What is in this article?:
• The cotton gin is a living testament to the hard work and tenacity that three generations of Bells steadfastly applied to running a minority owned business for nearly 100 years in rural North Carolina.
THOMAS BELL, has run Bell's Cotton Gin in Jackson, N.C., for the past 50 years.
Where there’s a will
After the ginning season in 1963, a gin owner in nearby Whitakers, N.C. decided to modernize his operation and offered to sell his old equipment to Bell’s father. The catch 22 was that the manufacturer who installed the original couldn’t get to Bell’s gin for about a year.
Undaunted, in December of 1963 Bell and a small crew of local workers dismantled the old gin and began making plans to replace it with the old equipment from the Whitakers.
“I remember exactly what the fellow selling me the gin equipment told me: “You can buy it, but boy, you’ll never get it to run,” Bell says.
On Sept. 15, 1964 Bell and two local workers, Ernest Simson and Bill Lockhart, began the process of putting the used equipment in the gin in Occoneechee Neck. On Oct. 18, 1964, they ginned the first bale of cotton in the new facility.
In 1984, he changed the equipment out again — doing most of the work himself. Then again, in 1994, he bought used equipment, circa 1989, and redid the entire gin again for the third and last time.
While so many businesses struggle to find competent labor, Bell says his work force is home grown and knows exactly what to do when ginning season comes around.
“Most of the people who work here came to the gin as kids with their father. Their father came with their granddaddy and working at the gin is more of a family tradition than a job,” he says.
The gin only runs one shift and it’s run one way, the right way, Bell adds. “The one thing I don’t like about the cotton ginning business now is that during the season we have to work on Sunday. As long as my grandmother lived, the gin closed at 5 p.m. on Saturday and didn’t start back up until Monday morning,” he says.
During a long period of time, the facility was called Alice Bell Gin, because his grandmother (Alice) owned it after Sumner Bell died. When Bell took over the mill a few years after his grandmother died, he renamed it Bell’s Gin.
The biggest change in the cotton ginning business during his 50 years was the switch from hand-picked cotton to machine-picked cotton. Hand picked cotton was so clean. It had little if any moisture in it and it was just a dream to gin, he says.