At first glance, you might think that Therrell L. Pierce was a homebody. After all, he’s been the manager of McNutt Gin Co., Inc., at Boyce, La., for 30 seasons, starting in the fall of 1988.
But that would be an incorrect assumption about Pierce, who has seen the insides of more than 200 cotton gins, repairing or building or helping build facilities across the U.S. cotton belt and in Guatemala and Columbia.
Pierce, who was honored as the Southern Cotton Ginners Association Ginner of the Year on the eve of the 2019 Mid-South Farm and Gin Show at Memphis, Tenn., attributes his wide-ranging experiences to the seasonal working schedule for cotton ginners. That and the fact he started out making repairs to gins early in his career. “The ginning season is usually finished in late fall or early winter,” he says, “and after you’ve done your maintenance, you can take on other projects. For me, that’s been working on other cotton gins.”
One of the more satisfying projects for him was the construction of the Tanner and Company Gin at Frogmore, La. Pierce and his son, Curtis, worked together to build the facility on the historic Frogmore Plantation in Concordia Parish near the Mississippi River.
“My son was on the quarter system in college, and we were able to fly over, work on the gin, and then fly back,” he says. “It would take us about two hours to drive from Boyce to Frogmore, but we could fly it in about 30 minutes.”
CENTRAL AMERICA GINS
The elder Pierce first became interested in flying when he was working on cotton gins in central America in 1978 and 1979. “They would fly us from Guatemala City out to the cotton gins in the countryside. They paid their employees in cash, and someone held up the truck carrying the payroll and killed the guards. After that, they decided it would be safer to fly to the gins.
“It took us a while to get down to the gins in the region when we were flying. Guatemala City, the capitol of Guatemala, is at 6,000 feet and some of the gins were almost at sea level.”
When he returned to the U.S., he learned to fly and bought his first airplane. Since then he has built several planes, along with several automobiles. “When we worked on Tanner Gin, it was a lot of fun to fly over the country between Boyce (which is located on the Red River north of Alexandria in central Louisiana) and Frogmore (in the heart of the Louisiana Delta).
Pierce grew up in Rayville in northeast Louisiana, and graduated from Rayville High School. In 1969, he began working for C&D Gin Repair Company at Rayville, the first of two tenures with the company. The second time he became part owner of C&D. In between, he worked for Rayville Gin Supply, traveling to gins around the state and learning more about ginning and how to operate gins more efficiently. That included working on lint cleaners.
In 1973, when gin profits were going through one of their periods of getting squeezed, Pierce spent a lot of time improving mote cleaners to help gins improve their bottom line. “We decided we needed to retrieve more cotton and have less of it going out the back of the gin. We started working on motes, putting in two stages of mote retrievers. For a long time, we were getting 8 cents to 10 cents a pound for motes, but last year clean motes brought 20 cents to 22 cents a pound.”
Pierce also worked on improving bale-handling in gins. In 1983, he was one of the designers of the Bespress system for compressing bales after ginning. Two years later, he sold the Bespress Company to Continental Gin and then went to work for the company.
In 1988, he left Continental to become manager of McNutt Gin Co. He has continued to make improvements in the ginning process at McNutt in the 30 years since.
The 2018 ginning season tested Pierce and the patience of his employees. “When outsiders walk into a gin and see people standing around, they think you have too many employees,” says Pierce. “But that’s not really the case. If a gin is running properly, especially a modern gin, employees should just be monitoring the operation to make sure everything is running smoothly.
“Last fall, our employees were having to constantly check the equipment and make adjustments. The rains delayed the harvest, and they also created moisture conditions that made operating the gin efficiently very difficult.”
Frequent rains kept pickers out of the field and raised the moisture levels of cotton that had been picked. Transporting modules became a challenge — both to get them out of the mud in the fields and to move them off the gin yard and into the gin.
“We normally gin 240 to 250 bales during a 12-hour shift,” says Pierce. “Last fall, we averaged about 80 bales per 12-hour shift. Ideally, the bales are around 7 percent moisture when we gin them, but last fall they were anywhere from 4 percent to 20 percent. The machine pegs at 20 percent so it could have been higher.”
MUD, DREARY WEATHER
The adverse conditions took their toll on gin employees. “Thanksgiving was the first day most of them had had off in nine weeks,” says Pierce. “We continued to have weekly safety meetings to remind everyone of the importance of being careful. The mud and the dreary weather just made it tough on everyone.”
McNutt Gin Co., was started in the 1920s. The owners built a new gin at the current location on Mill Race Road in Boyce in 1952 and rebuilt it in 1964. An upgrade was completed in 1986, two years before Pierce became the gin manager.
“I’ve talked to a historian who has written about this area,” he says. “She says that in the 1920s there were a lot of farmers who had 20 acres of land, which was a good-sized farm in those days. About half of those would be in cotton. All those farmers would haul their cotton to the local gin.”
Pierce has continued to update the facilities at McNutt to include new automation and keep the gin operating as efficiently as possible. Safety has been an ongoing priority at McNutt Gin which has received the Southern Cotton Ginners Association’s Platinum Award seven times and the Diamond Award for its most recent year of operation.
Although cotton has had its ups and downs in Louisiana in the last 15 years, the acreage served by McNutt Gin has remained relatively constant. “At one time, there were 14 gins between Shreveport and Alexandria,” says Pierce. “Now there are three. One of the biggest problems we face is good cotton land being converted to residential subdivisions.
STAYED WITH COTTON
“The producers who own McNutt Gin want to grow cotton,” he noted. “Several operations are now in their second and third generation of ownership. Some have tried other crops like sweet potatoes. We’ve also seen sugarcane moving up this way from south Louisiana. But these producers have stayed with cotton.”
The gin has handled as many as 20,000 bales some years, but the average is closer to 12,000.
“Our location really dictates how many acres of cotton we can gin,” Pierce notes. “We’re limited by development on each side of the gin yard, so we can’t grow beyond the 11.7 acres we have for storing cotton.”
Pierce has been thinking about retirement, but hasn’t set a date yet. “A lot of people depend on him,” says Milissa Hoyt, office manager at the gin and Pierce’s youngest daughter. “They look up to him because he has always been fair and honest and treats others like he would like to be treated. He is a man of great character and integrity.”
Therrell Pierce and his wife, Barbara, have been married 52 years. Barbara worked with Therrell at McNutt for 25 years before Milissa joined the operation. The Pierces have another daughter, Lesa. They have been active in Central Missionary Baptist Church in Tioga, La., for years.