Secular Historical Writings

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[Talk presented by John E. Enslen to a civic club in Prattville, Alabama, on an unknown date.]

Not an expert—some of you will likely know more than me—an amateur history buff. We all have more history in our own backyard than we will ever learn. Because of time constraints, my presentation will tell about Daniel Pratt up to the time of the Civil War.

1799 – Born in 1799 in Temple, New Hampshire, fourth of six children. His father owned a small farm and was a rigid Puritan where no novels were allowed in the house and no vain or trifling conversations on Sundays. Daniel worked on the farm and had very little schooling. He was mechanically inclined as a youth.

1815 – At age 16, he was apprenticed as a carpenter to John Putnam, a builder and architect. That one-on-one training was the trade school of their day.

1817 – At age 18 his mother died, and he was a loving caregiver to her prior to her death.

1819 – When Daniel was age 20, his master (John Putnam) fell on hard financial times and had to let Daniel out of his contract of apprenticeship. Daniel took passage on a ship to Savannah, Georgia, which was somewhat the equivalent of going west in his day. He took with him a hammer, a saw, and a level. By the time he docked, he had the ship captain’s confidence, and the captain loaned him $25 which he later repaid as promised. He found plenty of carpentry work for a couple of years.

1821 – At age 22, he moved to Milledgeville, Georgia, and for the next few years he designed and built large, white-columned, spiral stair-cased, antebellum homes for successful cotton planters in the Baldwin and Jones County areas. His architectural genius can still be seen today in some of these homes.

1825 – At age 26, he became a landowner for the first time, accepting 250 acres as part payment for building a plantation home. But he leased out the property and did not ever farm it.

1827 – By age 28, he had moved to the Ocmulgee River below Macon and was constructing boats for transporting cotton. He kept up a correspondence with his father, and it is through these letters that so much is known about his younger years. He wrote:

“I keep bachelor quarters and live in a little log cabin which I built on the bank of the river. My family consists of four Negro men and myself. I almost live a hermit’s life but could enjoy myself tolerably well were it not for the mosquitoes. I am now writing by candle light and if you will believe me they buzz around me almost equal to a swarm of bees. I am obliged to have my bed covered with mosquito netting.”

His father found out about Daniel’s buying slaves to help with the boat-building work, and his father condemned him for that. Daniel wrote to his father in a letter:

“My slaves are not numerous. I have but three and it is not probably that I shall keep them long. I suppose that you think I am ruined eternally. But were you to know my situation and the situation of the country I live in you would think differently. I have brought no man into bondage and I am in hopes I have rendered no man’s situation more disagreeable than it was before, but on the contrary I am in hopes that I have bettered it.”

1827 – Later that same year, 1827, and after a short courtship, he married a Connecticut girl named Ester who was visiting her well-educated, Academy-owning, brother in Clinton, Georgia.

Daniel had a generous side to him. When Daniel and his wife made a trip back to New Hampshire that year, 1827, to see his family, he gratuitously paid off John Putman’s house mortgage—the man who had taught him basic carpentry and architectural skills.

1831 – In 1831, Daniel made the most fortuitous business decision of his life. He and Ester moved to Clinton, Georgia, where Daniel took over the management of a small steam-operated cotton gin factory owned by his friend Samuel Griswold. As a result, he learned about the manufacture, sale, and distribution of gins. He learned so quickly that after a year Daniel was made a partner in the business.

1832 – In 1832, Daniel convinced his partner Samuel that they needed to move their operation closer to the cotton growing areas of central Alabama where they would be able to use cheaper water power instead of steam power. After first agreeing to the plan, Samuel backed out when he learned of an Indian uprising in east central Alabama. But Daniel was not deterred.

1833 – In 1833, three years before the Indians would be removed from Alabama, Daniel dissolved his partnership, loaded wagons with enough material to build 50 gins and moved his wife and two slaves to what is now the Elmore community near the intersection of Hwy 14 and Hwy 143. At that time, the Elmore area was a part of Autauga County, and would remain so until shortly after the Civil War. He found a water power site on Mortar Creek. (Named for Indian chief, not the building material by the same name.) There he set up a shop, assembled, and painted his 50 gins. They sold quickly to Alabama farmers in the Black Belt to the west and southwest.

1834 – By the next year, 1834, he needed a more permanent site with a larger power source so he tried to purchase land adjacent to the west bank of the Coosa River in West Wetumpka, a brand new city which had just incorporated. The landowners, sensing a desperate buyer, all wanted too much money for their lands, so Daniel began to search elsewhere.

He found a place called McNeil’s Mill in the wilderness of Autauga Creek, three miles downstream from where he would ultimately build his largest mill. In 1834, he entered into a five-year lease with McNeil.

He first built a log cabin with a mud chimney propped up with poles. While living in that structure, he built a two-story frame building that served as both a home and a shop for building his gins.

He and his workers moved into the upper floor, and he set up his shop on the ground floor.

1835–1839 – Between 1835 and 1839, he averaged producing 200 gins per year, about one every one-and-a-half days excluding Sundays. His methods were still primitive and required a lot of hand labor and ingenuity due to a lack of machine tools. He took much pride in his work, and his popular gin saws with a simplistic design were cut from sheets of steel that he imported from England through the port at Mobile. Each gin would have somewhere between 30 and 60 saws averaging 10 teeth per inch, depending on the style. Native yellow pine was plentiful and used for the wooden stand that held the gin. His production of 200 gins a year gives him a genuine claim to being Alabama’s first industrialist.

