302 Scenic Brook Brenham, Texas 77833
The best preserved unrestored example of its kind,’ is what
antique engine collector Chris Kable Sr. of Spirit Lake, Iowa
called the 1925 Bessemer Model IV diesel engine at the Burton
Farmers Cotton Gin in Burton, Texas.
This has been determined to be the only gin in the country from
the nineteen teens and twenties period of ginning technology that
is still standing, intact and complete. Not only that, most of the
machinery still works. A local non-profit organization, Operation
Restoration, was formed by concerned local citizens to restore this
facility and eventually operate it as a hands on working museum,
actually ginning cotton. The motive power for this will come from
the gin’s pride and joy, the Bessemer.
The Smithsonian Institution, the National Trust for Historic
Preservation, Texas Historical Commission, state legislators and
the National Register of Historic Places are all involved in the
The Burton gin was originally powered by a Tips steam engine
from the time it was built in 1914 until 1925. After 11 successful
years, the Gin Association replaced this power-plant with the more
modern Bessemer. Though the three cylinder Tips engine was traded
in, the cost of the Bessemer plus rail shipping to Burton was
almost $10,000. The entire gin only cost $11,000 to build eleven
Arriving partially assembled on a railroad flatcar, this five
ton machine was physically manhandled onto the loading dock behind
the gin and dragged up the hill to its present location in the
then-new mechanical room. Some Burton residents still remember the
day the Bessemer arrived. Using jacks, prybars and muscles, gin
employees spent a day and a half dragging their new power-plant
approximately fifty yards.
When it was cranked, its deep, thumping exhaust note could be
heard three miles away before mufflers were constructed.
Originally, it exhausted into the air through stacks behind the
building extending above the roofline. After a decade of use,
neighbors began complaining of heavy soot production from the
exhaust. The vertical stacks were then cut off and new horizontal
ones buried and stuck out the railroad right of way embankment.
Passing under the current junkpile, the exposed portions have
rusted away. Members of Operation Restoration who remember these
exposed exhausts are fairly certain of their location though
covered with debris. Pointing toward the tracks, their sound is
said to have resembled an approaching steam locomotive. Apparently
constructed from an old boiler, the mufflers were buried in the
engine room floor and are still in place today.
Considered the ultimate in industrial power plants, this two
cylinder, engine with dual 78′ flywheels increased both the
productivity and efficiency of the gin. With a 14′ bore and
18′ stroke, it displays a whopping 5539 cubic inches!
After almost forty dependable years, the Bessemer suffered its
first breakdown in 1962. A crosshead failed in one cylinder and
locked up the engine after only two bales of cotton had been
ginned. According to the gin’s records, it was down for a week.
Burton native Hilton Thompson recalled that the cotton wagons were
lined up almost the length of the town down Main Street. The
damaged crosshead is still present in the mechanical room today.
Bill Hegefeld, a machinist with Beaumier Iron Works in Brenham,
Texas, who performed the repairs in 1962, identified it in 1988.
Hegefeld says that Beaumier still has new, unused Bessemer parts on
In May, 1988, during a meeting of members and directors, Darrell
Bynum, a field representative for Cooper-Bessemer Reciprocating,
began inspection of the Burton Bessemer and assessment of needed
repairs. When quizzed by the author as to the location of the air
intakes, he was puzzled. A little detective work uncovered the
reason why the crosshead failed and why the Bessemer ‘just
didn’t have as much oomph’ in its later years of use.
Despite all the care taken to preserve the equipment (the reason 74
year old machines still work today) there was NO filtration of
intake air for combustion.
Operation Restoration members have several copies of a 1940
Bessemer engine manual. This valuable resource gives set up,
operating and adjustment instructions as well as specifications and
Cooper-Bessemer Industries has donated a full restoration and
overhaul of this engine, an effort of approximately $35,000 value.
The plan is to transport it to that company’s Houston plant for
the work. The hollow masonry base has been badly weakened by
soaking full of 63 years’ worth of oil and will need to be
When the intake orifice in the hollow masonry base was located,
it was completely filled with trash. When it was dragged out with a
stick, several rodents also came out. The reed valve intakes are
apparently pretty cluttered.
The cylinders are frozen up from rust in the combustion
chambers, but when the heads were removed it was found to be no
worse than was expected.
Several parts and component assemblies are missing or have been
removed from the engine. Why this was done in the case of the fuel
injection pump and water pump is not known. These are still on
hand. The injector box was removed by a collector who was wheeling
and dealing to buy the engine at the time of Operation
Restoration’s beginning. A gentleman’s agreement has been
worked out to buy back the missing injector and the brass
builder’s badge plate.
