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Cotton gins in Comal County

Photo Caption: The c. 1890 Friesenhahn Brothers Gin and Corn Sheller on Old Nacogdoches Road in 2015.

Photo Caption: The c. 1890 Friesenhahn Brothers Gin and Corn Sheller on Old Nacogdoches Road in 2015.

By Keva Hoffmann Boardman —

Who invented the cotton gin?

Many of you learned the answer to this question in elementary school. If you said “Eli Whitney” you are correct, but like me, back then you really didn’t understand that the invention of the cotton gin revolutionized the American economy and made cotton a major industry.

Thanks to Whitney’s invention in 1793, cotton no longer had to be “ginned” by hand although cotton was still picked by hand well into the 1940s. There are 15–20 bolls on each cotton plant and 27–45 seeds in each boll. That’s a lot of seeds that need to be separated from the cotton fiber. The cotton gin mechanically separated the seeds and fiber by rolling the cotton through wooden rollers covered with metal hooks that caught at the fiber and pulled it through a mesh. Cotton seeds were too big to go through the mesh and fell into a hopper below. A person could hand-gin one pound of cotton in one day; Whitney’s technology processed 50 pounds of cotton in a day.

Cotton was first grown in Comal County by German immigrants in 1852. The non-slave-holding Mittendorf brothers planted and harvested cotton enough for nine bales. William H. Meriwhether had built a water-powered grist and sawmill using the Comal Springs in 1847. He later added a flour mill and cotton gin. Meriwhether ginned the Mittendorf boys’ cotton for 1½ cents per pound. Francis Moreau shipped the nine bales through Indianola to New Orleans for an additional 1½ cents per pound. The bales were graded “middling fair” and sold for 10½ cents per pound. Cotton proved a profitable undertaking for the Mittendorfs who got 7½ cents per pound for their efforts.

In 1857, F. B. Hoffmann set up the first horse-powered cotton gin in the county out at Four Mile Creek/Solms. Later in 1870, Hoffmann was also the first to convert his gin to steam power; he advertised that he could “gin 6 bales a day” with the new technology.

In 1863, Erhard Mittendorf built a gin near the Austin Hill Community, and in 1875, George Webber operated his cotton gin and oil mill in downtown New Braunfels just one block off Main Plaza on North Seguin Street. And you thought the silos of the Co-op looked rural.

By the 1880s and 1890s, cotton gins were features in many of the small communities and settlements that peppered Comal County. They were usually known by the owner’s name:

  • H. D. Gruene – Goodwin
  • Gus Reinarz (formerly Hoffmann’s) – Solms
  • John Marbach – Bracken
  • August G. Startz – Smithson Valley
  • Reinarz & Marbach – Danville
  • Charles Knibbe – Spring Branch
  • Hunter Gin Co. – Hunter
  • Fischer’s – Fischer’s Store
  • Hermann Guenther – Sattler
  • Frank Guenther – Hancock
  • Ludwig Haag and Gustav Schmidt gins – Bulverde
  • Farmers Union – Hortontown
  • Oberkampf’s and Flugrath’s gins – Cranes Mill
  • Reinarz & Knoke, Landa Milling and Faust & Co. gins – New Braunfels

This is a partial list, but it shows the importance of having area gins for the many farmers who grew cotton across the county.

Sadly, only a few of the cotton gin structures or ruins still exist today. However, a notable example is still visible at Eight Mile Creek/Comal Settlement off Old Nacogdoches Road. From the road you can see the beautiful brick Friesenhahn Cotton Gin and Corn Sheller building with its stately, very tall smoke stack which signified it was steam-powered. The gin was constructed by Andreas Friesenhahn in the early 1890s, but it was not the first gin constructed by Friesenhahns. An earlier gin was built by Andreas and his two brothers, Jacob and Nicholas, in the 1880s. This building included the first commercial corn sheller in the area as well. The gin was located on a site near the sharp corner of Old Nacogdoches Road just north of the old Kneupper Store. It burned down in 1899 causing Jacob and Nicholas to get out of the ginning business. FYI: Cotton is very flammable and can spontaneously combust. Trailers full of rain-wet cotton and stored piles of unginned cotton can ignite in the center and burn inside-out setting fire to other trailers and the cotton gin itself.

Andreas Friesenhahn continued on and built a new gin and corn sheller soon after the fire. This is the structure we can see today. He ran the business through the early 1900s and then deeded the gin, corn sheller, seed house and cotton yard to his three sons Gregor, Jacob and Ferdinand. They operated the place under the “Friesenhahn Brothers Gin” name. Gregor left the company in 1923. The cotton market nose-dived in the 1940s, and the gin closed. After the death of Jacob in 1946, Ferdinand’s wife Mathilda and son Roman bought the structure and continued to run the corn shelling operation until 1959.

In a 1986 oral history recording in the Sopheinburg Museum collections, Vivian Zipp, a native of the Solms/Comal Settlement area, reflected on the Friesenhahn Brothers Gin:

The Friesenhahn Brothers Cotton Gin and Corn Sheller was owned by Jacob, Gregor and Ferdinand Friesenhahn. It was located close to the Katy railroad. A spur line was laid from the main tracks to the cotton gin and corn sheller…you could see box cars loaded with shelled corn, ginned cotton bales and bales of corn shucks. The farmers would use the shucks to feed their cattle. They had a warehouse close to the spur where bales of corn shucks were stored when boxcars were filled or not available for shipping…. At the peak of the season [August through December] the wagons of cotton and wagons of corn were lined up from each direction — from the west on the San Antonio–Austin highway, from the east on the San Antonio-Austin highway and to the south on Friesenhahn Lane — with waiting wagons taking cotton to be ginned and corn to be shelled [There was no IH-35 back then, so the San Antonio–Austin Road went straight through the middle of Solms]. There were many nights that you could hear the cotton gin and corn sheller running into the wee hours of the morning until every farmer had unloaded. Sometimes as many as 50 wagons from each direction were waiting in line.

The Friesenhahn gin and corn sheller stands empty and quiet now. I love the big old yellowish brick building whose smoke stack still towers over the landscape. What stories can it tell of those first farming families who lived there for generations, working the land, gathering with friends, going to church and pitching in when disaster hit one of their friends or family? What can it tell us about the character of the people and times it shadowed in its heyday? Drive by, take a moment —and listen.

Sources: Sophienburg Museum: Neu Braunfelser Zeitung collection; Oscar Haas collection; Reflections Oral History collection; and “Comal Texas”, a research project of the Comal Settlement Association and Schertz Historical Preservation Committee.