Cotton Industry

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Utah’s cotton industry began soon after the Mormon pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley. Brigham Young intended for the Saints to be economically independent and began experiments in growing cotton.

Explorations in the early 1850s showed that the area around southern Utah offered potential for growing semitropical products such as cotton, sugar cane, grapes, figs, flax, and rice. The missionaries to the Indians, working with Jacob Hamblin, obtained cotton seed and planted, harvested, and ginned. The cotton was then carded, spun, and woven into thirty yards of cloth, and a sample was sent to Brigham Young.[1]

Fort Harmony, established in 1852, became the jumping-off point to establish the Cotton Mission. Fort Harmony missionaries petitioned the Utah territorial legislature as early as 1854 to send 150 men to establish cotton plantations and vineyards in the Santa Clara and Virgin river basins, but the legislature denied the request, citing lack of capital and Indian hostilities.[2]

Nearly 40 families, mostly with cotton growing experience (from Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Virginia, Texas, and Tennessee), arrived in Washington Utah in April of 1857. The region was dubbed "Dixie”.[3]

The settlers’ early attempts at growing cotton proved costly. Authors Doug Alder and Karl Brooks (in A History of Washington County: From Isolation to Destination) reported that the 1858 crop of 575 pounds was produced at a cost of $3.40 per pound. The next year, “they delivered a load of cotton to Brigham Young at $1.90 per pound,” Alder and Brooks wrote. “This was still too costly to compete with cotton raised by southern states where rainfall eliminated the need for irrigation, but it suggested possible success for Mormon attempts and self-sufficiency.”

The onset of the Civil War in 1861, which threatened the loss of cotton and other products from the South, prompted a quick response from Brigham Young.

At the October 1861 general conference, over 300 families were called to establish what came to be called the Dixie Cotton Mission. In addition to cotton, they were tasked with supplying sugar, grapes, tobacco, figs, almonds, olive oil and “such other useful articles as the Lord has given us, the places for garden spots in the south to produce,” Young wrote to Apostle Orson Hyde soon after the conference.[4]

“When progress was finally made toward getting water on the soil, they discovered that the soil was heavily impregnated with minerals which precipitated to the surface with irrigation and formed a hard crust, which prevented growth,” historian Leonard J. Arrington explained. “Cotton was finally planted on June 1, 1862, and the first year’s yield was 100,000 pounds of seed cotton.”

In October 1862, 200 additional families were called.

“In 1864, another large group of 50-60 families was called to settle along the Muddy River, approximately 100 miles southwest of St. George with the instructions to also raise cotton and other “semi tropical plants,” Leonard Arrington noted. They were reinforced with 163 families called three years later. All told, approximately 800 families equaling about 3,000 people were called.”[5]

“They were told that the Cotton Mission should be considered as important to them as if they were called to preach the gospel among the nations. Settlements involved in the Cotton Mission, some now erased from memories and maps, were Washington, St. George, Heberville (Tonaquint), Parowan, Grafton, Hurricane, Santa Clara, Harrisburg, Duncan's Retreat, West Point, Rockville, Millersburg, Shunesburg, Northrop, Springdale, Gunlock, Harmony, Kanarra, Hebron, Middleton, Pine Valley, Pinto, Leeds, Bellevue (Pintura), Panada, Eagleville, Cedar City, and Toquerville. There were also those on Muddy Creek—St. Joseph, St. Thomas, and Overton. Some of these settlements involved just a few families.”[6]

In addition to the blistering heat of the area’s summers, the cotton farmers encountered other obstacles such as alkali soil, the need to also attend to growing their own food, and the untamable Virgin River that washed out dams and swept away land and crops. They needed a way to market the cotton that was grown. They were also plagued with malaria and poverty. Residents also experienced difficulties with Indians during the Black Hawk War (1865–68). Overwhelmed by frustration and hopelessness, many families abandoned their farms.

By 1863, it was clear that the Cotton Mission would not succeed unless they established a factory which could efficiently produce quality cotton goods nearby. Soon after, a building equipped with machinery to process cotton and wool with 240 spindles was erected in Parley’s Canyon near Salt Lake City and operated there for two years.

The Washington cotton factory

Brigham Young had machinery imported and factories for processing cotton and wool were set up in Salt Lake City, Springville, and Parowan. “When it was determined that the Cotton Mission had a deteriorating economy and needed support, Young had the equipment operating in Salt Lake City dismantled and shipped south in 1866. The cotton factory was built in Washington near St. George because of its adequate water supply and its central location for the cotton growers. The colonists were asked to contribute their labor and materials to help build the factory.”[7]

“The factory did not begin operation until 1868 or 1869, depending on the source one reads, and in 1870 it was raised to two and a half stories with improved machinery that could handle wool or cotton and cotton/wool combinations. The new machinery led to better quality production, but skilled help was difficult to obtain to operate it. The venture was not making sense economically, especially with the mines in Pioche, Nevada, and later the mines of Silver Reef, providing lucrative markets for other products such as wine, molasses and dried fruits.”[8]

The growth of the industry also involved purchasing and selling beyond Utah Territory. However, the end of the Civil War had caused the price of cotton to drop.

The economics no longer justified growing cotton in Utah’s Dixie. Brigham Young finally advised the colonists to abandon their settlements in 1871.

“The cotton industry was revived briefly from 1873 to 1876 and again from 1893 to 1896. The factory made a profit for only a brief period in the 1890s, under the direction of Thomas Judd; it ceased operation as a cotton mill in 1910.”[9]

“No one ever became wealthy from the cotton factory, but it operated in the black some years of its existence, particularly when it diversified under Thomas Judd,” Alder and Brooks concluded. “Its demise was particularly painful for Washington City.”[10] The cotton factory has been restored and is on the National Register of Utah Historic Sites. It is home to a nursery.

Arrington concluded that the most significant accomplishment of the Cotton Mission was spearheading the settlement of the colonies of Southern Utah and Southern Nevada. 

Cotton is no longer commercially grown on Dixie’s farms, having been replaced long ago by alfalfa, grain, sugar beet seed, and other products. However, cotton will still grow in Utah’s Dixie. To demonstrate this, each year the senior missionaries assigned to the St. George Temple Visitors’ Center and surrounding historic sites plant a few rows of cotton at the Brigham Young Winter Home in St. George and the Jacob Hamblin Home in Santa Clara. Since these two great southern Utah pioneers were so instrumental in the success of the Dixie Cotton Mission, it seems appropriate that cotton can still be seen growing at their former homes.[11]

The city of Washington, Utah, celebrates Cotton Days each year at the end of April.

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