Screwmen, Spidermen, and Cotton’s Gilded-Age Gargantua

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History remembers Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, invented in 1793, as the machine that notoriously revolutionized an industry. While this may be so, a bigger, more frightening machine became the vital cog in the Cotton Belt’s well-oiled industry by the end of the nineteenth century. The compress, gargantuan in size and vicious in task, carried the South to a new level of industrialization, beyond the span of Reconstruction-era policies, in the very market that had made it agrarian to begin with.

With the invention of the compress, continued railroad expansion, and the advent of electrical telegraphic communication, the cotton industry moved away from formerly monopolistic coastal cities, such as Houston, Galveston, and New Orleans, and moved inland to larger markets, now accessible by rail and interior water sources, such as St. Louis, Chicago, Memphis, Kansas City, and Dallas. Following the Civil War, farmers flocked to the frontier regions of Texas, which led all states in cotton production by 1889. By 1990, Texas gins accounted for thirty-four percent of the nation’s production. Compresses sprang up all across the Texas hinterland, particularly in the blackland prairies, to accommodate this inward push.

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The “cotton capital of the world” – Built in 1898, the Greenville Cotton Compress was the largest inland compress in America. On September 30, 1912, the Greenville compress established the world record for number of bales pressed in a single day–2,073–a record that still stands.

The compress’ technological innovation, in increasing a bale’s density to 22½ pounds per cubic foot and decreasing its physical size by half, radically altered shipping routes. The compress enabled a standard thirty-six rail car to hold up to 25,000 pounds of compressed cotton, more than double the former carrying capacity. This made railroad transport not only economically feasible but the dominant form of cotton shipment in Gilded-Age America. Furthermore, it signaled a change in gear, moving away from coastal shipping and towards inland rail shipping.

While the gin still initiated the process by separating fiber from seed, the compress served the pivotal role in a dynamic market process. It was at this “point of compression” where bales of cotton were compressed to half their original size, freeing up important railroad equipment (of which there was never enough to supply the demand), cotton was graded and priced based on quality, stored, purchased, and then rerouted to its designated mill. The lives of two very different but eloquently named crews–the screwmen and the spidermen—were tied to the fate of this behemoth.

Screwmen thrived during the era of coastal monopoly on the cotton industry. In port cities such as Galveston, Houston (Buffalo Bayou), Mobile, and New Orleans, these groups were tasked with stowing and packing bulky cotton bales in the holds of ships. Using screwjacks to do so—a device from which they derived their name—screwmen work crews could increase a ship’s bale capacity by ten to fifteen percent. These highly specialized stevedores—who were in effect the first compressors—thus ensured a profitable venture for the shipper.

Steamboat loaded with bales of screwed cotton.

Screwmen, however, struggled to keep up with increasingly efficient shipping methods developed through ongoing industrialization. A standard wooden sailing vessel could hold anywhere from eight hundred to one thousand bales, a feasible number of bales for screwmen to undertake. Later steamships, however, could hold up to twelve thousand compressed bales. Larger companies, which demanded quicker turnaround times at port, could not economically spare the time it took for local screwmen crews to handle such shipments, unprecedented in size.

Thus, a combination of larger, steel steam-powered ships, the ensuing acceleration of the shipping process, and the arrival of the compress all rendered cotton screwing an archaic practice. Once an honorable and highly-valued profession, screwmen found themselves increasingly out of work as the cotton industry moved further inland and new machines replaced manual labor.

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Spidermen pose in front of their compress – Wilmington, North Carolina

The mechanical cotton compress increased the density of each bale, enabling a simultaneously larger and more rapid shipping process. The compress itself, however, required a cohort of workers to allow it to function smoothly. J.B. Coltharp, a retired engineer raised on a cotton farm in Coryell County, Texas, reminisced that the compress “with its awesome power was a fearful and fascinating thing to watch.” The machine was roughly forty feet in size and had an oversized steam cylinder that produced the energy necessary for the various gears, levers, platens, and other parts to compress each bale.

As loose, fluffy bales were compacted to half their size in the giant iron jaws of a compress, teams of “industrious spiders” worked in and around the machine to ensure its proper functioning. These workers came to be known as spidermen. Working in this environment required precise, coordinated movement given the constant danger working next to a machine of such power.

Each worker controlled one aspect of the larger process. The truckers would bring the bales from the front of the warehouse, at which point two dankeyman would load these bales on dollies and bring them to the compress. There, band snatchers would unhook the bands put in place at the gin, and setters would place the bare bales in between the press jaws. Once fitted inside the jaws, a set of teeth within the compress would close to compress the cotton, while steel bands were run through the bale and knotted, after which the bale was kicked out on a metal tongue. The leverman, boilerman, and several other workers ensured a proper press function, after which six tyers—three on each side—would tie the inserted steel bands to hold the compressed bale together. Two workers hauled away the finished bales.

The most important of the spidermen was the caller (singer). The caller ensured synchronized action through a choreographed call system, often sung in an old delta blues rhythm, to which all spidermen responded and performed their task. Clifford Blake, a lifetime caller working at the Natchitoches Warehouse & Compress in Natchitoches, Louisiana, exerted complete control in directing both man and machinery in the warehouse. The caller served as the glue that held together disparate workers and created one congruous unit.

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Clifford Blake during a recording session.

