Dan Taylor proudly preserves cotton gin history

Dan Taylor began his professional life as a teacher and taught vocational agriculture for 11 years with a master's degree from Texas Tech University. After more than 40-something years, he's never strayed far from that initial calling, though he considers himself officially a cotton ginner and farmer.

He's still a historian and educator, however, and he'll demonstrate as he shows a visitor around his Ropesville, Texas, cotton gin. Taylor and his wife Linda host a number of tours through Buster's Gin (named after original owner and former partner Buster McNabb) each year, including a day for the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce's leadership group. He also welcomes a college-age tour group and one for area high school students.

Textile companies and others involved in the cotton industry also count on Taylor to show visitors — including foreign dignitaries — through his contemporary cotton gin. He uses a modern education center, in a room overlooking the gin floor, as the base for educational sessions. He shows visitors videotapes of the ginning process and displays cotton samples representing fibers right out of a module through the final, clean product ready for the mill. He explains the technology of his modern, computerized cotton gin.

But it's the memorabilia, prints and original illustrations on the conference room walls and the small museum in the back that tell how devoted Taylor is to preserving the history of his cotton gin (more than 50 years old) and the rich traditions of the ginning industry that stretch all the way back to Eli Whitney.

“I started collecting gin memorabilia back in the early 1990s,” Taylor says. “I was getting older and began to realize that the history of the ginning industry was getting away from us. I'm trying to preserve it.”

He says the cotton industry has been well documented. But he's not as confident about the ginning process.

He saved the machine that processed the first cotton that came through Buster's gin in 1947. It occupies a place of honor adjacent to the modern equipment that processed more than 100,000 bales of cotton last year and will beat that mark with the 2005 crop. He keeps several other, older machines on the gin floor as well. He points to a Pratt Martindale machine. “This was water powered from the San Marcos River and dates back to 1908.”

He keeps more good stuff back in his museum. A large, handmade press takes up a corner. “It's a primitive press from Paraguay, made of teak wood.”

He says a small, hand-cranked gin stand was made by Continental Eagle in the United States sometime in the 1800s but collected from Paraguay. He has two machines from a gin in Lukenbach. He's renovated them, refinished the wood and will keep one and send the other back.

He has picker sacks, the 100,000th bale he ginned last year, and another bale that represented Buster's Gin at the 2000 Presidential Inauguration.

He has a woven basket he says women used instead of sacks to pick cotton.

“I've kept a lot of old records,” Taylor says as he slides back a glass door of a display case and pulls out the invoice for the first engine installed in Buster's gin. It cost $7,278.97 in 1947.

Old grade cards show how much cotton quality has improved in the last 50 years. Most grades were msp and 7/8-inch. “That would not earn a good loan value in today's market,” Taylor says.

He pulls out a ledger with customer records, also dating back to 1947. “Some of the early customers are still around,” he says.

He has copies of Texas Ginners' Association directories dating back into the 1970s. “In 1986, we had 29 gins in Hockley County. We now have seven and are ginning more cotton.”

He keeps books on Eli Whitney in that same display case.

Taylor also collects metal bale tags. “They used to be called fire tags,” he says, “and every bale of cotton had to have one. I started collecting them after they quit using them back in the early 1980s and I still find some in abandoned gins.”

He sometimes swaps with other ginner/collectors if he has duplicates. “A lot of my customers help me find stuff,” he says. “Some folks go out of their way to help me collect. Wally Darniel, for instance, found the antique bale press in Paraguay.”

Taylor says he has stuff in boxes he has not had time to catalog and display. “I wish I had started sooner. I've probably thrown away things I should have kept.”

Taylor is equally proud of the artwork that hangs in his gin office and in the conference room. An old print depicting handpicking cotton is from an original painting by Winslow Homer. He has a series of Jack DeLoney prints. Along one conference room wall hang illustrations from Harper's Weekly.

“These are not reprints but the original illustrations,” Taylor says. The pictures show all aspects of plantation cotton production.

He's still looking for collectibles. “I'd like to get some Lummus equipment,” he says. He also wonders about Eli Whitney's first cotton gin, which dates back to 1793. “I don't think it still exists,” he says, “but I wonder.”

Taylor has been ginning cotton since the mid-1970s and says efficiency has improved by six or seven times.

“I've seen progress in the cotton industry from hand-pulled to 8-row strippers,” he says. “With two of those machines we can harvest as much cotton in a day as 400 people could by hand.”

He says gins are safer. “I'm proud of that. We are safety conscious and spend a lot of time in our conference room with safety videos and instruction.

“I've witnessed a change in gins that would put out four or five bales an hour to 60 an hour in our gin. Some will do even more than that. And we're doing a better job with less labor.

“We also do a better job drying and cleaning cotton. We can't do anything to help staple.”

Taylor says his teacher training takes over when folk visit. “I'm always excited to explain the process,” he says. “I like for my customers to tour the gin and see how we handle their cotton. A lot say no one ever asked them to tour a gin before.”

Taylor says he enjoyed his brief stint as an agriculture teacher but doesn't regret the transition to ginner and farmer (He farms 4,000 acres of land with his son-in-law. Two daughters work at the gin. A son works in food science for HEB.).

“It's been a fine life,” he says. “There are no better people to work with than those in agriculture.”

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