  At this time farmers brought their baled cotton loaded o large wagons to the courthouse where spirited bidding and trading took place under the trees alongside the streets.  This open forum at the courthouse served as both auction block and cotton exchange.

Later on, with the increase in the number of acres of land put into cotton cultivation the number of cotton brokers rose accordingly, and open yards where cotton was bought and sold replaced the courthouse as a place to transact business.  Joe Clayton had an open yard where the Corsicana Warehouse Co. was later built and Mr. Moore had an open yard on 6th Avenue where a welding shop now stands.   Mr. Golleib also had an open yard on space later occupied by the Coca-Cola Bottling Co.

Later still, enclosed warehouses took the place of the open yards, but by this time the cotton industry had spread in many directions, encompassing processing and marketing activities far removed from the simple buying and selling which had taken place in the courthouse yard.

Before the days of green cards, in order to sell baled cotton which they had bought, local cotton merchants took their samples to the larger firms headquartered at the Dallas Cotton Exchange, a daily procedure each fall.   Nearly every day the 8:40 or the 10:40 Interurban came to a stop just beyond the intersection of Beaton and Collin Streets and waited while Louis Shwarts or Aaron Levine hurried back and forth from their office loaded down with large armfuls of cotton samples for their daily trip to Dallas.  Later, when and improved Highway 75 tended to make travel by Interurban obsolete, samples where piled ceiling high in the back seats and trunks of automobiles for the trip to Dallas.  Rapid changes in the market often made expedient sales the difference between profit and loss.

Although there were cotton buyers in the smaller county towns, Corsicana has always served as the hub for trading.  At one time in Corsicana alone there were at least 22 firms of cotton merchants.  Mr. Shwarts recalls most of these buyers among whom were, besides the Shwarts Cotton Co., the firms of A. L. Lotspeich, Friedman and Walton, B. Zadek, then later, around 1915 on there were T. J. Brazelton, Worth Johnston, Smith and Nolan, Lawrence Wood, Sterling Wood, Hoyt Brazelton, R. W. Miller, Fisk and Crews, R. D. Fleming, W. B. Evans, Will Walton, Henry Graves, Cullen Dunn, W. H. Dunn, George Miller, Ton Richardson, a Mr. Lemon, Charlie Woods, Frand Brock, Aubrey Tapps, Sam Rogers, Lee Caldwell, Joe Bledsoe, and Kit Carson among all of whom there was always brisk competition.

Sonny Poindexter, like so many men in this area, is a second generation cotton man, the son of Dee Poindexter who was for many years superintendent of the Corsicana Cotton Compress, another essential element of the cotton industry in Navarro County.  It was said of Dee Poindexter that he had a photographic memory and when given the identifying number of any bale of cotton which had been through the compress, was able to go directly to that bale among the thousands of bales awaiting shipment and locate it immediately.  Sonny Poindexter remembers his father saying that often there were as many as 100,000 bales of transient cotton standing on the triple level where at any one time.

Texans are accustomed to "biggest" and "best" records but the story of Corsicana compress is unique in many respects, particularly in the length of time many of the men worked together and the loyalty of the workers to Mr. Poindexter, as well as the huge number of bales of cotton handled in one season.  The press itself was originally built in 1913 by the Birmingham Machine and Foundry Co. of Birmingham, Ala. for Webb Compress Ltd. of Minden, La. and was brought to Corsicana in 1917 when the Ft. Worth firm of Neil P. Anderson and Co. built the first Corsicana compress.  In 1919 Bush Wofford bought the compress and brought Dee Poindexter from Waxahachie to run it, which he did from 1919 until his death in 1953.   Mose Carter of Corsicana remembers that he, too, came to work at the compress the same year that Mr. Poindexter did and continued there for nearly 35 years.

Other longtime employees are Frank Person and Big John Collins who died just a few years ago and who held the record at the compress for the number of bales of cotton which could be put through the press in one house: 120 to 140, a fantastic number.  His son, also named John Collins, is working at the compress today.

