- Associated Press - Sunday, January 10, 2021

PRATTVILLE, Ala. (AP) - A little bit of Prattville history has made it back home.

Auburn University has donated a cotton gin bought from Continental Eagle Co. in 1923. The machine was used by students and staff of the university’s school of agriculture to gin cotton grown at the agricultural experiment station at the university.

During its use at Auburn, the cotton gin - which means “cotton engine” - helped contribute to new varieties of cotton being developed. That meant sturdier and more productive cotton plants being grown which improved harvest totals.

“We are very appreciative of Auburn working with us to bring this cotton gin back to Prattville,” said Ann Boutwell, a local historian who is working to preserve documents and relics from Continental. “It’s a wonderful example of what kind of work was done here in Prattville. It really shows the influence of Daniel Pratt.”

Pratt founded the city that now bears his name in 1839. He built his industrial empire on the fall line of Autauga Creek. Soon there was a foundry, lumber yard and sash and door mill on the creek. But it was cotton gins that made the city famous. Continental has it’s roots in Pratt’s efforts. Pratt’s started making and selling cotton gins in Prattville at “the gin shop” the buildings that went on to become downtown’s iconic landmark.

Invented by Eli Whitney in 1793, the cotton gin mechanically separated cotton fiber from seeds. Before then, the process was done by hand and was labor intensive. The mechanization led to the rise of “King Cotton” in the Antebellum South. Pratt gins used circular disks, called “saws,” that spun under mesh screens to remove the lint from the bolls.

The Auburn gin used 40 saws, according to December 1923 issue of The Digest, a monthly publication of the Agricultural College at the then named Alabama Polytechnic Institute, Auburn.

“When Prof. Funchess presented the proposition to the officials of this Company he was told that a gin of the desired specifications was not in stock, but the Company gladly built one to meet the special needs,” the Digest article reads. “In speaking of it Prof. Funchess said, ’It was the finest spirit I had ever seen.”

The Prattville gin was situated on two floors of a large brick building on campus. Richard Guthrie, former dean of the agriculture school, oversaw the effort to disassemble to gin and crate it up when it ended its service 20 years ago.

“It was a sturdy piece of equipment, it had to be,” he said. “Cotton was fed through a chute on the upper floor to be ginned and the cotton then came out on the lower floor.”

The Prattville gin was replaced by a modern gin in 2000. The old gin was never far from Guthrie’s thoughts, even after he retired. He was key in getting the machine back to Prattville, Boutwell said.

“It was safe in the crates, but you know sometimes things get lost,” he said. “Of course I knew about the company and I knew about Prattville. I met the Boutwells several years ago and learned even more about Daniel Pratt and what Prattville meant to the cotton industry.”

Continental ended its production in Prattville in 2011, sending the work overseas. The gin shop buildings have been silent since then. Now Envolve, a real estate development company, is forging ahead with plans to build loft apartments in the old gin shop buildings.

It marks nine year local effort to preserve the buildings.

In the meantime, the gin rests in crates in a building on the gin shop property. Plans are to reassemble the pieces. Hut Hall will work with Alan Swinhart and Walter Myers to handle the chore.

“We really don’t even know what we have until we take it out of the crates,” Hall said. “We’ll get a better idea what we face then.”

Long range plans are to build a museum in Prattville, preferably downtown, Boutwell said. The museum will display items from Prattville’s early history, and the gin shop promises to hold center stage.

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