From the time I was six years old , I took the school bus to Redwood School until I graduated in 1954. The bus drove through the Blakel y Plantation land and passed their home which occupied a ridge mostly hidden from view by large hardwood tries. There was a certain mystery about the home and the occupants We knew the family dated back to pre-Civil War times, however the children of the current family did not attend Redwood School. Over the years my father and D. C. Blake became friends. Mr. Blake was often involved in some project that need a piece of equipment or a repair and my father loved to take on the challenge of creating or repairing something out of the ordinary.
On a visit home I was told of a project the family had undertaken. They were building a sailing ship based on plans they had obtained from the Smithsonian Museum. They had decided to limit the materials and tools as much as possible to lumber cut on their land and to use hand-tools they had made for themselves. The Yazoo River was not too far from their home, so they planned to haul the boat to the river, attached temporary outboard motor and take the ship to New Orleans and sail it in the Gulf of Mexico. When I heard this I urged my father to take me for a visit to see this project. We went there and were very kindly received. They generously took us around the project and answered the many questions we had. I was blown away by some of the walnut and persimmon hand planes they had made. The deck was walnut. The mast had come from a tall tree in their forest. They obviously greatly enjoyed the project, I told them it seemed to me that, "everyday is Saturday." The boat was christened, "The Bogle." A wonderful detaied article about the boat building history of the Blake family was written by Nick Blake. It is published here.
Mr. Blake told me he was involved in another project, the restoring of a steam engine which had been used to power a cotton gin from before the Civil War. He had constructed a walnut paneled building near the house to house the engine. I told him of my interest in steam engines and he kindly gave me a tour. It was a magnificent restoration. He provided me with a little self-made booklet with pictures. They are reproduced below in the Gallery. He had no information about the manufacturer as the name plate was missing. The gin dates to about 1849-1853 according to information in Benson Blake's diary.
After conducting some research it is my belief this steam engine was made by the American Machine Works. This is the manufacturer of the boiler cap contained in Mr. Blake's photos. Here is a entry from the New England Farmer (Boston, Massachusetts)14 Jun 1851, Sat. Sadly this Springfield, MA, company was known to be pro-slavery as many of its customers were southern plantations.
A second entry in the New England Farmer (Boston, Massachusetts)29 Jan 1876, Sat seems to confirm this. Tyler was awarded a Silver Medal for the Best Truss Engine by the American Institute of New York in 1855. It is possible the Blake engine was one of these. The American Machine Works were very well-known for their firearms. The supplied weapons and equipment at many armories of the time.
It is likely the steam engine was shipped out of Boston to New Orleans, then by steamboat up the Mississsippi River to Vicksburg and finally by wagon and mules to Blakeley Plantation.
The color photos are of the Blakely cotton gin steam engine partly restored as of June, 1978.
The engine is of 10-inch bore and 25-inch stroke. The slide valve is as long as the cylinder. The valve rod is made thin to flex just outside of the stuffing gland. Flywheel is one piece casting 8-foot in diameter; rim is 15-inches wide.
The throttle valve that was actuated by the governor beam is missing. The name plate that was at the base of the governor is missing. There is no lettering on engine anywhere. Oilers for inboard main bearing, cross-head slippers and steam chest are missing. Cylinder drain cocks are missing.
The black and white photo of the engine in the gin shows a later type governor in place of the throttle valve, the name plate, and line shaft drive. This photo and the one of the gin building were taken by Mr. Charles A. Bennett about 1935. Other photos show the slide valve arrangement and cast iron boiler head of one of the two original boilers. The last time the gin ran was perhaps 1915.
Benson Blake owned three cotton plantations, one of which was Blakely, where this engine was located. It appears that the gin he was building in 1853 was the third gin to be on Blakely as in his diary in 1844 and after he often mentions the gin field and the old gin field in the same sentence. It is not clear whether the engine was new or from his old gin.
The following are quotes from the diary of Benson Blake:
“1841, Nov. 11th—Sold Whatley 277 yds of bagging, 640 lbs of rope, one bundle of twine at Vicksburg prices of this date.
1849, Aug. 30th—The gin is running.
1852, June 22nd—Cleaning up the gin house ready for ginning.
1853, Jan. 24th—Finished picking cotton on fifteenth but still ginning.
1853, April 12th—About 45,000 bricks made.
1853, June 13th—Hauling sand and lime for gin house. Ready to lay off foundation.
1853, June 20th—Gin house foundation started.
1853, July 17th—Stack not half done and gin timbers not all out.
1853, Nov. 20th—The framing of my gin most done. The boilers brought home and the brick masons making cisterns and ready to set the boilers.
1853, Dec. 25th—The new gin, the boilers and engine up, the machinery all at the spot, the brick work nearly all done. The frame not half up.
1854, March 13th—nothing more done to the gin house. The frame up and the mill and saw have been running since the first of February. (He was sawing lumber to make gin house).
1854, Sept. 14th—The gin house not yet done. William has been sick. Scaffolds not finished nor the press up nor the stands set.
1854, Oct. 20th—My gin is running and doing well.”
The gin was being torn down in 1940 and at that time D. W. Blake loaned the engine to Mr. Charles A. Bennett, Principal Agricultural Engineer, U.S.D.A. Mr. Bennett put the engine on display at Stoneville, Miss. where it remained until it was returned to me in 1974.
An article by Mr. Bennett in the August 11th, 1956 issue of The Cotton Gin and Oil Mill Press mentions the gin and shows a photograph of it.
Authentic information is needed on the missing parts.
D. C. Blake, Box 68, Redwood, Miss. 39156
The first evidence available to the U.S. Cotton Ginning Research Laboratory is a wooden cleaner constructed by a gin hand in 1840 at the Blakely Plantation Gin a few miles north ... steam engine, which is on display at the Blakely Plantation.