The last time the cotton gin inside the Cotton Museum of the South ginned cotton was 1957, and the end of era had arrived. Cotton harvesting machines were quickly replacing hand labor and new electric-powered cotton gins with lint cleaners, metal stands and dryers were pushing out the old diesel-powered gin plants.
At that time, the old gin was located in Mantua, Ala., and was owned and operated by the Eatman family. After closing, the old gin was nearly forgotten, until Irvin Eatman, wanting the save the antique for posterity, donated it to the museum at Green Frog, a restored rural village just outside of Bells, Tenn.
Betty (Eatman) Haynes, whose husband, Irvin Curtis Eatman, ran the gin and a general store in Mantua, recalled a thriving community, of which the gin — built in 1915 by her father-in-law, Frank Irvin Eatman — was the centerpiece.
“There were 20 some odd workers who lived on the place, and we had some tenant farmers as well. The gin was running when Curtis got back from the service, and he helped at the gin, putting off college, where he was a quarter away from graduating.
The village included a country store, saw mill and grist mill. “It was a self-contained community,” she said. “The steam engine ran the saw mill, the grist mill and the gin.”
While at opening ceremonies for the Cotton Museum of the South at Green Frog recently, she noted that the actual gin in Mantua was a little taller than the one reconstructed here. But it did bring back a flood of memories.
“The workers had to be paid at the end of every day,” she recalls, “or else they wouldn't come back. I kept the money. Curtis would weigh the sacks.”
Her son, Irvin, also has memories of the old gin, although he was only nine or 10 years old the last time it ran. “I didn't know much, and they didn't want me to get hurt. Obviously, the equipment was pretty dangerous. I remember playing in the cotton in the wagons on the way from the fields to the gins.”
Betty was also the postmaster at Mantua for 33 years, following her father-in-law, who held the position for 43 years. The post office was located inside the general store. The Eatmans have donated several items in the store for display at a general store under construction at Green Frog.
The four wooden Continental 80-30 gin stands at Green Frog together “ginned about a bale about every 30 minutes, according to Irvin. Today a single gin stand alone can run six bales in an hour.