By Timothy Rawles / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ
Dotted along the Pinal County landscape are big tin buildings with large facades and crimped walls. They are usually isolated in areas surrounded by nothing but the Arizona dirt. These grey behemoths are cotton gins and may look like weather-worn eyesores, but they are very much an important part of Arizona’s past and present.
The uniformed traveler may be passing through Arizona and see nothing but miles of desert landscape dominated by Saguaro cacti. When the weather allows for rain to break through the sun, a storm or monsoon might create a dust devil — a whirling dervish of dirt that can range from small in size to frighteningly large.
That’s a fair assessment if you didn’t know that the Arizona soil, climate and irrigation techniques are the perfect combination for sustaining certain agricultural goods. Peaches, olives, and the much sought-after pecan are delicious reminders of what the state can deliver.
What the untrained visitor also may not know is that cotton is likewise a big commodity in Arizona, and it has been for over 100 years. But one might ask: If cotton is known to mostly come from the south, what’s it doing flourishing in such a dry desert climate; cotton comes from subtropical or Mediterranean climates like Mississippi or Texas?
To answer that question, we have to go back to the turn of the previous century. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the United States government set up a lab facility in Sacaton after discovering that the Pima Indians were successful cotton farmers. The engineers were able to create staple cotton which they named after the tribe.
By the 1950s, Pima cotton had 695,000 acres of prosperous crops. These plentiful harvests were mostly successful thanks to — at the time — an innovative watering system. Today, Arizona may only produce 2% of the country’s cotton, but 35 years ago it produced 66%.
To process the raw materials within the state, cotton gins were constructed. You can still see them standing tall around Pinal County. Gins are used to separate seeds, debris, and other chaff from the fiber.
Some are still working while others have closed entirely or have been repurposed into something else.
For instance, The Big Tin Cotton Gin in San Tan Valley has become a huge event venue, used for everything from gun shows to stylish weddings. It was once known as the Magma Cotton Gin. News of its closing caught the attention of a local farming family, and they purchased it turning it into a multi-purpose retail space.
The Eleven Mile Corner Gin in Casa Grande closed in 2020. Originally opened in the 1940s, the gin would process 400 bales of cotton that weighed a quarter of a ton each.
The Pinal Gin in Stanfield is still operational. During the season, the gins must keep running 24/7. You might have heard the term “keep the stands in.” A stand is a machine that separates the cotton from the seeds and debris. If one of the stands goes out, so do all the rest and that could lead to a financial strain on production.
“It’s never a good feeling to check the cameras and see the stands out,” said Kelci Murphree, manager at Pinal Gin. “That means there is a problem, and we are getting behind. This year, due to employee issues, we only ran a day shift, so it is important to be able to be as productive as we can within the 11-hour shift.”
There’s also the operational River Co-Op Gin in Coolidge. It provides services for nearby farmers. This gin started in 1956 near Gila River on Attaway Road. It moved to its current location on Skousen Road after merging with another company.
As a flood of new people began moving to Arizona and development in Pinal County is at an all-time high, landmarks such as the cotton gin may seem to be imposing on the beautiful southwestern terrain.
These historic buildings aren’t just silver boxes obstructing mountain views, they helped make the state an economic success, and the ones still in operation still do. Cotton brings $350 million to $500 million dollars into the state every year.
"If it wasn't for agriculture none of us would be here," said Pinal County cotton farmer Paco Ollerton in an Arizona Farm Bureau article from 2016. "The early farmers settling Arizona developed the current reservoir and distribution system residential and industrial customers use today."