I recently received some pictures via email from Diane Hall at the Times-Review with the subject, “What the heck is it?” Someone had brought the pictures to the newspaper office enquiring about what was in the pictures. He had taken the pictures to Layland Museum, and no one there knew what it was.
When I looked at the pictures my first thought was that it was an old, overhead water tank. However, it was totally different from any that I had seen before with the heavy steel bracing underneath. The only clue I had at the time was that it was near North Wilhite Street and May Avenue, which is near the west side of the old Santa Fe shops. Perhaps this was an old water tank the railroad had used for water for their old steam engines.
I went over to North Wilhite to locate this “thing” and maybe learn more about it. Turning off North Main onto McCoy Street by Sonic, I went straight over to North Wilhite. Stopping at North Wilhite, I spotted what I was looking for straight ahead.
Along the east side of Wilhite, from Heath Street three blocks north to May Avenue, there are no buildings; just open space. The subject of my search was about mid-way of this space over near the railroad property. At this sighting I knew what it was.
From the late 1800s up through the 1950s cotton was a major crop for Johnson County. When my family moved here in 1947 there were two gins in Cleburne, and most of the other towns in the county had a gin. From the last two weeks of August through October the gins ran 24 hours a day and could be heard from just about anywhere in town.
According to the 1952 Texas Almanac the average annual cotton production for Johnson County at that time was 22,072 bales, according to the 1956 Almanac the average production had fallen to 19,043 bales. By the time the 2000 Texas Almanac was published, cotton was not even listed as a crop for Johnson County.
From a copy of the Cleburne Daily Enterprise dated Sept. 10, 1912, I got the following information: “Cotton Receipts – Cleburne has received 1,424 bales of cotton at the two yards up to 12 o’clock today as follows: Farmers Union Yard — 571; Speils Yard — 853; for a total of 1,424 bales.”
This paper was published the second week of September, shortly after the farmers had started picking their cotton, so the total number of bales for the year would have been many times more.
After the buyers purchased the cotton at the gin, it was carried to the cotton compress/warehouse on North Wilhite Street. Cotton was brought here from all the gins in Johnson County. The warehouse went from Heath Street three blocks north to May Ave. North Border Street ended at the south wall of the warehouse.
The old compress warehouse was built in the late 1800s, as it is listed in the 1899 Cleburne Directory as “Cleburne Cotton Compress Co. at 602-18 Border St.”
This warehouse would hold several thousand bales of cotton. Once at the warehouse, the bales of cotton were put in another huge press to compress all the air from the cotton and further reduce the size of the bale. Thus the name: Cotton Compress Warehouse. From here the cotton was loaded on boxcars and shipped by rail to Galveston where it was loaded onto ships and sent to ports all over the world.
At the time the compress was built it was powered by steam and capable of applying several tons of pressure to a bale of cotton. By reducing the size of the bale by up to 50 percent, more cotton could be loaded in the hold of the ships and ship for the same price; as the shipping companies charged by volume, not weight.
The cotton warehouse at Galveston was about a mile long on the south side of the tracks going into town and on the north side of the main road into town.
I have stood in front of the Santa Fe Depot in Galveston in the 1950s and watched them moving the cotton from the warehouse to the docks to be loaded on ships. They would come by on a Ford Tractor pulling 12-15 flat bed trailers, each designed to follow exactly the tracks of the one ahead of it when going around corners and each trailer would carry two bales of cotton. They would keep several of these tractor trains, as I called them, busy transporting the cotton from the warehouse to the ships. Several million bales of cotton were shipped out of the port at Galveston over the years.
The old cotton warehouse here was torn down sometime in the early 1970s. However, the old cotton press was left. At that time a brick wall was erected around the property; however, the compress stood in the open and was plainly visible through a gate in the wall. The wall was torn down in later years and brush and trees have grown up around the compress, partially hiding it.
The compress consisted of a huge steel cylinder atop a tower. This cylinder contained a huge steam operated piston which operated a ram attached to a huge steel plate with grooves. This plate was positioned over another heavy steel plate with grooves setting in a large concrete pit below the tower.
A bale of cotton was placed on the bottom plate. The top plate was then brought down to apply pressure to the bale of cotton. When the proper compression was achieved, steel bands were run through the grooves in the plates and fastened to hold the bale of cotton. The cotton was now ready for shipment.
This is a great part of the history of Johnson County. I would like to see some person, or group, clear the brush and trees out from around the compress, do some needed repairs and have it available for public display, or maybe give tours. However, since this is on private property, it is ultimately up to the property owner as to what is to become of it.
John Watson is a Cleburne resident who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.