For centuries, farmers around the world have cultivated cotton, from Egypt to the Mississippi Delta. “Today, the world uses more cotton than any other fiber, and cotton is the leading cash crop in the U.S.” 1 Cotton grows best in warm climates and the southernmost states of the country provide fertile ground for the crop, so it comes as no surprise that Texas leads the nation by far in cotton production.2 But in the 1910s, it was Ellis County that not only led the nation but the world3 in cotton production earning it the title of the “greatest cotton county in the world.” Naturally, pioneer owners of the Pecan Springs Ranch on the banks of Chambers Creek found cotton to be a lucrative crop.
Spanish missionaries first brought cotton cultivation to Texas in the sixteenth century. In 1852, just three years after the formation of Ellis County, Texas was in eighth place among the top ten cotton-producing states in the nation.
This sharp rise in production in the late 1850s and early 1860s was due at least in part to the removal of Indians, which opened up new areas for cotton production. The Civil War caused a decrease in production, but … the introduction of barbed wire in the 1870s and the building of railroads further stimulated the industry.4
Ellis County is situated in the middle of the Blackland Prairie, a narrow strip of land known for its rich, dark soil that runs from the Red River in the north to San Antonio in the southern part of the state.5 Despite its prime location, however, U.S. Agriculture Schedules from 1850-1880 do not indicate that Ellis County was a major producer of cotton during these periods.
Most early settlers in Ellis County were farmers engaged in small-scale grain production, mainly corn and wheat. Livestock production, on the other hand, proved to be profitable by the mid-19th century, and Ellis County became the state’s sixth largest producer of livestock by 1860.6
The Texas Almanac for 1858 described Ellis County land as “rich black, stiff and loamy, undulating rolling prairie, finely adapted to the culture of all kinds of small grain, as well as cotton and corn.”7 The problem was not the soil, but the prohibitive costs of transportation. In 1860, Ellis County only produced 359 bales of cotton.8 The coming of the railroad to the county in the 1870s heralded a shift in farm output for the lucrative cash crop. “When the Houston & Texas Central (H&TC) Railroad extended its line through eastern Ellis County in 1871, it provided rail service to local residents for the first time. Its path cut through some of the most productive farmlands in all of Texas, including those of Ellis County.”9 And in 1882, the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railway Company opened up tracks between Dallas and Cleburne. Passing through Ellis County, it opened trade transportation to the western side of the county.10 By 1870, cotton production had jumped to 2,960 bales,11 and by 1880 increased to 18,956 bales.12
“So much cotton was planted in the county in the early 1890s that the acreage far surpassed the available labor supply.”13 To entice immigrants to settle in Ellis County and work in the fields harvesting cotton, the county seat of Waxahachie distributed a pamphlet and ran an advertisement in several magazines across the southern states. The response was overwhelming. “Many whites, but far more blacks, moved to the county during the early 1890s directly as a result of the advertising scheme, and took up tenant and sharecrop farming…and reinforced the move in Ellis County toward the exclusive production of cotton.”14
The farm tenant system prevail[ed] largely among…land owners—leasing their lands for a share of the crop, on the following terms: Landlords furnish[ed] the house, firewood, team and implements and the tenant ha[d] one-half the crop; when the tenant furnishe[d] the teams and implements, the landlord ha[d] one-fourth the cotton and one-third of the wheat and corn.15
Wilson Dabney Sims (1824-1892) came to Ellis County with his parents in 1851 settling near Chambers Creek on land that eventually became Pecan Springs Ranch. In 1890, Sims owned 2,800 acres with 1,000 acres cultivated by tenant farmers. In addition, he owned a cotton gin for his own use and that of his tenants.16
Other factors also played a contributing role in the expansion of cotton production in the county that was fast becoming a national leader in the commodity.
Technological improvements in the processing of cotton also contributed to the cotton-based economy, as growers could produce bales more efficiently and at a lower cost. Advancements included mechanical feeders that automatically fed seed cotton into the gin stands, new kinds of condensers to form or shape the cotton into bales that facilitated packing, and more efficient compact presses housed within the gin houses. The development of handling devices for unloading seed cotton from the wagon further facilitated cotton processing.17
Cotton gins were built in virtually every part of the county. In 1880, “twenty-five new cotton gins were…constructed at an average cost of $2,000 each.”18 Not only were multiple gins operating in well-established communities, but also in sparsely populated rural areas in close proximity to the cotton farms or at crossroads.19 “In 1901 over thirty gins…operated in Ellis County, and by 1920 the county had the largest number of operating gins in the state of Texas.”
By the turn of the century, Ellis County had increased cotton production to 91,298 bales in 1900.21 Throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, Ellis County continued to increase its cotton yields producing a banner 187,449 bales of cotton in 191222 earning it the honor of being named “the greatest cotton producing county in the world,”23 a title it held for many years.
While tenancy and sharecropping spread across the county with the influx of immigrants between 1890 and 1920, these men and their families led hard, subsistent lives farming and raising cotton on rented land. It was the enterprising landowners, however, that became most profitable, and they ushered in an age of prosperity spurred by the wealth from abundant cotton crops. In addition to cotton gins, the industry influenced the establishment of other cotton related enterprises. Waxahachie boasted a wide variety of businesses spawned by the cotton production boom including Waxahachie Cotton Compress, National Compress Company, Ellis County Cottonseed Oil Mill Company, Waxahachie Cotton Oil Mill, and Planters Cotton Oil Company.24 Ennis established the Ennis Cotton Compress and Ennis Cotton Oil Company,25 and Midlothian took pride in its own cottonseed oil mill.26 The jewel of Ellis County’s cotton industries was its cotton textile mill. Built in 1901, the mill utilized home-grown cotton and “could produce 7,500 yards of sheeting or ducking a day. At its peak, the Waxahachie Cotton Mill had 10,000 spindles and 200 looms. It was one of only 13 other mills in Texas and one of the largest in terms of capacity and production.”27 Mill Village developed just south of the mill for the operatives of the factory containing twenty-four small frame houses, a church, a school, and an electrical generating plant.28 Ellis County was proud of its standing in the agricultural world and in the summer of 1924 gathered in Waxahachie’s Getzendaner Park to celebrate the first King Cotton Pageant, a tradition that carried into the 1960s with the Ellis County Cotton Festival.30
But as demands for cotton increased in the 1910s and 1920s, local farmers saw little need for diversification. A 1910 Ellis County soil survey cautioned that “diversification of crops, indeed, and its corollary, the rotation of crops are the most important steps in promoting the future development of the agriculture of the county,”31 but the warnings went largely unheeded as production increased and profits soared.
