Driving today along Highway 22 from Caddo to Kenefic it’s hard to imagine that much of the land on both sides of the road was once a vast expanse of fluffy white cotton. Twelve Mile Prairie – generally bounded on the north by Milburn, south by Armstrong, east by Kenefic, and west by Lake Texoma – was very different during the earliest years of statehood. The first settlers had tried a variety of cash crops, but by 1908 a “Cotton Culture” booklet produced by Oklahoma A&M College declared cotton a “banner crop” in Oklahoma and reported that years of testing in both territories had proven cotton could be profitable.
Kenefic quickly became one of the best cotton markets in the area. In 1910 local farmers produced one thousand bales and by 1912 that had increased to four thousand bales.
According to the 1913 Kenefic Dispatch the town boasted two gins; the Kenefic gin, built in 1910, contained four stands, and the Johnsons built a five-stand gin a bit later. The paper was also very optimistic about the future of Kenefic: “With our share of this crop Kenefic will continue to grow not only as a cotton market, but in other lines of business and eventually become a metropolis of the Southwest.”
By 1922, cotton was the most valuable cash crop in Oklahoma and our state ranked fourth among the cotton-producing states, but some of Kenefic’s hopes and dreams were destroyed by one of the constant hazards of the cotton gins – fire. The Daily Ardmoreite reported that the Kenefic Gin was destroyed in a fire and since it was “the only one in Kenefic, all cotton in that neighborhood will have to be taken to Durant or Caddo or Milburn for ginning.”
It was rebuilt, but destroyed again in 1926. Then named the Ferguson Gin and owned by the Ferguson Seed Company in Sherman, it burned along with the wagon yard, 120 tons of prairie hay, and a barn owned by G. M. Northcutt. The next year cotton was plagued by the great nemesis of the crop – the boll weevil. After statewide problems many farmers began to diversify for their own survival.
According to “A History of Kenefic” there was another gin fire in 1930 at the Choctaw Gin. It’s unclear if this was the same gin or a second one, but at some point one of them was rebuilt and “running overtime” by 1933. Kenefic resident Garland Washington stated in the same book that in the thirties “the pay was $1.50 per day and overtime began at midnight.”
Cotton was so important to the local economy that its harvest determined the school schedule and often influenced social and business events as well. Some schools started early, dismissed for a few weeks of cotton picking and then started again, while others didn’t start until the harvest was completed.
Cotton was always susceptible to weather problems, insect attacks, and labor shortages. Some years were a boon and others were a disaster. The local papers kept close tabs on the operations of the local gins and reported the first bales, prices, and competition in other counties. They also commented on who planted the earliest crop, sprayed what and when for insects, and received the highest payments.
Farmers saw many changes after World War II. Tractors replaced animals and allowed major increases in the size of fields. New planters produced more uniform seed planting and better yields. Mechanical pickers made growing cotton a less labor intensive endeavor.
In 1947, Elmer F. Hopkins moved to Kenefic from Madill and took over the operation of the gin. After renovations and improvements, the Neff-Hopkins Gin was touted as one of the best in the county. In addition to the local cotton, it processed crops from the Coleman area and the southwest Atoka County. The 1949 crop was good, according to the Durant Weekly News: “Since the first bale was received by the gin, August 27, several bales have been ginned and cotton is coming in fast this week as fair weather favors picking of the rapidly-opening crop.”
But in 1950 there was a shortage of cotton and the same paper reported that “the Kenefic gin will not open up.”
Durant Weekly News
August 22, 1952
Harris Markets Second County Bale
Frank Harris, west of Caddo, who marketed Bryan County’s first bale of 1952 cotton here Saturday, also produced the second bale which was ginned at the Neff and Hopkins gin at Kenefic Monday. Mr. Harris brought in 2230 pounds of bales which ginned out 605 pounds of lint. He left his bale at the gin lot without selling it, but E. F. Hopkins, the ginner, said he will buy it for 36 cents per pound, one cent above market price for that grade and Mr. Hopkins bought the seed for $70 per ton. The bale was ginned free and the one cent a pound above market price for the lint will give the producer a bonus of about $20 in addition to the free ginning.
Mr. Harris reported he has 15 to 20 bales open on his 100 acres of cotton. Mr. Harris poisoned his cotton for insects four times, the first time when the stalks had five or six leaves, which accounts for his early harvest. He killed all the first insects that appeared in the crop. His cotton was planted early.
Mr. Hopkins eventually sold the gin to Mr. Bass and Garland Washington and the Durant Daily Democrat announced that the third 1962 bale of Bryan County cotton was ginned at the Bass-Washington for Joe Copeland of Caddo. The gin was still doing a booming business in 1966.
In 1970, technology once again changed the cotton industry with the introduction of the module. Modules, holding a dozen or more bales, are stored in the field or on the gin yard until the cotton is ginned, greatly reducing exposure to weather and cutting down on transportation time. At the same time modernization of the gins vastly reduced the number required and many smaller gins closed or became warehouses. In 1979, the Kenefic gin was identified by the Durant Weekly News as “the only cotton gin in Bryan County” and owner Glen Heiskell was busy processing the first bales of the season for I. A. Cole of Blue. Mr. Heiskell lost his arm in an accident at the gin in 1985.
Daniel Hamilton operated the “Kenefic Gin & Grain” for a while, but changes in the area were already signaling the end of the cotton era as local farmers found success with hay and livestock. And the late nineties brought another major infestation of weevils. State farmers formed the Oklahoma Boll Weevil Eradication Organization and collected fees from growers to control the insects. The move was successful, but crop production became more sophisticated and expensive, so many farmers just found other ways to make a living. The gin was no longer needed and the doors closed forever. The current owner of the gin has a lot of experience with cotton growing, and some not-so-fond memories of harvesting the white fluff, but he bought the gin for the land it sits on, not for its income potential.
Today, the lands between Caddo and Kenefic are covered with grass and grazing cattle, but the Kenefic gin stands as a ghostly reminder of the days when cotton was king.
Mary E. Maurer is an avid Caddo historian and has previously written historical features for the Democrat along with photos taken by Democrat Editor Matt Swearengin who has photographed many abandoned and historical things in the county. More stories to follow.