Mr. Blake was the fearless leader of his crew. By singing his cadence, the caller not only kept the compress running smoothly and everyone safe, but addressed the emotional needs of his crew. Mr. Blake stated, “When I’d go to singing, regardless of how bad you feel, singing pulls your bad feelings away.” By expressing workers’ frustrations about their lives and dangerous work in his cadence lyrics, the caller could warm up the spidermen and give them “a mind to work.” His ability to make his men feel good and get them in the right mindset was the essential cog in the machine.

On top of holding together his crew of spidermen with resonant lyrics and commanding all activity on the floor, Mr. Blake displayed a lack of fear regarding the compress and inspired his men to brave the dangerous work conditions around the machine. Mr. Blake “rode it to the top of the building and down beneath the floor.” As the upper portion of the machine would descend, the platform on the floor would open up and the actual pressing would occur beneath ground level.

Mr. Blake would ride the press “down the hole,” with only the caller’s head showing above the floor when the machine was at its lowest point. Mr. Blake himself remarked, “Nobody does that anymore. I did it for forty years; when I got too slow, the press got me.” Mr. Blake was referring to February14, 1967, when he lost his footing while riding the press. The machine crushed his leg, ending his career. The dangers of working in and around such a beastly machine were constant.

The cotton industry’s transformation was gradual, and pockets of screwmen crews still existed well into the twentieth century. On a compressed bale, the exposed ends of the bound steel bands, buckles, and rivets were known as “spiders.” Screwmen wore a “handleather” to protect themselves when handling compressed bales. Nevertheless, injuries were still common. In 1910, the Screwmen’s Benevolent Association, a Galveston trade union of longshoremen, championed the passage of the “Spider” Bill. This legislature held cotton compress owners accountable for ensuring that bales were safely bound by their spidermen. This conflict between screwmen and spidermen illustrates a rare dynamic between specialized crews of different eras.cotton_press 5

In 1900, Texas had approximately one hundred of the 269 compresses in the country. The Texas cotton belt was now blanketed with local compresses in northern and eastern towns, all becoming a “white sea of cotton” as sellers and buyers went to work in these interior markets. The localization of this new market system across the Texas landscape broadly opened its interior to new partnerships. New Orleans, continually looking to the Texas hinterland since Spanish colonial times as her “own economic province,” now vied for control of Texas trade with the newly prominent St. Louis cotton market.

With the new market system benefiting growers and railroads alike, smaller groups of tradesmen such as the screwmen could only watch as a macroeconomic trend transformed the lay of the land. The compress, a complex machine with a simplistically important task, dictated the fate of these tradesmen. It slowly eliminated the need for screwmen, but demanded new and dangerous work for spidermen. What these crews did not leave to fate, however, was the doggedness, ingenuity, and rectitude with which they performed their tasks.

Irony is not lost on the history of the compress. It has not received its due attention, as has the gin, in American history courses. Nevertheless, this historically-obscure machine produced equally impactful results in transforming both procedure and infrastructure of the cotton industry. The compress furthered industrialization processes in the South started by federal Reconstruction policies following the Civil War. The irony here is that the compress industrialized the signature product of a distinctly agrarian south. For all parties involved, this meant cotton was king once more, albeit a compressed one.

Interested in agrarian history? The North Texas Compress Company resided in Dension, Texas–birthplace of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Learn more about Eisenhower’s other hometown and the cattle trade here.

Expert caller Clifford Blake worked his compress in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Click here to learn about Natchitoches’ prehistoric history.

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Sources:

Clifford Farrington, Biracial Unions on Galveston’s Waterfront, 1865-1925, Dissertation, Austin: University of Texas, 2003.

Donald W. Hatley, “Calling the Cotton Press.” in Louisiana Folklife, vol. 5, vol. 1 (Mar., 1980).

J. B. Coltharp, “Reminiscences of Cotton Pickin’ Days,” in The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, vol. 73, no. 4 (Apr., 1970): 539-542.

Kirsten Valle, “Relic of cotton’s heyday,” in Salisbury Post, June 23, 2006. 

L. Tuffly Ellis, “The Revolutionizing of the Texas Cotton Trade, 1865-1885,” in The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, vol. 73, no. 4 (Apr., 1970): 478-508.

L. Tuffly Ellis, “The Round Bale Cotton Controversy,” in The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, vol. 71, no. 2 (Oct., 1967): 194-225.

Larry K. Ripper, “Spidermen and the Cotton Compress,” in La Grange Footprints of Fayette Articles, website.

Lee A. Dew, “The Blytheville Case and Regulation of Arkansas Cotton Shipments,” in The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 2 (Summer, 1979): 116-130.

Robert A. Calvert, “Nineteenth-Century Farmers, Cotton, and Prosperity,” in The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, vol. 73, no. 4 (Apr., 1970): 509-538.

Texas State Historical Association – The Handbook of Texas – Cotton-Compress Industry

Texas State Historical Association – The Handbook of Texas – Screwmen’s Benevolent Association

http://www.smokstak.com/forum/showthread.php?t=77644

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Vintage compresses today

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2 thoughts on “Screwmen, Spidermen, and Cotton’s Gilded-Age Gargantua

  1. Pingback: Screwmen, Spidermen, and Cotton’s Gilded-Age Gargantua | Instructional Know-How

  2. Pingback: The New Orleans General Strike of 1892 – oaklandsocialist

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