by Karl H. Kazaks
SHELBY, NC — Max Hamrick freely describes the cotton gin he and his partner Sammy Thompson operate as “antique.”
At its heart are three Continental 90-saw gin stands from the early 1950s. The partners (which for many years included Hamrick’s brother Robert, until he retired) have been operating the gin since the mid-1970s. If everything is going well, they can gin five bales an hour.
“We gin in a day what others do in an hour,” Hamrick said. “Really to gin the volume that’s here, there’s no other way.” There’s not enough cotton being produced close enough to the gin to warrant investing in higher-capacity equipment.
“Counting ourselves,” Hamrick said, “we gin for four customers,” who altogether grow about 1,000 acres of cotton.
Over the years Hamrick has replaced ribs and saws in the gin. (It uses 12-inch saws, compared to the 16- or 18-inch saws used in more modern gins.) He has also replaced the old flat bale press with a universal density press, which make more dense bales than the old flat bale presses. He put the first universal bale press in 1995 and replaced it about a year ago.
The gin still stands where it was originally erected — in the middle of what used to be robust cotton growing country.
In the 1940s, Hamrick recalls, Cleveland County “was a big cotton producing area.”
Not only was there a lot of cotton production but there were textile mills and other support industries to fiber manufacturing.
Back then cotton was still being harvested by hand. Schools had a split session — opening in August before closing for about six weeks for the community to participate in cotton harvesting in the fall.
Then, by the 1950s, the boll weevil reached Cleveland County and, Hamrick said, “about devastated the crop.”
By the early 1970s, he was treating for weevils 12 to 15 times per year. “It was almost a weekly thing,” he said. “It got to be harder and harder to grow cotton.” Among other consequences of the weevil infestation was the fact that repeated chemical applications were delaying the maturity of the crop.
Thanks to coordinated efforts utilizing chemical, biological and cultural practices, the boll weevil has been eradicated from North Carolina (and many other states). Today, Hamrick typically makes just one insecticide application — for thrips, early in the growing season. Like all cotton growers in the Old North State, he participates in a NCDA&CS survey trapping program to test that weevils are still no longer present in the state.
But the scourge of the weevil pushed down cotton production throughout North Carolina and permanently damaged its place in Cleveland County. At one point, Hamrick’s gin was producing just a few hundred bales of cotton per year. Today, it’s back up to about 3,000 bales.
Hamrick and Thompson farm about 1500 acres, growing cotton, beans, and wheat. The grains they sell to a variety of sources, including for feed to Case Farms Chicken, which is based in Shelby.
In the past, the men have milked cows and fed and raised beef cattle, but about two years ago they decided to sell their last livestock (a cow-calf herd) and focus on crops.
To farm that many acres today Hamrick uses modern farming equipment, including an up-to-date combine and a fairly new five-row cotton picker. But for the most part, their cotton transporting equipment is almost as old as the gin.
Cotton enters the gin through a suction pipe which extends outside the gin building. The pipe pulls raw cotton into the gin either straight from a boll buggy or from a cotton module. If there’s no wait at the gin (a rarity when you’re making no more than 50 bales a day), Hamrick or his customers will take their cotton straight to the gin without forming it into a module first. If there is a backlog and they don’t want to build modules, Hamrick has a number of sheds for storing cotton wagons.
The module builder Hamrick does use is from the 1960s, 24 ft. long (unlike the more modern 32-ft. versions) and designed to work with metal pallet. The pallets are inserted into the bottom of the module builders prior to adding any cotton.
Once formed, palleted modules are hoisted onto a trailer outfitted with a winch. The trailer is then hauled to the gin. “Our fields are close enough, it works to bring it in from the field with a tractor,” Hamrick said.
Over the years Hamrick has purchased a few old trucks with chains that can lift and haul modules without pallets (also eliminating the need for winch-equipped trailer). He’ll build modules that way when his gin is busy with his customers’ cotton and he has to send his cotton to another gin.
Because ginning starts up when there is so much farming to do — bringing in cotton and soybeans — Hamrick’s brother Robert comes back from retirement to operate the gin.
Hamrick admits there is more work to raising cotton than grain. “There’s no question but it’s a steadier diet of work,” he said. But he sees payoff, particularly this time of year.
“I just like to see cotton grow,” he said. “There’s nothing prettier than a field of cotton ready to harvest.”