1835 – In 1835, during the second year of his lease with McNeil, he fully realized he would need to expand, and he felt he was making enough money to buy on credit 1,000 acres (about 1.5 miles square) of land. The land was heavily wooded and vine-vegetated and had a price of $21 per acre. He bought the land from Joseph May who had paid $1.25 an acre for it at the Cahaba Land Office less than 10 years previously.

Daniel paid May half of the $21,000 with $500 of his own cash and $10,000 in cash that he borrowed from two sources. The other half he paid in cotton gins at the prevailing price. By the end of the McNeil lease in 1839, the land and the mortgage debt on the land, which had been secured by four slaves and a quarter interest in the 1,000 acres, were fully paid for from earnings on the sale of gins. This 1,000-acre parcel, three miles up creek from the McNeil Mill, became the nucleus of Prattville, Alabama.

There, beginning in 1839, he built his manufacturing plant and devised his own unique tooling systems to meet his needs. He laid out a town by surveying the lots, streets, a public square, a school, and other public buildings. It would be the first town in Alabama dedicated to industry. Within 10 years, 800 people had taken up residence at the location.

His astounding success with the sale of gins provided the capital to invest in the establishment of other industries in quick succession. Thus followed the construction of cotton gin facilities that used his own gin of course, then a cotton mill with 100 looms to make cloth (importing managers from the north who had textile mill experience), a grist mill, a flour mill, a woolen mill, a sash/door/and blind factory, a wagon factory, a tin factory, a corn mill factory, and a foundry.

Now 2,000 people had employment, and Daniel became Alabama’s first millionaire. His workers who were skilled mechanics averaged $38 per month in salary. (That was completely tax free back then.) The unskilled labor was about $8 per month. He had some house slaves, but employed no slaves in his industries as there was an abundance of local white labor. In mill-village fashion, he built and rented company housing and sold goods on credit from a company store, built churches and schools for the people, and even taught Sunday school classes to them on Sundays.

With his own foundry, he increased his profit margins by making his own castings for his gins, making his own replacement parts, and also by selling other metal products, like railroad axles. His pig iron and iron ore came from Shelby County.

Based on demand, he began producing larger gins with more saws, up to 80 saws in a gin. They sold for $6 per saw or $480 for a large gin.

1842 – In 1842, he carved out 30 acres for personal use and built a large two-story home facing Autauga Creek. The house had white columns and a spiral staircase, like the homes he had built in Georgia about 20 years earlier. He added an art gallery to the back of his house to display his private collection of art.

1846 – In 1846, he bought a commercial lot in New Orleans and built a three-story sales and distribution center to cut out the need for middleman agents.

1849 – In 1849, Daniel wrote: “I have 10 times the interest in New Orleans as I have in Mobile, and I say that Louisiana has done as much toward building up Prattville as Alabama.”

1850 – By 1850, Pratt Gin Company, the name of his business, was the largest gin factory in the world with a strong customer base throughout the British Empire, France, Russia, Cuba, Mexico, Central and South America, and of course every cotton growing area in the United States from Alabama westward. His former partner Samuel Griswold dominated the Georgia and South Carolina markets.

Wealthy planters in the Mississippi River Valley, and later Texas, began ordering custom made gins with special woods and precious metals garnishing certain parts. It was an earlier version of proudly comparing your guns or your cars with those of your neighbor.

1854 – In 1854, Daniel built a new, 50 feet by 250 feet, three-story factory with elevators. The business could now produce 1,500 uniform gins per year. This building remains the oldest industrial building in continuous use in the South.

1854 – Also in 1854, he founded a pro-Whig newspaper called the Southern Statesman, in opposition to another newspaper that he grew to dislike.

By this time Daniel was a heavy investor in the building of railroads.

1857 – It was 1857 before Daniel took the time and effort and expense to patent his gin. The patent description reads: “A spiral movement is given the cotton within the box or hopper, and a fresh surface constantly presented to the saws, so that the cotton will be stripped from the seed without being cut or broken.”

1860 – By 1860, on the brink of the Civil War, he could not keep up with the distribution, so he contracted with 14 fulltime distribution agents in the Mississippi River Valley to supplement the distribution he was doing himself.

He was a prolific writer in the journals and periodicals of his day, most about industry or politics.

He never gave up his religious nature. In all of his land conveyances, he put a provision in the deed that prohibited the manufacture and sell of alcohol. But in maintaining the hypocrisy of his day, he fathered at least one child by a slave.

There is much more to the story, but I will close with this 1860 description of Prattville:

It was a town of 1,500 people, most of whom worked in the factories of Prattville or had been attracted there to serve the factory workers. The latter class included five lawyers, four doctors, seven merchants, one dentist, and seven teachers. The town had a public library with more than 3,000 volumes, two schools, four churches, and a town hall. Most of the public buildings and factories were constructed of brick. Pratt had built the town and dominated it as a benevolent despot. The local Democratic newspaper, the Autauga Citizen, often admitted his benevolences, but denounced him as a “tyrant.”

So there were plenty of strong and opposing views of Daniel Pratt, depending on your personal point of view. Perhaps at some future time you would like to learn about the impact of the Civil War and his subsequent business adventures that helped to establish Birmingham’s steel industry.

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