CLEVELAND — The cotton gin sits toward the back of Dockery Farms, filling the room the way a long-neck dinosaur fossil fills a museum exhibit hall. It looms over spectators and pulls the imagination to a time when its importance commanded attention.
A deafening roar would have filled the room where the gargantuan metal contraption was working, thick with heat. Men operating the machine would have been covered head-to-toe in cotton lint.
Its pipes would have exhaled seedless cotton. Its metal teeth would have threatened to cut off a man’s finger without hesitation.
And outside of it — just past the mule watering trough where bodies were dunked and souls were saved — the forefathers of blues would have played on the concrete porch of the commissary.
This was during the early 1900s when thousands worked the cotton fields and lived on Dockery Farms. Churches, schools, a post office and the commissary made the plantation feel like its own small town. A century later, some of those buildings, along with the cotton gin, remain mostly intact.
“To see the actual machinery and the equipment that those people used, and where they worked during the same time that the blues were being written and performed here, I think is a unique tie between the blues and what drew those people here, which was cotton,” said Bill Lester, executive director of the Dockery Farms Foundation.
That’s one of the reasons why Lester and members of the foundation thought it was important to restore the old cotton gin, thanks to a grant from the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area awarded in July. So few cotton gins still exist in the United States. As technology in cotton farming advanced, cotton gins became obsolete. People sold off the gins piece by piece, leaving the giant sheds that once housed them barren.
At Dockery, something else unfolded.
“They just turned the key and locked it and walked away. I imagine they intended to sell the equipment, but they also thought they might start up again next year or the year after. Three, four or five years pass and the equipment becomes almost impossible to restart,” Lester said.
The preservation of the gin and other buildings on site has garnered Dockery widespread attention. The property is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and, most recently, was designated a Mississippi Landmark by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. A Mississippi Blues Trail marker also cites the significance of the site.
Though the gin was turned off for good in the late 1950s, the inextricable link between the blues and the cotton industry lasts. And Dockery Farms, as B.B. King once said, may very well be the birthplace of the blues. So fate would have it that this robust reminder of how the blues came to be remains at Dockery.
“When we’re talking about cotton, particularly in Mississippi, you have to connect it to blues music. The two go hand in hand. If it’s not where blues was invented, in the cotton field, that’s certainly where it became the music that gelled into something we recognize today,” said Roger Stolle, who has written books, made films and produced films on all things blues. He also owns Cat Head, a Delta Blues and folk art shop in Clarksdale.
“It’s this voice of this culture and that is a culture of a people that grew up on plantations, in the cotton fields doing this work, living with cotton every day and just struggling to get by. This was the music, the voice of it all,” Stolle said.
William Dockery, who founded Dockery Farms in 1895, earned a reputation during the sharecropping era as someone who paid fair wages. Laborers at Dockery outearned laborers at competing farms by 10 cents a day. He also earned a reputation as someone who didn’t run off the bluesmen as most other plantation owners did.
Word spread of the high pay, attracting many workers to Dockery. Among the masses were seeds of talent that bloomed into blues legends, including Charley Patton, Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf.
Once a month on furnishing day, as it was called, thousands lined up around the commissary to receive their pay for working on the 28,000-acre farm. The bluesmen took advantage of their captive audience, playing on the commissary porch for the sea of people.
“All right, so here’s what they would do. They’d play for free here, get everybody riled up,” said Lester, standing in front of the porch’s remnant.
He points to the right of it, toward the Sunflower River where a bridge once connected the commercial part of Dockery to the residential.
“They’d walk across that one lane bridge and they’d go to Big Lou’s frolicking house. Big Lou’s was just a home. Remember, there were not juke joints in the Delta in the 1920s. There might be some in Memphis and maybe New Orleans but not the Delta. This was a life and death place, OK?” Lester said.
But the blues singers, as Lester says, were entrepreneurs, and they were smart. They would pay Big Lou to take all the furniture out of his house on Saturday afternoon. Then they would outfit each room with giant mirrors and oil lanterns.
“So, Big Lou’s would look like the Rolling Stones were coming. It’d be lit up with light and all that wild music, and they’d play for free right here and then [the musicians and the crowd would] cross the one lane bridge,” said Lester.
The story goes that no one could cross the bridge to hear the bluesmen without paying a toll, which is how the musicians got paid.
Lester’s storytelling, the plantation-era cotton gin and buildings that remain, the audio speakers on site that broadcast Charley Patton’s forlorn voice — they all ignite the imagination, create a sense of sacredness in this place and preserve the presence of the people who made these grounds hallowed.
To tour Dockery Farms, call Bill Lester at 662-719-1048 up to two weeks in advance. No fee is required to tour the grounds, but donations are accepted. Visit the Dockery Farms Foundation website here.
Photos by Rory Doyle: