The Ode: S. M. Whitney Co. (1868 - 2010)

Founded by the family that invented the cotton gin, it helped fuel Georgia's post-Civil War boom, but the long reign of King Cotton is over.

The S. M. Whitney Co. cotton mill was opened in 1868 by the man whose name hung above the door. He had moved originally from Connecticut to Georgia in the mid-1800s to open a bookstore, but joined the Confederate Army when the Civil War broke out. When it ended, he came back to Augusta, Ga., and started a cotton factory that sold to textile manufacturers after the crop had been picked, ginned and baled.

Cotton grew on about one million acres in South Georgia, and S.M. Whitney Co.’s arrival coincided with the beginning of a cotton-fuelled, postwar boom in Augusta.

But by the time S.M. hung his shingle in Augusta, the Whitney family was already well established in the cotton industry. He was the nephew of Eli Whitney, who invented the cotton gin (short for “engine”) in 1794, the creation that automated the laborious process of separating sticky seeds from cotton tufts by hand, by pulling it through a mesh screen. His machine could generate up to 50 pounds of cleaned cotton daily, making production profitable for southern farmers.

Though Eli’s ginning business went badly after he unsuccessfully tried to sue farmers making knock-offs of his machine, things went better for his descendants. When S. M. Whitney Co. opened, Augusta had a Cotton Exchange with 200 members who came from places as far away as England, Germany, France, India and South America. The city’s cotton market was rivalled only by Memphis in international trade, and the crop was referred to as “white gold.”

Current CEO Barry Whitney, 82, was the fourth in the family succession to inherit the business. His father, Charlie Whitney, spent more than seven decades working for the company before dying in 1998.

When Barry took over as CEO in 1975, the industry was still thriving. There were eight other cotton factories in Augusta, but the Whitney family stood out for forging personal relationships with farmers in the area. They dominated the local Augusta cotton market by making a habit of visiting each farm individually to tour the crops. They also expanded outside of Augusta selling crops from farmers as far as 300 kilometres away.

In the 1980s, two-thirds of American cotton got spun into T-shirts and jeans in U.S. factories, with about 12.5 million bales of American cotton being spun annually. But about 20 years ago, Cotton mills began to move overseas, as India and China ramped up their cotton industries. Those two countries combined now produce almost 60 million bales per year. U.S. cotton couldn’t keep pace. Over the past five years, growers began cutting back as corn and soy fetched better prices. Between 2006 and 2009, U.S. cotton acreage dropped by 40%, and U.S. production dwindled to three million bales annually.

Just a few years ago, more than two dozen people still worked at the S. M. Whitney mill, but in the last months only six or seven were needed. Orders went from 50,000 to 60,000 bales of cotton each year to 12,000 in the past few years, and last month the company was down to producing just 190 bales. The closing of S. M. Whitney Co. marks the end of an era that was more dependent on business relationships than export sales.

Rather than pass the family torch over to his son-in-law, Barry Whitney opted at the end of September to sell his last bale of cotton. It’s taken him three months to shut down the century-old dynasty that was the last functioning mill in Augusta. What was once the linchpin of the economy in south Georgia is now memorialized in Augusta by cotton museums and restaurants with names like the Cotton Patch and Boll Weevil — a beetle that feeds on cotton buds.