Alas poor compress, I knew you well


What you are seeing above is what's left of a cotton compress and the boiler which provided the steam that operated the compress.

What you are seeing above is what's left of a long since abandoned cotton compress and the boiler which provided the steam that operated the press.

This story had its beginnings on the Photo of the Week page at Corndancer dot com. To get in on the start of the tale and another picture, click here, a very cool and safe thing to do. There, we talked about seeing things in the winter, here we talk about the things we see.

Time was in the South, where cotton was king, almost every town of any size had a cotton compress with an attendant warehouse. The output of a cotton gin is a bale of cotton. A normal cotton bales weighs in at about 500 to 600 pounds of ginned cotton. It measures roughly, about 4 feet by 3 feet by 5 feet. The gin compressed the bale somewhat, but to get the bale down to easy handling and shipping size, more muscle was required.  Hence the compress. Compresses reduced the bale to 60-66% of its original size. Virtually all of the old compresses were on a main rail line, or had rail access via a spur.

Since all compresses were steam operated, having a dependable supply of water was of prime concern. So they all had water towers on the site. This one is typical of the era. Now folks might think it looks like an oversized wren house. Tree limbs between the camera and subject are compressed by the telephoto effect.

Since all compresses were steam operated, having a dependable supply of water was of prime concern. So they all had water towers on the site. This one is typical of the era. Now folks might think it looks like an over-sized wren house. Tree limbs between the camera and subject are compressed by the telephoto effect.

With few exceptions the old compresses were steam operated. The process was simple. Put the bale in the compress, pour the steam to it, mash the fool out of it and re-band it in the smaller size. When the operator released the steam, a resounding “whoosh” could be heard for miles. Close to the puffing whooshes one hears from a steam locomotive, just not as frequent.

One local resident recalls the predictable steam whistle at the compress. The compress whistle sounded daily at 6:00 a.m., noon, and 6:00 p.m. In that day and time, the compress whistle was as inevitable as death and taxes. Now just a pleasant memory – the whistle, not the taxes.

Starting in the fifties, gins and gin technologies began a change that eliminated the need for free-standing compresses. Smaller gins were falling by the wayside in favor of larger gins which had huge hydraulic presses capable of doing what steam had formerly done. Trucks were becoming the more common means of shipping cotton. The party was nearly over for free standing compresses.

This particular compress goes back to at least the early 1920s. The door on the boiler reveals that The Casey-Hedges Company of Chattanooga TN built the boiler for the compress in 1923. Casey-Hedges, from what I can find out, was a major supplier of steam operated equipment.

This particular compress goes back to at least the early 1920s. The door on the boiler reveals that The Casey-Hedges Company of Chattanooga TN built the boiler for the compress in 1923. Casey-Hedges, from what I can find out, was a major supplier of steam operated equipment.

The death stars finally converged and administered the coup de’ grace, not just to this compress, but the compress business as viable entity. The south is dotted with once vibrant and viable, now empty, shells of compresses.

We ask, why just abandon the buildings? There is a modern counterpart to this mode of behavior, to wit: It’s economic. The reason – the same reason you don’t get the digital watch fixed when it stops, the same reason you don’t fix a lamp or a myriad of other items that pose a greater expenditure of “trouble” and money to repair than to replace. The business was dead and it cost money to demolish the former premises. Some things never change.

UPDATE, MARCH 31, 2011

It saddens me to report that the owners of the property have leveled the old compress site. The water tower is still standing, but the old compress building, boiler, and with it, the boiler door have fallen to an  ignominious end. JPD.

Thanks for dropping by,

Joe

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16 Responses

  1. Ah yes … another story of yesterday through a picture today. The workers passing through the door, the steam whistle’s sound touching the area like clockwork, and others are all signs of what was, but is no longer.

    A snapshot of better days in someways, then again, but also a sign of what has past.

    Signs like this are everywhere – in cities, small towns, and within the countryside; but one has to notice first, then think about what is and was.

    I recall a drive many years ago. I was new to the area, and just took off. Very soon, I was going down a very steep hill, then a hairpin turn, and I could see the river to my left. After a short distance, the road turned 90 degrees, then boom … an old steel bridge over the river with an abandoned factory on the other side. Once on the other side, this place was huge … empty, yet full of stories.

    Thanks Joe!

    • Frank there’s hardly a town, village or city that does not have a few areas of this ilk, and that which you observed. It costs money to tear things down. Left alone, they will fall down on their own.
      TNX,
      Joe

    • I work for Alstom Power in Chattanooga TN. Before Alstom the company was called ABB, before ABB Combustion Engineering, , Before that Casey Hedges Walsh Wediner. If the lady’s grandfather was a Machinist we have records of him paying union dues back to 1900.
      Byron

      • Byron, you are a gentleman and a scholar. I forwarded the information. Ain’t science grand!
        Joe

      • Byron: I worked for C-E Chatt plant in the late 60’s and knew several men who worked for C-H, W_W boiler Company before it was C-E. One fellow, Walt Smith, retired in 1967 with 55 years service at age 65!
        He was an orphan and went to work for CH WW at age 10 carrying hot rivets to the riveters. He was also the first man to qualify as a “stick rod welder” when C-E developed that technology for boilers.

        There was a black man who retired just after Walt with 60 years service!

        We still had some equipment left from the CH WW days which we used on special jobs for the Navy

        Over the years I have collected several boiler nameplates with C-H, W-W, and C-E on them.
        I “cut my teeth” at the C-E Chatt plant and have great memories of the people and my time there.

        Alas, C-E fell on hard times(poor mgmt) and now I suppose it is a mere shadow of its former self. At one time we had over 8,000 people at the Chatt plant.

        Good luck and best wishes.

        Marvin Bishop Aiken, SC

  2. Thanks for posting these great pics and story. My dad passed away and I was just looking at his birth certificate. On it, his daddy (grandpa) was employed by Casey Hedges in Chattanooga.

    Thanks for helping me see some of my family history.

  3. Karen, thanks for your response. I am glad that information was meaningful to you.
    JOe

  4. I’m sitting here at Alstom Power now reading this information. I really appreciate your article and photo.

  5. Best wishes to all the Alstom Power folks!

    If any of you would like to hear the story of how we “lost” a 60 ft power boiler upper drum, email me.

    I got some other doozies too.

    marvin.bishop@gmail.com

  6. This post continues to get comments nearly two years after its origination. Thanks to all for your interest.
    Joe

  7. Joe,

    Do you have an address for this location? I would love to see it on google earth. MAybe in person some day. Theses are awesome machines. Love the pictures of the ones on Galveston Island.

  8. […] years later the deed was done and the site is not flat except for the old tower. Take a look at our original post in 2009 which shows you the still standing and partially skeletal old compress building and an up […]

  9. […] sounding the death knell for these businesses. There was one other compress  in Pine Bluff, the Pine Bluff Compress and Warehouse Company. It is now leveled. The only evidence remaining of its former presence are a few concrete […]

  10. Hi to every body, it’s my first go to see of this website; this blog consists of remarkable and truly good stuff for visitors.

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