After decades of over-cultivation, cotton productivity began an era of decline. Newly irrigated fields in south and west Texas began to grow more cotton, and as the 1930s ushered in the Great Depression, demand for the once lucrative crop plummeted.
Most of the gins, compresses, and cottonseed oil mills were abandoned, and the textile mill in Waxahachie was forced to cut production until the company’s closure in 1934. Ellis County cotton production totaled 97,192 bales of cotton in 1930, but dipped to 71,124 in 1940, and 67,000 in 1950.32
Ellis County’s reign as king cotton county of the world had come to an end.
This period of growth and prosperity through the cotton culture had long-lasting effects on Ellis County. “Profits from the cultivation and processing of cotton resulted in a construction boom that transformed the physical character of the county…[leaving] a rich architectural legacy that is evidenced by the many buildings and structures from the cotton boom.”33 Renowned architect James Riely Gordon (1863-1937) designed the magnificent Romanesque Revival style courthouse that was completed in 1897.34 County commissioners were also active in expanding the road network and constructing bridges in the county to facilitate farmers transporting goods to market.35 In addition, many grand and imposing residences, banks, businesses, churches, and schools were constructed during the golden age of cotton in Ellis County and many remain in use today.36 Cotton is still grown in Ellis County, but has not enjoyed the same prosperity as it once did at the turn of the century.
1“The Story of Cotton.” National Cotton Council of America. Web. 28 March 2021.
2“Leading 10 U.S. States for Cotton Production in 2020. Statista. Web. 28 March 2021.
3“Cotton Crop Was Greatest Known.” The Bryan Daily Eagle (Bryan, Tex.). 8 July 1915. Chronicling America. Library of Congress. Web. 28 March 2021.
4Britton, Karen Gerhardt, Fred C. Elliott, and E.A. Miller. “Cotton Culture.” Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association. Web. 28 March 2021.
5“Texas Blackland Prairies.” Wikipedia. 10 February 2021. Web. 29 March 2021.
6Hardy-Heck-Moore Research Consultants. “Ellis County History—An Overview.” Ellis County Museum, Inc. Web. 29 March 2021.
7The Texas Almanac for 1858. The Portal to Texas History. Texas State Historical Association. 1857. Web. 29 March 2021.
8Moore, David. “Boz Gin Complex.” Historic American Buildings Survey. National Park Service. Web. 29 March 2021.
10Harper, Cecil, Jr. “Chicago, Texas and Mexican Central Railway.” Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association. Web. 29 March 2021.
12Loughridge, R.H. Report on the Cotton Production of the State of Texas. 1882. Web, p. 125. 29 March 2021.
13Stott, Kelly McMichael. Waxahachie: Where Cotton Reigned King. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2002. Print, p. 58.
15Sayer, S.H. Ellis County Illustrated Annual and Saturday Review Year Book for 1881. 1880. Web. 29 March 2021.
16Memorial and biographical history of Ellis county, Texas ... Containing a history of this important section of the great state of Texas, from the earliest period of its occupancy to the present time, together with glimpses of its future prospects; with full-page portraits of the presidents of the United States, and also full-page portraits of some of the most eminent men of the county, and biographical mention of many of its pioneers, and also of prominent citizens of to-day. The Portal to Texas History. Texas State Historical Association. 1892. Web, p. 253. 29 March 2021.
21Haaser, Robert J. “Ellis County.” Handbook of Texas Online. Texas State Historical Association. Web. 29 March 2021.
221914 Texas Almanac and State Industrial Guide. The Portal to Texas History. Texas State Historical Association. 1914. Web. 29 March 2021.
231912 Texas Almanac and State Industrial Guide. The Portal to Texas History. Texas State Historical Association. 1912. Web. 29 March 2021.
24“Waxahachie History.” Waxahachie Downtown Merchants Association. Web. 29 March 2021.
25“Ennis Cotton Compress.” National Register of Historic Places Inventory—Nomination Form. Web. 29 March 2021.
26Reeves, Walter. “Our Suburban Neighbors.” The Midlothian Argus (Midlothian, Tex.). 13 January 1916. Reprinted in Searchers and Researchers. Print.
27Stott, p. 64.
28Ibid, p. 63.
29Cabrera, Diana. “A Pageant of Magic Fleece.” This Was Ellis County: An Historical Perspective. Waxahachie: College Street Printing. Print, p. 55.
30WBAP-TV (Television station: Fort Worth, Tex.). [News Script: Cotton Show]. 7 May 1963. The Portal to Texas History. Texas State Historical Association. 1912. Web. 29 March 2021.
31Bennett, Frank, R.T. Avon Burke, and Clarence Lounsbury. Soil Survey of Ellis County, Texas. Field Operations of the Bureau of Soil. 1910. Web, p. 938. 29 March 2021.
34“Ellis County Courthouse - Waxahachie.” Texas Historical Commission. 2021. Web. 30 March 2021.