Trends and changes in transportation have affected the cotton business in Navarro County, early transport of cotton by rail being superceded to some extend in the 1930's by the use of large flat bed trucks, a result of improved highway systems and consequent lower shipping costs although during the years when the Corsicana Compress occupied part of the long block bordered by Collin Street and 6th Avenue four railroad switches served the compress and warehouse, the Ft. Worth and Denver, the Rock Island, the Southern Pacific and the Cotton Belt.  In the smaller communities in the county, cotton was loaded uncompressed, each bale maneuvered onto a heavy dolly and rolled into a waiting boxcar.  At Powell, Cotton Belt General Agent T. G. Towns always had plenty of "help" from the youngsters in the neighborhood of the depot who played on the high loading platform where cotton was lined up in rows waiting to be shipped.

Cotton oil mills played an important part in the prosperity of the cotton industry in Navarro County where at one time there were six oil mills in operation, one at Blooming Grove, Frost, Dawson and Kerens, and two in Corsicana, the Navarro Cotton Oil Mill and the Southern Cotton Oil Mill.  The Navarro Mill, at 5th Avenue and 7th Street, was built in 1900 as a community project by R. L. Hamilton who had worked at an oil mill in Ennis before coming to Corsicana, by Capt. C. H. Allyn, Capt. James Garitty, the Montforts and several other investors.  W. A. Lang and Robert Hamilton of Corsicana remember that during the busy season workmen operated the huge press and other machinery on twelve hour shifts with $1.75 per shift as base pay.  The huge engine which powered the press, estimated to have been about 14 ft. tall and 25 ft. long, was named "Buena," Mrs. Hamilton's given name, the name painted in large letters on the side of the engine.  In the "meal room," the rich sticky cottonseed meal was moved about by teams of Negroes who came out after each shift yellow from head to toes, completely covered with meal.  "Rip" Lang says that "working at the mill had some rather unusual advantages;" as a young man he remembers that when farmers brought loads of sweet potatoes to be weighed on the scales at the mill, the Negro hands always got a few potatoes, roasted them in the large boiler, then got a tin can and dipped up some of the hot cottonseed oil to pour over the freshly baked potatoes.   Another delicious snack consisted of crackers crumbled up into a can of hot oil.   New workers who came to the mill at the start of a season looking thin or undernourished were soon fat and healthy.

Back in the early 1900's Circus Day was the biggest day of the year in Navarro County and Corsicana, since it usually came in the fall it was a common practice for a farmer to fill a wagon with cotton seed, pile his kids on top, pack a lunch and come to town to spend the day; his first stop was the oil mill where he sold his cotton seed in order to finance the family's day at the circus and his second stop was a wagon yard where he left his empty wagon while his family enjoyed a day at the circus.

W. L. Holman came to Corsicana from Celeste, Texas in 1908 as manager of the Southland Cotton Oil Mill which until recently covered a large block of ground on the Cotton Belt Railroad at 7th Avenue and 7th Street.  The Holman children, like those of many other Navarro County families, grew up in an aura of cotton-related activities.  Sarah Holman recalls that on the occasion of an important cotton conference her mother, at Mr. Holman's suggestion, concocted a recipe for a delicious cake made of cottonseed meal with only a very small portion of flour, for Mr. Holman to take to the conference to show what could be done with cottonseed meal beyond its common usage.  "The cake was very yellow and was as light as a feather," Kate Holman says, "and it had a marvelous flavor."

Circus Day was also associated with the Southland Mill in the mind of Kate Holman since the high loading platform was an excellent spot from which to watch  the unloading of the circus train, to picnic, then to see the parade pass by.  Another aspect of the cotton industry involved Kate and Dupree Holman and their playmate Margaret Henderson when they were young children.  Their neighbor Mrs. W. F. Love decided one summer that the children would benefit from the experience of earning some money so she promised to pay them for all the cotton they could pick in a small cotton patch nearby, owned by Mr. Love and located just beyond the city limits west of 31st Street where the Thompson and Westbrook homes were later built.  Although this project was of short duration due to the waning interest of the young cotton pickers, it was evidently a success since it still evokes vivid memories in the minds of the participants.

