Heritage, Volume 11, Number 1, Winter 1993 Page: 6
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Voices of the
An Oral History of the Burton Farmers Gin
Text and photographs by Dan K. Utley
Without exception, those who grew up in the
cotton culture have never forgotten the intensity
of the labor, the uncertainty of the market,
or the common struggle of the community.
he tomb of Sir Christopher
Wren in St. Paul's Cathedral, the London
landmark designed by the noted architect,
bears the inscription: Si monumentum requiris,
circumspice (If you would seek his
monument, look about). The same might
be said of King Cotton and its legacy in
Texas. The monuments of the cotton culture
and the evidence of its impact on Texas
history can be found in almost all areas of
the state. Board-and-batten sharecropper
cabins in East Texas, gin houses along the
Blackland Prairie, high-style commercial
structures on Galveston's Strand, brick burr
burners on the Llano Estacado, and cottonseed
oil mills in the Hill Country all reflect
the pervasiveness of the fiber as an early
determinant of the state's economy.
While the constructed reminders of the
cotton culture are easy to discern, especially
in areas where the crop is still a viable part
of the agricultural base, there is a part of the
legacy that is not quite as evident. The
voices of the cotton culture, the oral histories
of the men and women who powered
the industry and whose lives and dreams
ebbed and flowed with market value, remain
With the advent of a new social history,
however, there are positive indications that
future generations will inherit a more comprehensive
record of the past. Developments
in cultural resource management and the
historic preservation movement, along with
a burgeoning acceptance of oral history as an
integral part of any research design dealing
with recent topics, reinforce the concept
that history is the story of a people told
through the stories of the people.
These elements characterize a cotton culture
research project currently underway in
western Washington County. The initial
focal point of the work is the town of Burton,
a community of 311 located 13 miles west of
Brenham along U. S. Highway 290. In many
respects, Burton is typical of small commercial
cotton centers once scattered liberally
across the Texas landscape. Its architectural
heritage reflects the influence of a cotton
economy. Surviving examples include a
railroad depot, Victorian homes, schools,
warehouses, workers' housing, and commercial
buildings that once housed mercahtiles,
the purveyors of farm life necessities: straw
hats, barbed wire, pickers' sacks, kerosene,
plows, mule bits, and horse collars.
Rising above the other structures, near
the center of Burton's business district, is
another remnant of the cotton culture, a
multiple-storied, ironclad edifice known as
the Farmers Gin. Built in 1914, the
imposing structure appears, at first glance,
to reflect the architectural influences of
Rube Goldberg or the serendipity of
random selection; its conglomerate design
features an assortment of dormers,
gables, sheds, passages, piping, and windows.
Further inspection, however, especially
of the interior workings, reveals
that each detail of the facade originally
provided space or protection for machinery
added as the gin evolved in
modernity and service capacity. External
architecture followed internal function.
Like the proverbial pebble in a pond,
the Farmers Gin has been the center
from which concentric circles have radiated.
In the context of the cotton culture,
those circles have historically and
symbolically represented geographic
proximity, as well as influences on the
surrounding culture, society, technology,
and economics. The same might be
said of other gins and mills, but two
important factors make the Burton
Farmers Gin unique. First, its state of
preservation is without equal in Texas,
and maybe even the nation. Although
closed in the 1970s, it has remained
6 HERITAGE * WINTER 1993
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 11, Number 1, Winter 1993, periodical, Winter 1993; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45415/m1/6/: accessed August 23, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.