The History of Cotton Strippers

Hughes patent

1. Figure 1: The Hughes patent: combs stripped cotton bolls back into the wagon in back of the stripping unit. [Author's collection]

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Clarendon College, Box 968, Clarendon, Texas 79226

Southern farmers have been as eager for a machine to harvest cotton as their northern counterparts were for implements to speed the production of wheat. Northern grain farmers were aided by the introduction of Moses and Samuel Pennock's grain drill in 1841 and Cyrus McCormick's reaper in 1831. These inventions came from Pennsylvania and Virginia respectively, both major grain states in that period.

No similar technological breakthrough enabled the South to expand the cotton frontier without large amounts of Negro slavery. Thus, in part the South's vehemence in defending that 'peculiar institution.' It is ironic that the South should have gained the cotton gin (1793) to process cotton fibers but was denied a simple machine to harvest cotton, the greatest bottleneck of all. If the South had had a cotton harvester would slavery gradually have disappeared; could the Civil War have been avoided?

Southerners did design and patent implements for planting and cultivating cotton. In the 1850's when the agricultural reform movement was sweeping North Carolina and cotton enjoyed its most prosperous decade, implement invention ran high. North Carolina farmers and inventors patented three cotton planters, one cotton-thinning plow, one cotton cleaning machine, seven plows, ten cultivators and numerous other implements related to other crops of the state.

In 1820, the desire to eliminate hand harvesting led a Louisiana planter to import a cargo of monkeys to train them to pick cotton. The experiment ended in failure when the monkeys fled into the woods.

The first patent granted for a cotton harvesting machine was Samuel S. Rembert and Jedidiah Prescott's, September 10, 1850 patent, number 7,631, subclass 48. The Memphis, Tennessee inventors described their machine as combining picking cylinders and disks on horizontal shafts. They anticipated future trends in cotton culture when they added, 'Our cotton picking machine may be multiplied and extended to such a width as to embrace several rows of cotton at once.'

Cotton farmers know the difference between a picker and a stripper but others may be confused. A picker does just that, it 'picks' the cotton from the boll by means of revolving spindles. And a picker usually is used more than once since cotton is a continuous fruiting plant during the growing season. A picker may make repeated trips through cotton as the bolls ripen.

Cotton strippers, equally old in patent history as pickers, are used as a once-over harvest machine. Found in areas where weather conditions prevent repeated harvests, strippers 'pull' the entire boll, ripe or not.

The devices contrived to harvest cotton can be divided into six distinct classes:

1. Picker type - includes machines designed to pick open bolls by means of spindles, fingers or prongs without material damage to foliage or unopen bolls.

2. Thresher type - includes designs which sever the stalk near the surface of the ground and take the entire stalk, together with the seed cotton, into the machine where the vegetative matter and the cotton are separated.

3.  Pneumatic type - removes the cotton from the bolls by suction or by blasts of air.

4. Electrical type - designs which use static electricity present in cotton by attaching the bolls to an electrically charged belt or finger to remove the cotton from the plant.

5.  Chemical type - use solvents to loosen the ripened boll from the plant.

6. Stripper type - includes those machines which employ such devices as belted fingers, interlocking lugs, fingers or combs, steel rolls or brushes to remove burr and all from the plant.

The stripper got its first widespread trial on the high, windy Northwest Texas plains as early as 1914 when a farmer nailed fence pickets on the front of a narrow sled. The idea was novel and seemed to produce fair results. However, that farmer could not find a gin that would accept his trash-laden cotton until he ran it through his threshing machine to remove the worst of the trash and break open the bolls not yet opened.

The term 'cotton sled' evolved from a misnomer since the first strippers were mounted on sled runners. The idea of stripping cotton in such fashion might have seemed unique in 1914, except that John Hughes of New Berne, North Carolina received a patent (Figure 1) March 28, 1871, for a stripper that. . . 'strips from the plants the unopen as well as the open bolls or cups, and loose cotton, which can afterward be separated by another machine for that purpose.'

