PLANTATION AGRICULTURE SHAPED much of Arkansas 's early history. Plantations existed throughout Arkansas's lowlands region, especially in the Arkansas, White, Ouachita, Red, and Mississippi River Valleys, but the rich, black soil of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain, or delta, was the most fertile. "King Cotton" dominated the state's agricultural output through the nineteenth century. After the Civil War, sharecropping and the crop lien system replaced slavery, serving as tools to perpetuate upper-class white planters' control over poor laborers, both black and white. After World War II, mechanization and crop diversification changed cotton farming, making it more efficient and profitable. Fewer people could cultivate more land with the help of tractors and mechanical cotton pickers, and farmers minimized risk by planting multiple crops or rotating crops from year to year. The mechanization of cotton farming also broke the vicious cycle of tenancy by eliminating the need for hand labor amidst a great exodus of former sharecroppers.1 Although cotton is still an important crop in the delta, it no longer has a stranglehold on the regional economy. A variety of other crops are also grown today, including rice, soybeans, wheat, and corn. Cotton gins are the most visible reminders of King Cotton's reign. Four National Registerlisted gins illustrate the evolution of the cotton industry in Arkansas.
The Hanger Cotton Gin (National Register-listed October 8, 1976), located about seven miles southeast of downtown Little Rock in the small community of Sweet Home (Pulaski County), was originally constructed as a steam-powered cotton gin in the mid-nineteenth century. The Hanger Cotton Gin is the oldest National Register-listed gin in Arkansas, dating to at least the mid- 1870s, with some family accounts placing its construction as early as 1852.2 Constructed out of cypress planks on a stone masonry foundation, the gin is in remarkable condition for its age. The cypress logs used to construct the Hanger Cotton Gin were cut on the property.
The imposing three-story gin is situated on a hill, so its unique stone foundation is only visible from the south and east elevations. The walls are clad in board-and-batten siding, and the roof is covered with corrugated tin. The gin features several small window openings on its upper two stories, and several door openings of various sizes punctuate the stone foundation. The gin has a dirt floor and a side-gabled roof with a centrally located front-facing cross gable, which served as the elevator shaft.3
The gin is significant for its role in agricultural production and for its association with the Hanger family. Peter Hanger was born in Staunton, Augusta County, Virginia, around 1807. He moved to Kentucky at an early age and arrived in Chicot County, Arkansas, where he acquired property in 1 834. By 1848, Hanger resided in Little Rock, and in 1850 he married Margaret Matilda Cunningham, daughter of Dr. Matthew and Eliza Bertrand Cunningham, two of Little Rock's first permanent white residents.4 Peter Hanger owned a sizeable amount of land stretching from the Arkansas River south to Sweet Home, where he operated a large farm.5 He was instrumental to the early development of Little Rock in contracting with the U.S. government to provide mail service to Arkansas, and he operated both steamboat and stagecoach lines.6 Peter Hanger and his wife had at least three children: Margaret Matilda, Frederick, and Eugene. When Margaret Matilda Cunningham Hanger died, her daughter, Margaret Matilda Hanger, inherited land in Sweet Home, taking possession of it when she married Judge William Cummins Ratcliffe.7
Even before William C. and Margaret Matilda Ratcliffe became managers of the land in Sweet Home, Peter Hanger and his son, Frederick Hanger, had built the Hanger Cotton Gin on the property.8 The Hanger family sharecropped the land, and the steam-powered gin processed the cotton grown there. …