COTTONING TO THE PAST
The buildings and setting of the Burton National Register Historic District tells the story of the cotton economy from 1870 – 1940s. Burton owes much of its growth to the 1870 terminal stop of the Houston & Texas Central Railroad. The Railroad Depot Museum tells that story through exhibits and the restored building and hosts the 1st Saturday Farmers & Artisans Market. Mt. Zion Historic Chapel and Cemetery, also maintained by the Burton Heritage Society, preserves early settler history. Perhaps Burton’s most famous attraction is the 1914 Farmer’s Gin, the oldest cotton gin still operating in the United States. It was organized by local farmers, mostly of German descent, who wanted to bale cotton quickly at harvest time.
The gin incorporated Texas inventor Robert Munger’s integrated cotton-processing system, which took cotton from wagon to finished bale. Carpenters constructed the gin house around an air-suction system, belts and pulleys, and a large steam engine. In 1925, a 125-horsepower, Bessemer type IV crude-oil engine replaced the original steam engine. Nicknamed the “Lady B,” it could run the entire gin system, including hundreds of spinning blades, separating seeds from cotton and producing a finished bale in only 12 minutes. According to local lore, the engine’s vibration rattled dishes in nearby homes.
Eventually, cattle ranching and dairy farming overtook cotton as the mainstays of Burton’s economy; the gin closed in 1975, its records intact. But in 1987, citizens organized to restore the Lady B and the rusting gin house as a visitor attraction, with volunteer labor, donated materials, and guidance from the Smithsonian Institution. In 1992, the Burton Cotton Gin and Museum opened and the Lady B rattled back to life. The gin is a National Historic Engineering Landmark and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The visitor center and museum are open Tuesday through Saturday, and guided tours are offered twice a day. Visit during the annual April Cotton Gin Festival and you can see how cotton is baled.