When the inspection covers were removed from the crankcase, and
lights directed inside, everybody smiled. The bottom end of this
engine is pristine and clean, still full of good oil, probably of
Since the entire gin was operated by belts and pulleys from the
main shaft driven by the engine, a break-down stopped the entire
operation. In 1963, a 125 HP Allis Chalmers electric motor was
purchased. Requiring only the operation of a couple of electric
switches, this form of power was considerably less time consuming
and strenuous to use than the diesel. The Bessemer was. however,
kept as a backup power source. The Allis-Chalmers motor is also
still present on the site.
Each year, at the end of the season, the ginners would carefully
‘mothball’ the machinery. All bearings, journals, and
moving parts would be oiled, greased, and lubricated. Lubricant
reservoirs would be filled. Tension would be released from drive
belts, and the Bessemer would be wiped down with oil to prevent
Some gin managers would occasionally come to the gin during the
off season and manually crank over the Bessemer, the gin stands and
the drive line just to keep everything turning free and generally
shipshape. All of this painstaking care has preserved a complete
example of turn of the century rural ginning.
The last time this procedure took place was after the brief 1974
season (18 bales ginned in 1973, only 16 in 1974). The Gin
Association followed its normal procedure to close for the season,
fully intending to reopen the following season. It didn’t
happen. Positive thinking of the members however kept the gin from
being dismantled for parts or scrap like almost all of its kind
after closing. This attitude has also preserved a unique slice of
rural American history for us.
The building sat idle for 12 years until December 1986 when
Operation Restoration was formed.
Currently, the group’s primary concern is raising money for
restoration of the gin. Physical work on the site has been mostly
securing the structure against weather, souvenir hunters and
vandals (who have been almost completely absent). This has involved
replacing missing roof tin and siding and replacing or simply
covering missing windows. The gin has always looked pretty much
like it does today-a beat up old tin building. Most of the
machinery only needs cleaning, greasing and adjusting to run
I agree with Robert Womack’s comment in the November 1988
GEM, ‘God bless the buildings that protect old
‘These gins are a part of our history that has been so
neglected that it has almost been completely lost,’ says Doug
Hutchinson, president of Operation Restoration.
Outside the engine room stands a corroded metal water tank about
seven feet above the ground on a rotting wooden tower. The base of
the tower has been walled in with tin and a weathered door hangs by
one hinge and some wire. This was the cooling tower for the
Bessemer cooling water.
Water was pumped to the top of the tower where it flowed over a
simple aerator made of tin and through a filter screen into the top
of the tank. In the enclosed area below, ginners could take a warm
shower in the engine water.
Although the Bessemer Model IV engine was considered the latest
technology in 1925, it was still a laborious, time consuming device
Late gin manager Herbert Kunkel of Burton described the starting
process to members of Operation Restoration. A jack was used to
turn the flywheels to the exact spot to begin the starting process.
The numerous gouge marks can still be clearly seen on the right
hand flywheel today. The oval indentation in the floor where the
jack was placed is also visible. Compressed air was then used to
move the pistons through the stroke to get the engine turning over
fast enough to fire the fuel charge under compression. This could
only be done after the cylinder heads had been heated red hot with
a blowtorch. In later years, natural gas burners were attached to
Each flywheel is marked with a paint mark indicating when the
operator should give that particular cylinder another charge of
compressed air during the starting procedure.
At first, compressed air was provided by a Model T engine
powered compressor. The Model T engine was replaced by an electric
motor sometime after the Gin Association had electricity installed
in 1940. The Model T frame and electric motor are still in place.
The original cylinder compressor driven by belts and a jackshaft
still turns freely.
According to Henry Wehring, Jr., whose father was gin manager
for almost 40 years, it took two people almost two hours to get the
Bessemer warmed up and running. Once cranked, it would run all day
with minimal attention until shutdown time, being idled back during
slow periods, such as lunch.
This engine transmits power by means of a large clutch on one
end of its crankshaft. The clutch is attached to one end of a drive
shaft running the length of the gin at ground level. The entire gin
was once driven by pulleys and flat leather or canvas belts from
The clutch, mounted on the end of the crankshaft, is a 31′
diameter iron drum 4?’ wide squeezed by composition shoes on
the outer circumference when engaged. The engagement lever is an
iron bar about ten feet long that was moved horizontally by the
In 1931, a small office was incorporated into the main gin
building, being located above the engine room on the front side.
During warm weather, this part of the gin was extremely hot,
stuffy, and confining, not to mention unbelievably noisy as it was
directly above the Bessemer engine and opened onto the ginning
When quizzed about the noise and vibration level in the office
Hank Wehring said with a grin ‘Oh, it vibrated!’
This gin usually took a manager and four operators to run. There
were two ginners, one press man and one engineer, but it could run
at a reduced rate with one ginner if necessary. A metal bell above
the stairway from the engine room to the office enabled the engine
man and ginners to pass signals back and forth. An established
signal code was used to indicate such commands as ‘start
up,’ ‘all clear,’ or ‘stop.’