The cotton plant is a perennial that naturally grows around the world between 47 degrees north and 37 degrees south latitude. Neolithic farmers domesticated cotton about 10,000 years ago and through archeological evidence we know the people of India began weaving cotton around 2,000 B.C. Soon cotton cultivation and processing spread to Egypt and down the east coast of Africa. By 1100 A.D. the people of West Africa were growing and weaving cotton cloth.
Engraving From 1867 Featuring The American Inventor Of The Cotton Gin, Eli Whitney. Whitney Lived From 1765 Until 1825.
In West Africa, by 1312, the Empire of Mali was being ruled by Mansa Musa; he is considered to be the richest man who ever lived. In 1324 Mansa Musa along with 60,000 people and 100 camels loaded with gold went on the Pilgrimage to Mecca (in Saudi Arabia.) A man named Ibn Fadl witnessed Mansa Musa’s arrival in Cairo, Egypt and he wrote, “Their cloth is white and made of cotton which they cultivate and weave in the most excellent fashion.” It was also said Mansa Musa wore cotton cloth woven with gold thread.
On the other side of the world cotton was also growing in Peru. Cotton has been cultivated in Peru for thousands of years; Francisco Pizarro found it being widely used in Peru in 1532. The Spanish noted this but paid little attention to it as gold was their primary interest.
In 1492 when Columbus landed in the West Indies, he saw that people wore cotton, and wrote 19 times in his journal about cotton. On November 6, 1492 he wrote (the ship’s crew) “saw a great quantity of cotton that had been spun and worked – in one house alone more than twelve thousand pounds of it.”
With cotton being cultivated all around the world since ancient times, someone had to find, make or invent a tool to separate the cotton from the seeds. Who was inventing such a tool? Everyone.
A Buddhist painting in the Ajunta Caves, Maharashtra, India shows the earliest evidence of a single roller cotton gin. The painting is from 500 A.D. The cotton gin in India was known as a Churka. Between the 12th and 14th centuries double-roller Churka gins appeared in India and China. In some areas these Churkas were foot powered or water powered.
This Cotton Gin illustration was published in 1881 “Popular history of the united states”
European Churkas were brought to the West Indies as cotton and tobacco were the cash crops of the Carribean Islands before sugar took over in the 1660s.
Most churkas or cotton gins were a roller style. In the 18th century many people in the American colonies were modifying the cotton gin; most of these modifications are still within the roller style of gins. What Eli Whitney did was to get rid of the rollers and replace them with metal rods. This was called a saw gin. Eli Whitney’s gin processed more cotton in a day than any previous gin, but it sacrificed quality for quantity. Whitney’s gin damaged the cotton fiber.
It can be seen that Eli Whitney did not invent the cotton gin. He was just one more person modifying an already existing machine.
On land that is now occupied by Cheatham Annex, about six miles from Colonial Williamsburg, there was once a thriving little village known as Penniman. This village was originally founded in 1916 by the Dupont Company to make dynamite, but World War I changed their plan and the sole industry in Penniman became the manufacture of TNT.
The wages being paid were so high that people from all over came to work at Penniman’s factories, yet local farmers found it hard to find laborers to work in the fields. The village had electricity, sewer, water and hard roads, all at a time when pigs roamed free on muddy Duke of Gloucester Street. The population grew to about 20,000 with 10,000 of them working in the plant.
Because so many men were in the military, women were the obvious choice for factory workers, encouraged to step out of their traditional roles and work at the plant to support “The Boys at the Front.”
Stuff one for the Kaiser! became a recruiting slogan, and the women came. Their job was to load powdered TNT into artillery shells. The TNT was as finely powdered as talcum, and it didn’t take long for it to poison the women. TNT poisoning turned their skin and nails dark yellow and turned their lips purple. The women were soon called “The Canary Girls.” The skin and nail discoloration weren’t the only effects; their bone marrow and their livers were damaged. The women suffered dizziness and nausea but the worst effect was that their immune systems were compromised.
The name Canary Girls was not a compliment or a term of endearment; these women were shunned by the people in the village and by the other workers. The Canary Girls were not allowed to sit with other people in the cafeteria; they were “socially distanced” from everyone else.
In spite of the poisoning the work went on, the village boomed, townspeople had to wait in long lines for a seat at one of the local restaurants, the bank, and the post office. Penniman was the most modern town in rural Virginia.
It all came to a halt in 1918 when the Spanish Flu came to the Peninsula — and to Penniman.
Because of the pandemic, public gatherings became illegal, schools were closed to children and reopened as hospitals, and public funerals were outlawed. People were told to wear a gauze mask whenever they went outside.
On October 13, 1918 a reporter at the Daily Press newspaper on the Peninsula wrote, “A Williamsburg undertaker had to requisition a truck to haul bodies from Penniman this morning… There is a scarcity of coffins here, the dealers having in hand only a small stock prior to the grip of epidemic.”
By October 18, 1918, around 6,000 Virginians had died of the Spanish Flu. On that day another reporter wrote that the undertakers in the Williamsburg area were being kept very busy, and that “baggage cars are always full of caskets.”
Locals later recalled seeing coffins stacked to the ceiling at the rail depot. So many died that the plant ran out of burial space, forcing the bu
rial of many at a local undertaker’s farm. There is no record of exactly how many died at Penniman; the only reference I have found was in a newspaper where a local reporter said the number he saw was “so large as to be unthinkable.”
World War l ended November 11, 1918, the TNT plant at Penninman closed and the majority of employees still living were packed on trains and sent to their respective home towns. The employees who remained immediately started to dismantle the town. Equipment was sold as salvage; houses were moved or torn down.
By 1920 the village of Penniman was gone, disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, a victim of war, manmade calamity and widespread fatal disease.
