Famous Mill Goes Away As King Cotton's Reign Fades

Barry Whitney, descendant of Eli Whitney, stands inside S.M. Whitney Company's cotton warehouse i i

hide captionBarry Whitney, descendant of Eli Whitney, stands inside S.M. Whitney Company's cotton warehouse in Augusta, Ga. American farmers have cut back on growing cotton as prices for other cash crops increase, forcing Whitney and many other cotton dealers and mills in the region out of business.

Sea Stachura for NPR
Barry Whitney, descendant of Eli Whitney, stands inside S.M. Whitney Company's cotton warehouse

Barry Whitney, descendant of Eli Whitney, stands inside S.M. Whitney Company's cotton warehouse in Augusta, Ga. American farmers have cut back on growing cotton as prices for other cash crops increase, forcing Whitney and many other cotton dealers and mills in the region out of business.

Sea Stachura for NPR

After selling cotton to textile factories for almost 150 years, the S.M. Whitney Co., run by descendants of cotton gin inventor Eli Whitney, is set to close.

Company president Barry Whitney, whose great grandfather opened the business in 1868, checks his clipboard with a flashlight as his wingtips press into the dirt floor of one of his brick warehouses.

"This cotton here is gone, too. That's sold," he says, referring to the last of his company's cotton stock.

Whitney has just 190 bales of cotton left. At its peak, the company brokered deals for 80,000 bales annually. Whitney says he got a lot of business by talking with farmers.

"I would go call on a farmer, and they would say, 'Oh, he's down the road in such and such field.' So I would run down there, find the farmer, and one thing the farmer really enjoyed doing was taking a visitor and driving him around to see his cotton, his corn, his soybeans or his wheat or whatever," Whitney says.

How Eli Whitney Made Cotton King

  • Eli Whitney was born in Massachusetts in 1765. After graduating from Yale College, he tutored on a Georgia plantation, where he learned of the need for a more efficient way to separate seeds from cotton plant fibers.
    Hide caption
    Eli Whitney was born in Massachusetts in 1765. After graduating from Yale College, he tutored on a Georgia plantation, where he learned of the need for a more efficient way to separate seeds from cotton plant fibers.
    AP
  • Prior to the invention of Whitney's cotton gin, production of cotton in the South could not keep up with growing demand, as most of the work, including picking and separating the seeds from the cotton fiber, was done by hand.
    Hide caption
    Prior to the invention of Whitney's cotton gin, production of cotton in the South could not keep up with growing demand, as most of the work, including picking and separating the seeds from the cotton fiber, was done by hand.
    AP
  • Whitney created his first cotton gin in 1793. Although a patent was issued in 1794, he was unsuccessful in stopping manufacturers in the South from copying the gin, and he ultimately made little-to-no profit.
    Hide caption
    Whitney created his first cotton gin in 1793. Although a patent was issued in 1794, he was unsuccessful in stopping manufacturers in the South from copying the gin, and he ultimately made little-to-no profit.
    Wikimedia Commons
  • Whitney's cotton gin helped to make cotton the most profitable cash crop grown in the South. Cotton's reign was largely powered by slave labor, as depicted in this newspaper illustration from 1862.
    Hide caption
    Whitney's cotton gin helped to make cotton the most profitable cash crop grown in the South. Cotton's reign was largely powered by slave labor, as depicted in this newspaper illustration from 1862.
    Library of Congress
  • Eli Whitney was commemorated with a one-cent stamp in the 1940s "Famous Americans" series, which also included inventors Samuel F.B. Morse and Alexander Graham Bell.
    Hide caption
    Eli Whitney was commemorated with a one-cent stamp in the 1940s "Famous Americans" series, which also included inventors Samuel F.B. Morse and Alexander Graham Bell.
    U.S. Postal Service/Wikimedia Commons

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Those relationships helped Whitney dominate the Augusta cotton market. For a long time, Whitney sold cotton to local merchants. In the 1980s, two-thirds of American cotton got spun into T-shirts and jeans in U.S. factories. According to Whitney, his company used to spin 12.5 million bales in America, and now spins just a little more than 3 million.

Cotton mills have been moving overseas since the 1990s. U.S. cotton is still in demand, but around 2005, growers began cutting back after they noticed that corn and soy fetched a better price, according to economist Gary Adams.

"A lot of that was due to the higher oil prices, the increased use of corn for ethanol and renewable fuels. So that push drove up grain prices. And farmers looked at those competing market signals and decided to go more toward corn and soybean and less toward cotton," Adams says.

Between 2006 and '09, U.S. cotton acreage dropped by 40 percent. That's exactly when Whitney's business dried up.

"The old world of cotton is probably dead," says Darren Hudson, director of the Cotton Economics Research Institute at Texas Tech University.

According to Hudson, S.M. Whitney's closing is the symbolic end of an era. He says today's market is all about export sales, not business relationships.

"[Whitney] still could have made that work. It would have been tougher. And that's why a lot of these merchants and co-ops have ... a staff or salesman ... that lives in Beijing, works with the textile mills there," Hudson says.

Augusta, Ga., the home of S.M. Whitney Co., is dotted with cotton museums and restaurants with names like the Cotton Patch and Boll Weevil.

But at Mi Rancho Mexican Restaurant downtown, Augusta's past is harder to notice. Angela Gifford sits near a window drinking with some friends. From her seat she can see the back door to S.M. Whitney's office.

"I've lived here most of my life and didn't even know there was such a thing here," Gifford says.

S.M. Whitney will sell its last bale of cotton next week. But to many, cotton's reign in the South is already ancient history.

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