The Splendid Oil of Cotton
Ladies and Gentlemen! Boys and girls! Come one, come all! Step right up and taste for your self the finest new product on the market. It is the greatest cooking oil ever discovered by man. So, before it is all gone, get your sanitary can of hog-less lard right here for an unbelievably low, low price.
Cotton was king in Laurens County a century ago in 1910. In point of fact, the county's farmers ginned more than 37,323 bales, each weighing approximately a quarter of a ton. Do the math and you will see that the total produced weighed nearly 18.7 million pounds. The bales, if placed end to end, would stretch for more than 32 miles. That's a lot of cotton. That state leading mark would nearly double by 1912 when Laurens County's cotton fields yielded more than 30 million pounds, a state county record which stood until the late 1990s when machine picked mega farm counties in South Georgia broke the mark.
But what do you do with those pesky seeds? Well, you run the picked cotton through a gin and separate the seeds from the fibers. And, that's where this story begins. About two centuries ago, one enterprising young farmer discovered that after his cotton was ginned, he could crush the seeds and spread them into the soil to fertilize the next season's crops. That man, Henry C. Fuqua of Laurens County, is credited by many as being the first person to discover a use for the once considered useless by-product of cotton. Maybe he wasn't the first, but since he was one of us, we'll give him the credit until more convincing proof comes along.
Cotton oil, or should I say "cottonseed oil," is derived from crushing cotton seeds and extracting the oil. But, beware. You have to first treat the excretion. For if left untreated, cotton oil becomes a paralytic pesticide. Cotton oil was first used in cooking in the mid 1850s when cooks discovered that it supplemented lard to improve the pure hog fat substance. Cooks soon began to substitute it for olive oil, declaring it to be of equal quality. And besides, it was much, much cheaper.
The first documented cotton oil company in Dublin was the Dublin Oil Mill & Ice Company, which was purchased by the Southern Oil Company in 1901. M.E. Burts took over the management of the company from B. Aycock in the following year. Burts was known across the South as being one of best cotton oil men in the business.
The Southern Cotton Oil Company was one of the largest companies of its kind in the United States, with major offices in New York, Chicago, Savannah, and New Orleans. One of its main products was Wesson Snowdrift, the standard American shortening, healthful and nourishing. The company established its office on the southern side of East Jackson Street, one block from the courthouse. With its four batteries of four seventy-saw gins, the company could turn out thousands of gallons of cotton oil per day. In 1909, the company added a fertilizer plant which produced 600 tons of fertilizer per week. It was the city's third plant. Along with the Middle Georgia and the Dublin fertilizer companies, one hundred hands produced 375 tons of fertilizer per day in the city.
In the summer of 1910, the manager of the local branch of the Southern Cotton Oil Company staged a demonstration of its top product under the direction of Misses DeLettre. These culinary experts set out to prove the company's claim that its hogless lard was more economical than butter or lard for cooking and than olive oil for salad making. To prove their point, the sisters accepted standard recipes and substituted their product in the place of cow butter and hog lard. The ladies handed out a large supply of free copies of the company's cook books. You can still find them on Ebay for the buy-it-now price of $9.99.
In the winter of 1910, J.E. "Banjo" Smith, Jr., one of the top five leading business men of the Emerald City, convinced M.E. Burts to leave his position with the Southern Cotton Oil Company and join forces to establish the Laurens Cotton Oil Company on East Madison Street between the Artesian Bottling Works and Pope's cotton gin. When Burts came to Dublin, he earned a salary of $100.00 per month. Smith lured Burts to the new company by doubling that figure. A number of the county's biggest cotton farmers invested in the new project as a truly "local" operation.
With a daily capacity of 2,500 to 3,500 tons of cotton seed, the company boasted that it operated the largest cotton oil company between Macon, Savannah and Augusta. In the two-story brick building, two scales, with a capacity of 100,000 pounds each, were the envy of any cotton oil company anywhere in the country. The Laurens company also opened a fertilizer plant, bringing the city's total to five.
In 1912, Burts, who had been offered positions in Birmingham, Atlanta and Little Rock, took over the management of the Empire Cotton Oil Company, which was located on East Jackson Street, near Truxton Street. The company, in 1914, boasted that it was a full line cotton company. With a ginning capacity of 150 bales per day, the byproducts amounted to 45,000 tons of fertilizer and 450,000 gallons of cotton oil annually, along with large quantities of linters, and cattle feed consisting of meal, hulls, and cakes.
In November of 1920, the owners of the Empire and Southern Cotton Oil companies announced that they were closing their mills. The lack of seed was given as the reason for the closure. The lack of raw materials came from a near total collapse of the cotton market in Laurens County after the boll weevil nearly annihilated the cotton crop during World War I and its aftermath. The Southern Cotton Oil company remained in business here until the 1940s. You may have seen one of its billboards on the western wall of the H.H. Smith building on the courthouse square.
Today, Americans now produce more than a billion pounds of the light, tasty oil each year. Cotton oil is used in the manufacture of salad oil, margarine, whipped toppings, marinades, doughnuts, cookies, mayonnaise, and salad dressing. It is also one of the most common oils used in the frying of potato chips. And, you can still buy it in cans and bottles at selected stores across the country and online.
Some studies indicate that cotton oil, high in unsaturated fat, actually lowers LDL cholesterol more than corn oil and contains unusually high and healthier amounts of Vitamin E. Boosters claim it doesn't burn at higher temperatures and stays fresher longer, and naturally, it tastes great. Of course, some health experts disagree. Experts always disagree.
So, the next time you feel the urge to fry, scan the grocery store shelves and pick up America's first and oldest vegetable oil, the healthy, the crystal clear, the tasty, the healthy, the wonderful, hogless lard.