A stripper design patented by Z. B. Sims, Bonham, Texas, 1872, bears striking resemblance to those first sleds used on the High Plains. It was a finger-type stripper. Sims' patent included a rake to be used by a man to rake the bolls back from the fingers into a bag suspended from hooks (Figure 2). The patented design invented by W. H. Pedrick, Richmond, Indiana, January 27, 1874 (Figure 3) was the prototype of the design commercialized by Deere and Company in the late 1920's (Figure 4). It used two revolving rolls made of steel and studded with pins to strip the bolls from the plant without damage to unopen bolls.

Not one of these aforementioned patents succeeded commercially. They failed to perform to the expectations of those who operated them and as a result, hand labor continued to be the main harvest method in all regions of the Cotton Belt until a combination of events, without parallel occurred which favored mechanical harvesting. One of the leading factors which doomed these early attempts to mechanize the cotton harvest was the cotton plant itself.

The cotton varieties grown before the intense effort to develop a harvester were often tall, with rank growth which tangled the bolls within a mass of heavy limbs when passing through the machine. Differences in fruiting characteristics required repeated pickings as bolls did not open at a uniform rate. It is doubltess true that some feasible harvesters failed because of the lack of a suitable cotton variety for machine harvesting.

Later designers were likewise hindered by the lack of flexible power. Pending the successful introduction of a row crop tractor, horses and mules were used. In this regard Northwest Texas farmers were receptive to mechanization. The favorable response given large-scale implements such as tractor-mounted listers, planters and cultivators encouraged commercial manufacturers of cotton harvesting equipment.

At the time commercial models were introduced in the early 1920's two types of homemade strippers being used were the so-called slot and finger strippers. The slot stripper used a single recessed slot which ran the length of the sled from front to rear. Two 2x4's, approximately two inches apart, one on each side of the throat were fastened to the floor just back from the throat. Running from floor level at the throat of the slot to the top of the sled's box at the rear, the inclined boards progressively stripped cotton as the sled passed down the row (Figure 5).

The finger stripper used wooden or iron fingers, with wide variations in dimensions to comb the cotton bolls from the row. A man often stood in the sled box and raked the bolls back from the fingers. Eight or more fingers were bolted or welded to a strap. The fingers were usually hinged so they could be raised and lowered to conform to the field's topography. Long fingers were found superior to shorter lengths as they allowed plants to remain in a normal position during stripping (Figure 6).

Sleds answered a critical need in the 1926 harvest by lowering costs, even though they were inefficient in handling the largest crop ever produced in Northwest Texas to that time. Construction costs ranged from $9.00 to $27.00. It was estimated a sled (finger or slot) could harvest four or five acres per day at a cost of $2.75 per bale.

The harvest of 1926 was unusual in several ways. First, weather conditions postponed harvest until fiber quality began to deteriorate. Second, the bulk of the transient labor did not arrive until late in the harvest due to considerable amounts of cotton to be picked in older cotton growing regions in the state. By the time farmers turned to sleds, virtually all the cotton bolls were open and almost none had been harvested. Farmers were forced to use this implement out of necessity. Ginners were prejudiced against sledded cotton because of the poorer samples and higher ginning costs. Texas High Plains ginners regularly charged a prevailing penalty of $10.00 per bale on sledded cotton. Still the abundance of the 1926 crop combined with the scarcity of labor decreased the hardship of this extra cost.

John Deere developed a one-row, two mule cotton stripper equipped with two pin-studded rolls, (Figure 7).

In lineage the various prototypes of this machine were direct descendents of W. H. Pedrick's 1874 cotton stripper. The experimental models performed so well that Deere manufactured 500 more from 1930-31. That company also developed a two-row, tractor-mounted stripper using a single pin-studded roll in the late 1920's, (Figures 8, 9 and 10).

Deere was jointed in stripper development by International Harvester Company who produced a model which used the frame of their corn binder. The International model used interlocking lubs, a principle later abandoned. Johnson Manufacturing Company, Lub-bock, Texas manufactured a two-row, tractor-mounted, finger stripper during the early 1930's. There were few strippers used during the Great Depression when hand labor was plentiful and cheap.

