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August 25, 2010   Email to Friend 

By Darryal Ray

Attending the celebration at the Prattaugan Museum were, from left, Prattville Mayor Jim Byard, Will Crenshaw V, son Will VI, daughter Mary, wife Melissa and Ann Boutwell, a board member of the Autauga County Heritage Association.
It was Daniel Pratt's birthday, but Will Crenshaw brought his gift early. That's always a good idea when the "birthday boy" is 211 years old.

So, when they cut the birthday cake for the ol' cotton gin king on July 20 at the Prattaugan Museum on Main Street in Prattville, a good portion of the town named for him turned out to see just what it was that Crenshaw had brought to the party.

What it was, of course, was a gin-u-ine cotton gin built right there at the Daniel Pratt Gin Co., on the banks of Autauga Creek more than a century ago. What's more, it was one of those rare gems manufactured before Pratt sold the company to Continental Eagle, which still makes gins at the same location today.

It was the kind of gift that can make a grown-up cry, especially members of the Autauga County Heritage Association who had searched high and low for just such a gin for more years than they can remember.

"When I first saw it, I actually cried," said Robin McChesney-Hughes, executive director of the Prattaugan Museum. "We had worked so hard on getting one of these for so long that it was just overwhelming to actually see it."

Even Crenshaw, a member of the Butler County Farmers Federation, had to choke back tears as he officially presented the gin his great grandfather had used on the family's farm only one season oh so many years ago.

"I'm glad my grandfather had enough foresight to preserve a piece of history that probably would have been lost," Crenshaw told the large gathering that included Pratt descendants, the mayor and other dignitaries. "I'm not saying it's the only one because, you never know, there could be another one. ... I'm glad to see it's made a final circle. The gin started off here and now it's made it back."

Daniel Pratt, who lived from July 20,1799, to May 13, 1873, was a New Hampshire native who started the gin company in 1832. Despite a few name changes, the company was still operating under the Pratt name when it was sold to Continental Gin in 1899.

But for Crenshaw, the gin was more than a treasured Pratt relic -- it was an emotional bond with his late grandfather, Frederick William Crenshaw III, who often told his young grandson tales about the dusty old piece of equipment that had been stored, first in the old gin house before it was torn down, and later, under old tarpaulins in a barn for more than 50 years.

"Why he thought to save something like that and preserve it and pass it on through the family ... it was kind of emotional for me," said Will, who is the fifth Frederick William in the Crenshaw family. "I had a high respect for my grandfather. To me, he was the last Southern gentleman."

As Will remembers the story, his great grandfather bought the gin directly from the Pratt Gin Co., in the late 1890s on a trip to Prattville. "My grandfather was only eight or nine years old then," he said. "His daddy had a baby sister living in Prattville, and they took the train to Prattville and spent the night with her. Then, the next day, they bought the gin and shipped it back on the train to Greenville. From there, it was hauled to the gin house by wagon."

It is not known exactly when Crenshaw's 45-saw gin was built, but it clearly bears a July 15, 1873 patent, "DP" stamped on the grease trap doors and old gin records appear to indicate November 1898 as its date of manufacture.

But it ginned cotton for only one season because the technology changed so quickly that it was no longer practical. "They went from mules and horse-drawn to steam," explained Will. "What this gin could do in a day the new steam-generated plants could do in an hour. It's just like today - technology is still the same but they're improving it throughout the years."

Roger Fermon, president and CEO of Continental Eagle, Inc., confirmed that statement later as he and Crenshaw looked over the old gin. "He told me that the technology of the gin then and what works in a gin today is still pretty much the same," Crenshaw said. "The only difference between that gin and a gin today is how the cotton goes into it and how it comes out. Back then, it was hand labor putting it in and hand labor putting it through the press; today, it's moved by air. Mr. Fermon told me that today they're doing about 30 bales an hour, a bale every two minutes."

When Will looks back, however, it's not so much about technology as it is genealogy and his grandfather.

"My grandfather told me there were two mules that turned and walked around under the gin house," Will recalled. "That's pretty much where they got the power from. It would gin, I think he said, anywhere from six to eight bales of cotton a day. They were feeding it in by hand, and taking it out and over to the press where there was a wooden screw in that press, and he said that if you got three days out of that wooden screw, you were doing good because it would strip out. They had a man on the place and during ginning season, that's all he did - make the wooden screw. ... I'm just glad Granddad had the foresight to save it and not throw it to the winds of time."

When Crenshaw learned about Autauga County Heritage Association Board Member Ann Boutwell's long search for an old Pratt gin during a TREASURE Forest dinner a few years ago, it brought back memories of his great grandfather's old gin. "I told her, 'Ms. Ann, I can't say for certain that it's a Pratt, but it's a Pratt or a Continental,'" said Will.

After a visit to the Crenshaws' barn, checking the markings and doing research, Boutwell called back later with the verdict: "It's a Pratt!" And she wanted it.

"She said that a Daniel Pratt gin would really be icing on the cake if they could find one for the museum," Will said. "I told her I don't know how in the heck you can put a price on something that's probably 'one of,' but I tell you what, to simplify everything, why don't I just donate it to the museum? She said, 'Are you sure you want to do that?' I said, 'Yeah, because it's a piece of Alabama history and I think my grandfather would approve. It needs to be enjoyed by everybody and not just one person to own.'"

For more information or to schedule a group tour to the Prattaugan Museum, visit Autauga County Heritage Association at (334) 361-0961 or (334) 365-3512 or autaugaheritage@gmail.com.

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