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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