As cotton sledding became more common in Northwest Texas university agricultural engineers and agronomists turned to the dual problems of developing both an improved stripper and cotton varieties that could be successfully machine harvested. Texas A&M College, College Station, began research work with a project approved March 6, 1929. A man who later began a long-term involvement with stripper development, Harris P. Smith, assumed leadership of the project in May, 1930. Smith, the son of a farming family from Mississippi, gained the nickname 'Horse Power' Smith during his years in agricultural engineering. There is hardly a phase of cotton production and agricultural engineering that has not received his attention during his service at Texas A&M.

The Texas Station Cotton Harvester is the result of Smith's and many others continuing effort to mechanize the cotton crop. Beginning with tests on sleds and modifications of Deere's horse-drawn strippers research continued from the late 1920's until 1943 when results gathered in experimentation culminated with a commercially marketed tractor stripper. The Texas Station Cotton Harvester had more influence on stripper development in the 1930's and 40's than any other single machine. Through the years of its continuous evolution, testing such factors as effect of roll materials, roll angles, roll sizes and ways of eliminating green bolls and screening trash, Texas A&M engineers discovered a series of basic principles useful in later commercial applications.

Coincidental to construction of test model strippers, Texas A&M College also proceeded to remake the cotton plant itself. At College Station and at Lubbock plant scientists were making selections of individual plants exhibiting characteristics desirable for machine harvesting. Work at Lubbock was directed toward breeding early maturing cotton since this area had the most severe climate, shortest growing season and least rainfall of all the Cotton Belt. A variety named Ducona (cross of Durango and Wacona cotton) was developed in the 1920's and the pioneering traits of Ducona were later reproduced in such varieties as Mebane 95 and 96, Cut Leaf and Clark, Cut Leaf and Acala, and Macha. Mr. H. A. Macha, a cotton farmer near Tahoka, Texas, found this cotton growing in 1930 in a field of Half and Half. Its superior conformation led Macha to hand select plants for several years. About 1936, D. L. Jones of the Lubbock Station made similar selections and named the variety for Mr. Macha. These later varieties were in many cases more outstanding in stripper qualities than the original Ducona.

To eliminate the excess bur and trash associated with machine stripped cotton Texas Station engineers turned their attention to perfecting a bur extractor and cleaner attachment for the Texas Station Cotton Harvester. A method of eliminating transportation of needless bulk and the desirability of returning this trash, known to be as high as 42 per cent potash, to the soil, stimulated farmer and gin owner interest alike. When developed, these tractor-mounted attachments to the stripper produced Ducona cotton samples that classed two grades higher than Ducona extracted and cleaned with commercial equipment found in gins (1934). Could mechanization of the cotton harvest be far from reality?

Farmer interest in mechanical harvesting was no doubt whetted by progress reports issued by institutional agencies and the advertisements of implement companies such as Deere and others. Deere was so encouraged with their own models of horse-drawn models in the early 1930's that they attempted to manufacture a large number for the expected growing demand.

The nation-wide, world-wide economic decline of the thirties ended all the bright promise of mechanizing the cotton harvest. The Great Depression dried up virtually all demand for a mechanical stripper. In the eastern end of the Cotton Belt John and Mac Rust's struggle to perfect a spindle cotton picker was met with angry frustration as people came to believe the machine would displace thousands from badly needed jobs. Deere offered their stripper for $185 on contract, $25 on delivery and $5 per bale harvested. Still some John Deere dealers had such models on hand as late as 1941, at prices as low as $15. Cotton prices as low as six cents a pound and cash extremely scarce precluded expensive machinery purchases and farmers found themselves hard-pressed just to replace present machinery needs. Similarly with handsnapping costs as low as 30 cents per hundred pounds, hand labor was made economical again.

It was war and the emergency demands for food and fiber that brought the stripper out from eclipse. In 1943, the research incorporated in the Texas Station Cotton Harvester was embodied in a stripper manufactured by the C. E. Morris Company, Dallas, Texas. Over 35 of these two-row, tractor-mounted strippers were sold to farmers in the High Plains region of Northwest Texas. The stripper sold for $1,140; unfortunately the company went out of business. Manufacture was later resumed by C. T. Boone at Lubbock.

