The abandoned plant of the Mississippi Cotton Oil Company wasn’t on the recent Port Gibson Holiday Home Tour, but as I was wandering about before the tours started, I was drawn to the place, just north of downtown, like a moth to the flame. I’ve always been intrigued by cotton seed oil mills–the strange shapes of the buildings, the rusty metal, and odd protruding machinery and pipes running this way and that. I find the seed houses, with their distinctive steep roof and clerestory, especially compelling, but unfortunately, I don’t understand how the whole operation works together. I know just enough to be fascinated.
This 1994 article in Agricultural History, “Cotton Gins and Cottonseed Oil Mills in the New South” may be worth the $14 that JSTOR wants to charge me. And this 1948 Sanborn on microfilm at MDAH (and a little cleaned up on Photoshop) shows somewhat of the layout and functions of each building, although it doesn’t show the later silo-type buildings.
The original brick building, constructed in 1882, was listed on the National Register in 1979, and that brief National Register documentation is the only real source of information I’ve found online about the Port Gibson plant:
The Port Gibson Oil Works is one of the earliest cottonseed crushing mills in the U.S., operating continuously from 1882. While the products of the milling operation remain the same, the process has undergone major changes.
Formerly, cottonseed arrived at the mill by train. It was unloaded into seed houses, and fed into the cleaning room of the mill for removal of bolls and sand. Delinting and hulling of the cottonseed produced two by-products: lint (textile product) and hulls (cattle feed). Seed meats were steam-cooked and placed under a hydraulic press with 5000p.s.i.
Cottonseed oil was extracted, and the remaining “cake” was ground into meal for cattle feed.
Cottonseed now arrives at the mill by truck. A chemical solvent, hexane, is used to extract oil from the seeds. The hexane is recovered in a steam still and a desolventizer located in another building.
I discovered while poking around on the internet that the Mississippi Film Office has the Oil Works as a potential film location, which would make for a pretty interesting film. I also noticed a For Sale sign that indicates the State of Mississippi owns the place. Whether there are any environment cleanup issues, I don’t know.
The Oil Works was still in operation when the site was listed on the National Register, and maybe some of our Port Gibson readers can give us a little more background on when it closed and any other history not covered in the NR nomination. I notice that MDAH has a subject file on Port Gibson Industry that might have some information, but I missed that when I was there last.
I would love to take a tour of this place with someone who had actually worked there and understood what all the buildings and pieces did. Cotton seed oil mills were such an important part of Mississippi’s industrialization and yet we often overlook them because they aren’t on the well-trod pilgrimage tour path. For that matter, it would be a really different and worthwhile tour to visit several of Mississippi’s industrial sites, including cotton seed oil mills, textile mills, the Carnation plant in Tupelo, the Soule Steam Feed Works in Meridian (as far as I can think, the one true industrial museum we have in the state?), and even the Nissan plant in Canton. The Society for Industrial Archeology is a group that does these types of themed tours, but it looks like they haven’t done much in the South.
I don’t know what the prognosis is for the Port Gibson Oil Works, but in an ideal world, it could be creatively re-used, either as a museum to the cotton industry, or as something so imaginative that my puny brain can’t even imagine it. Any thoughts out there?