1860s farm structure--can you identify?

mtnesterDecember 7, 2012

I'm trying to identify the structure shown in the background of this engraving by Frank Leslie. I'm guessing that it might be a large water well or maybe a kind of hay press, but I can't find any photos of similar structures online, except in other drawings of farmyards. It must have been a common sight in the 1860s.

(In case you're interested, the drawing shows foragers ("Sherman's bummers") looting the property of a southern farm during Sherman's march to the sea.)


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My guess is a horse/mule or ox driven mill wheel. I've seen them in use in rural Spain, and those types of set-ups were pretty common.

    Bookmark   December 7, 2012 at 11:30AM
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It's a cotton compress, used to make bales of raw cotton, some of which you can see beside it, apparently smoldering.

    Bookmark   December 7, 2012 at 3:01PM
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That makes so much sense, since this picture is supposedly showing an actual plantation in the South.

Thanks so much, both of you, for your help!


    Bookmark   December 7, 2012 at 4:28PM
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And with the soldiers - Union soldiers burning the cotton to keep it from being sold? Ransacking the house and digging up the family's buried silver?

    Bookmark   December 7, 2012 at 5:23PM
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Well, that certainly makes sense. I picked up those were bales of cotton, but had no idea what they used to bale them. The thing however, is to keep in mind when you see other structures like that in old renderings, that everything from lumber saws, to sorghum presses were at one time animal driven, and they simply walk around in circles endlessly to turn the wheels and gears levers and pulleys tethered up to overhead or breast-high booms. Yeah, I am sure the soldiers looted along the way, have read diaries of soldiers during the civil war and rations weren't always forthcoming and they scrounged often, and advantaged spoils.

    Bookmark   December 7, 2012 at 5:33PM
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Now, with your lead, I've finally found some confirmatory pictures. When I googled "cotton compress," I found large machinery (usually inside a warehouse or factory-type building) that could compress cotton for an entire town. But when I searched for "cotton press," I found photos and descriptions of smaller machines, the kind that might be used on an individual farm or plantation.

Here's a cotton press from South Carolina that is now on the National Register (the description says that it was built in 1798, and mules were used to power it):

Also, see the illustration at top left in the link (I've linked it because it's easier to see details when you magnify the image).

To a Northerner, all this is very interesting!


Here is a link that might be useful: Cotton press at upper left

    Bookmark   December 7, 2012 at 9:26PM
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I suspect that with the amount of leverage supplied, it could also be human powered. A draft animal could possibly wreck the screw if unchecked. The use of a draft animal would have been for convenience only. Very likely, it was slave powered.

    Bookmark   December 8, 2012 at 1:04AM
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Interesting picture. You can see the mules hooked to the long arms, and someone riding one of the mules to act as the on-off switch.

jemdandy - it's fairly simple mechanical engineering to make a pressure-limited screw in case the mules stampede.

    Bookmark   December 8, 2012 at 10:08AM
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