When Mr. Holman resigned in 1919, C. C. Roberts became mill manager, remaining in this position until 19__.  Among other long time employees were "Cap" Allen and Roy Bristow.

The old Navarro Mill was torn down many years ago and now that the Southland Oil Mill has recently been demolished this once lucrative industry no longer plays a part in the economy of the community.  Also missing is the smell of the freshly pressed oil and meal, one of Corsicana's four most distinctive odors.   An old friend who is a much respected Negro minister, the Rev. J. D. Henderson, once told this writer, "Nothing smells sweeter than the oil mill, the bakery and the coffee company, but when you smell the refinery, you know it's going to rain."

Another Corsicana landmark was the Corsicana Cotton Mill and its founding came about in a humorous and interesting way, according to Charles Barnaby who was associated with the mill for many years.  In 1896 when George T. Jester was running for the office of Lieutenant governor of Texas he frequently expounded in campaign speeches on the fact that every Texas town should encourage business development and should have some sort of local industry.  After delivering this favorite speech on the lawn of a North Texas courthouse one day, he was astonished and somewhat nonplussed when a farmer called out from the crowd, "Mr. Jester, what d'yawl have down there in Corsicaner?"  Corsicana was singularly without industry at that time so Mr. Jester quickly came home and got a group of local men together - J. M. Dyers, Allyn Lang, Capt. Garitty and some others in order to organize a local industry, and since Navarro County was fine cotton country they decided that a small textile Mill would be just the thing.  Later, in 1913, Ed Sheehey and M. E. Woodrow moved to Corsicana from Sherman, bought the mill and incorporated it, operating it successfully for many years.  At the time of Mr. Woodrow's death in the early 1930's, J. N. Edens was made president and general of the mill.

Two grades of cloth were manufactured here, heavy Duck and Osnaburg, a lighter weight fabric, and a New York commission house handled all of the output of the mill which went into the manufacture of such varied items as tires, bean sacks and beef shrouds used in packing plants.  During World War II when the mill was on three shifts a day, seven days a week, all fabric went to fulfill military contracts for which service the mill earned the prized Army-Navy E. Award.

Lt. Gov. Jester's campaign speeches resulted resulted in added prosperity for Navarro County since a large amount of cotton used at the mill-high grade cotton - came from the county: only the lower grade cotton used there was bought in West Texas and Oklahoma.

Today, manufactured cotton goods which were once a staple, indispensable for comfort and utility, are extremely scarce.  When it can be found at all, a man's a 100% cotton shirt is more expensive than silk and the gay printed cottons once seen in flour sacks, women's "house dresses" etc. and which later appeared as bright pieces for hand-made quilts, are non existent.  "No one's making it; it's too expensive," the sales person says when you ask for pure cotton fabric, and what was once the miracle fiber of the South, and of the rest of the world, too, is now a luxury item.  Dresses made of Italian cotton may sell for several hundred dollars.  Today's miracle fiber is synthetic, not vegetable or animal but essentially mineral, chemically contrived from by-products of petroleum or coal.

Navarro County had a "cotton boom" as well as an "oil boom" and both industries have suffered somewhat similar retrogressions though for different reasons. Cotton still contributes to the prosperity of this county, however, and the price of cotton has lately been at an all-time high.   But who can foresee the future?  Certainly no one in the 1920's could have envisioned a time when 100% cotton cloth would not be available at any corner dry goods store.  Perhaps someday there will be demand for increased cotton acreage for the production of fiber as replacement for the synthetic fibers which have almost made cotton obsolete.  It would indeed be strange if as a result of the "energy crisis" there was a return to plentiful manufactured goods made from the natural fibers of Old King Cotton himself.


Navarro County TXGenWeb
Copyright March, 2009
Edward L. Williams & Barbara Knox