Deere sold few strippers from 1932 to 1943 but was able to capitalize on its previous development work and was soon producing hundreds for an expanding market. During the two year period from 1946 to 1948, Deere manufactured approximately 4,000 strippers, (Figures 11 and 12)

Strippers continued to grow in popularity as hand labor became more expensive and less available. Gins in areas where stripper use was widespread, installed special cleaning and extracting equipment and penalties for stripped cotton became a thing of the past.

Oklahoma Experiment Station, Stillwater, developed stripper rolls made of nylon bristles to form a brush type stripping unit. Many considered this 1949 innovation new, but alas it was merely the revival of the long forgotten inspiration of Benjamin Savage, Scotland Neck, North Carolina. His patent, number 300,739, June 17, 1884, stated the brushes could be made from wire, hair, steel or whalebone, 'or a combination of all three.' He also claimed the machine could be adapted for harvesting cotton, peas, beans and other crops. A Lubbock inventor, Floyd R. Friend, also secured a patent for a stripper equipped with two brush rolls, October 15, 1929. Brush rolls of nylon were found superior to steel rolls in tests; the brush rolls were virtually free of choking problems associated with steel rolls.

Strangely, the brush type stripper did not sell well initially. Ford Motor Company manufactured approximately 1,200 units in 1953. Designed to mount on Ford's small row crop tractor, farmer acceptance was poor and Ford dropped the stripper. Brush rolls were later incorporated in stripper models manufactured by Hesston Corporation, Hesston, Kansas with success. They have subsequently been added to every major cotton machinery producers line of strippers as farmers have come to appreciate their advantages.

Beginning in 1954, researchers at the Lubbock Experiment Station drill-planted cotton in narrow seven to ten inch rows under irrigation to test yield response. The short, high fruiting plants obtained with this method were ideal for machine stripping, except no machine then existed to handle such narrow rows. Weed control remained a problem until 1962 when successful results were obtained with one application of a pre-emergence chemical. With effective weed control possible ultra-high plant populations -200,000 plants per acre and more -were tested.

An experimental finger-type stripper was designed and fabricated which efficiently harvested test plot broadcast and narrow row cotton. Large-scale cultivation of this type of cotton required radical modification of current harvesting machines. A self-propelled cotton picker chassis (tractor and basket with picking units removed) served as the base unit for this 1963 innovation. The finger principle of stripper harvesting was incorporated into the machine. Resembling the header platform of a combine, the new stripper utilized a pneumatic lint delivery system to the basket. In comparisons with other current harvesting machines, the hybrid harvester surprised many who doubted its feasibility.

Ellis engines I recently restored and own. The Ellis engines were built by Ellis Engine Company of Detroit, Michigan. The 1916 Detroit City Directory indicates a listing for the Ellis Engine Company. After the 1916 entry, it is not listed, so I must assume my engines were built in 1916 or before.

The Ellis engine on the left is a 3-6 H. P., serial number 770. The Ellis engine in the center is a very rare and interesting 12 H.P., two cylinder opposed, serial number A101. The Ellis engine on the right is a 1-3 H.P., serial number 1169. These represent the basic line of the Ellis engines.

It was not until the harvest year of 1970 that the experimental head developed by Elmer Hudspeth Jr. and others at the Lubbock Station was introduced commercially. Allis-Chalmers modified the original prototype to fit their 760-XTB self-propelled stripper, (Figure 13). John Deere has since introduced a model of their own for the Model 482 self-propelled stripper. Garland Steel Company, Phoenix, Arizona also markets a version of the broadcast and narrow row head which they install on converted cotton pickers.

Allis-Chalmers, a late starter in stripper development, correctly predicted future trends in cotton stripper development when they introduced the first self-propelled stripper in 1966. Two models, one with bur extractor and cleaner, and the other without were marketed as the 707 series. By 1969, farmer demand for field cleaning and extracting had grown so great that the model without bur extractor and cleaner was dropped.

From the first patent secured by Rembert and Prescott in 1850 on a cotton picker to the recent introduction of broadcast and narrow heads by Allis-Chalmers, men have sought improved techniques for a crop that stubbornly resisted change. It is curious to reflect that the cotton stripper designs which eventually proved commercially successful in the twentieth century had all been variously developed, patented and discarded in the nineteenth. As long as hand labor remained plentiful, adoption of harvest machinery was slow.