Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery

By John Michael Vlach | Go to book overview
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EIGHT
Production Machinery and Buildings

Included among the structures on most plantation estates were the devices and machines needed to prepare the crop for market. On tobacco plantations, for example, a "prize" or press was considered an essential piece of equipment. One type of tobacco press consisted basically of a screw-operated ram set in a heavy timber frame large enough to hold a "hogshead," a barrel-shaped container four feet long and two- and-a-half feet in diameter. With other, tobacco presses, long levers were used to force between 1,000 and 1,300 pounds of loose tobacco into a hogshead. 1 Only a few of these machines have been found at plantation sites, mainly because many tobacco planters, particularly those in the Chesapeake region, shifted to wheat and livestock production as early as the mid-eighteenth century. Moreover, after 1860 prizing was generally abandoned by tobacco farmers as they discovered that the process was harmful to the leaves and as the owners of tobacco factories complained that prized leaves were too hard to separate after they were removed from their barrels. 2

Even examples of the mule-driven cotton press, another machine based on simple screw action that was once ubiquitous all across the South, had become rare by the first decades of the twentieth century. Fortunately, during the 1930s two presses were still in place at the C. L. Dunham plantation in Shelby County, Alabama, although both were by then already in ruins. Drawings of their surviving elements provide a trustworthy basis for a reasonable re-creation of these devices (figs. 8.1, 8.2).

A cotton press could stand as much as forty feet tall. Its sturdy timber frame supported a large, threaded wooden shaft more than a foot in diameter over a boxlike form in which bales were shaped. From the top of the screw, two long beams stretched outward and downward almost to the ground like arms. Mules harnessed to these

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