From her earliest memories of grade school, Trish Thomas has always loved history. “I was the strange child who read every biography,” she says. She grew up in Virginia Beach and embraced the history of the area. She followed her passion by majoring in history and cultural anthropology at Old Dominion University.
She met her husband, David, also a history buff, in a yoga class. While Trish worked at a variety of jobs including working for Barnes & Noble, she enjoyed working in museums and historic sites the most. As their children, Emily and Ben, grew up the family participated in Revolutionary War re-enactments as a hobby. Later, Ben also became a Civil War re-enactor. Once, Trish saw him standing asleep on a Civil War battlefield. “That was very authentic,” she says. “Conditions were so harsh that soldiers often slept standing up.” Ben, now 26, works as an electrician.
Emily played fiddles and the hammered dulcimer. She is now 28 and works as a costume designer, a skill she learned from Trish. “We took ballet from the same instructor. A Russian ballet costumer taught me how to make cosBy Susan Williamson tumes, and I shared with my daughter,” Trish says. “Emily makes mostly anime costumes.” For ten years, Trish worked at historic houses in Virginia Beach. An older woman at one of the houses encouraged her to learn to “dress” flax, the process by which one readies flax for the spinner, so that the art would continue. The steps involved are to ret it, break it, skutch it and hackle it.
“In the 18th century, a young girl would be expected to pull ten pounds of flax per day which would make enough linen for a man’s shirt. Linen was a poor man’s fabric; the rich wore wool and cotton. The flax is planted at the first of March. When the seed pods turn down, or after 100 days for really fine linen, the stalks are pulled. The retting process, which separates out the fiber, takes up to a week.”
Trish processes her flax in a horse trough and changes the water every 48 hours. The flax is then dried before breaking it, skutching it and finally combing it with a hackle. By the end of July, the hair-like fiber is ready for the spinning wheel. Trish has tried spinning linen in and says it requires moist fingers. Once spun, the linen yarn is ready for the loom.
In today’s world flax is either grown for seed or fiber, but usually not both, since the stalk is very woody by the time the seed is fully formed. Commercial flax is harvested by machine. Nebraska is one of the leading producers. The plant blooms briefly before forming seed pods and Trish speaks of the beauty of a flax field in bloom with its blue flowers.
Trish often demonstrated the dressing process at historic houses. An audience of older Romanian women at Polar Forest remembered dressing flax in their youth. As a result, Trish was interviewed for a Romanian magazine, although she has never seen the article. Trish worked at the Old Coast Guard Station in Virginia Beach, First Landing State Park and the Chrysler Museum and often gave presentations at small museums.
In 2011, Trish and David moved to Williamsburg and decided to start their own historic tour company, Williamsburg Walking Tours, which opened in 2012. Trish says, “I wanted to portray history accurately, and tell stories about the good and the bad.”
They currently offer three tours: Walkabout History, which covers 1699 through the restoration of Williamsburg; Civil War Tours; and African American History in Williamsburg, 1619 through Reconstruction. The Williamsburg Walkabout tour becomes Williamsburg Door-to-Door Christmas for the month of December. The one and a half hour tours are available 12 months a year. As Trish shares her stories, she admits that the tours sometimes go overtime. Her enthusiasm and wealth of knowledge bubbles out as she speaks.
Among Trish’s favorite clients are the students from the Virginia Department for the Blind and Visually Impaired School in Richmond. Local Lion’s Club member Jack Trotter, along with other local Lions come to assist this tour each year. “Many of the students are just learning to use their sticks and the terrain mix of grass, pavement and cobblestones can be overwhelming,” Trish says. Trish and David were honored to be invited to graduation ceremonies at the school.
Their company also takes PowerPoint presentations of their tours on the road and frequently present customized programs to family reunions of families with history connected to the area. “Often, elderly members are not able to walk very far, so we bring the tour to them,” Trish says. “We research connections to their family or to a particular state or location.”
Trish and David added the Civil War tour after she read the book, Defend This Old Town by Carol Kenttenburg Dobbs. “During the Civil War, Williamsburg was full of amazing single women. Their everyday stories are both funny and tragic.” Williamsburg was a closed city and considered a safe place, but food was scarce and many of the formerly prominent families became insolvent.
Trish says, “A visitor in 1870 noted that many houses had been torn down for kindling, firewood and bricks. Those who left their homes lost them. Union soldiers took what they wanted.”
Today, Trish notes, Colonial Williamsburg continues to evolve from its beginnings. “One of the things I like is that Colonial Williamsburg will change things as new historical records are unearthed.” She says some people like to take a tour before buying a ticket to Colonial Williamsburg, while others tour after visiting the historic buildings, summarizing the importance of what they have seen.
Trish says Williamsburg before Rockefeller was a pleasant 20th century town, as can be seen in the Harvard Archives film, shot in 1930. In 2014, a Colonial Williamsburg photographer videoed the same route. The two films can be seen side-by-side in the video, Williamsburg Then and Now which is available on YouTube. Local reaction to the restoration was mixed and Rockefeller was, after all, a Yankee. But as some local women were quoted, “Yes, but he’s our Yankee.”
By using stories such as this, Trish and David augment the mission of Colonial Williamsburg and the sharing of subsequent history. Trish is a lifelong learner and continues to research local history through letters, papers and journals, always looking for more stories. She is fascinated with the people of the area and stories of how they lived and she is equally interested in the people who join the tours. “My favorite part,” she says, “is that by the end of the tour, I have always learned something new.”
For Trish Thomas, lifelong learning about history is a passion. Today, she and David use their knowledge and enthusiasm to make history come alive for others.
Article written by Susan Williamson January 2020 edition of The Williamsburg Next Door Neighbor publication.