Local Williamsburg history doesn’t just stop with the historic district and Jamestown. Williamsburg is rich with the stories of the families, people, and lives that have inhabited it for the past 400 years. In this article our own Trish Thomas is cited with some very interesting information on a house that was put on the market in Williamsburg.
If you live in Williamsburg Virginia and want to learn about your homes potential history, or the surrounding history of your neighborhood, give us a call! We love to research tidbits of information about our local history.
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.