War often causes a lack of availability of goods. Out of necessity during the Civil War (1861-1865), Kansas farmers attempted to raise cotton because that southern product was cut off from the northern states. Senator Jim Lane is said to have obtained a quantity of cotton seed, which in turn he distributed to Kansas farmers who planted the crop in the eastern portions of the state. These cotton growers needed a gin to remove seeds from the bolls before shipment to market.
Joseph Piazzek, a Polish immigrant who came to what is now Valley Falls in 1854, seized the opportunity by ordering this cotton gin from the Southern Cotton Gin Company of Bridgewater, Massachusetts. The gin cost $60, plus $40 for shipping, and Piazzek quickly put it into use upon its arrival in Kansas. According to the Topeka Capital on August 1, 1915, Piazzek took one-fifth of the cotton processed in payment for his services; his share quickly amounted to one thousand pounds, which he took to Leavenworth and sold for $1,000. Piazzek later began carding his share and sold it as batting for 95 cents a pound. Customers came from as far away as Fort Scott in southeastern Kansas.
Piazzek was a very successful entrepreneur. When he first arrived at Valley Falls he allegedly had only a quarter to his name, and that he apparently lost the first night in a card game. But he quickly joined a group of men who built and operated a dam and sawmill on the Delaware River in Jefferson County. Eventually Piazzek was able to buy the mill, and did good business as the area was settled and there was a demand for lumber. But Piazzek didn't stop there; when there was a need for a corn and feed mill, he installed a grinder. When farmers began raising wheat, he added a flour mill. When settlers began raising sheep, he added a woolen mill. By 1878 he was nearly a millionaire.
It was wise that Piazzek diversified, for although the growing of cotton continued for a few years and seemed to pay, the conclusion of the Civil War—and the renewed availability of southern cotton combined with the predominance of more profitable crops in Kansas--largely brought an end to the attempt to grow cotton in the state. After years of sitting unused, the cotton gin was donated to the Kansas Historical Society by Joseph Piazzek in 1915. It represents the efforts of the early Kansans to succeed in trying times.
Cotton is still grown in Kansas' southern counties in small amounts. Production in 2000 was 22,000 bales, one-tenth of one percent of the total amount grown in the United States. For the few who grow cotton it pays well as a supplemental crop.
Joseph Piazzek's cotton gin is in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History.
Entry: Cotton Gin
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: January 2002
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.