Crossroads of cotton by benbenzhou


Crossroads of cotton

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                                of cotton
                                 This influential industry’s
                                 past meets the future at
                                 Memphis museum


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                       February 2010 Volume 51, Number 2
 PRST STD          Visit our official Web site at
At Memphis museum,
this influential industry’s
past intersects the future
By Allison Morgan                           truly functioned as
                                            a neighborhood.”

        he crossroads of cot-                  In recent years,
        ton can be found where              the electronic evo-
        Union Avenue meets                  lution in commodi-
Front Street in downtown                    ty trading and attri-
Memphis.                                    tion in the industry
   On this corner, cotton farm-             have virtually
ing and marketing converge at               moved cotton out
the historic Memphis Cotton                 of Memphis. Only
Exchange, where the “king” of               a handful of cotton
cash crops has been traded for              merchants like
more than 130 years. During                 Turley still work
the first half of the 20th century in the 11-story
— the industry’s heyday — the               Cotton Exchange
exchange was the city’s social              building. The
and economic epicenter. Front               Internet and cell
Street, known as “Cotton Row,”              phones have re-
was lined with cotton-related               placed deals made
companies and bustled with                  by handshakes and LEFT: A typical scene from the Memphis Cotton Exchange in 1939 shows traders gathered to buy and sell cotton b
                                                                        are a post office branch and the Western Union office, where telegraphs were continually sent and received to ma
cotton buyers and sellers, all              telegraphs. Busi-           Museum, which tells the story of this commodity’s influence on Memphis and the Mid-South. Restored to look like
benefiting from the reputation              nesses related to
Memphis had built as a world                the industry have closed or                   cotton business. Rather than                and the world — would at some
leader in the market.                       relocated.                                    see the space rented out and                point be forgotten if we didn’t
                                               Cotton, however, remains                   irreversibly renovated by a new             do something to preserve it.”
                                            an important part of the city’s               tenant, Turley says he decided                 The museum celebrates cot-
  l Memphis                                 history and character, and                    the room needed to remain                   ton “from field to fabric” with
                                            Turley has been instrumental in intact as an archival entity.                             interactive exhibits, comprehen-
   “The commerce that took                  helping to preserve the cotton-                  “Cotton is still a big story             sive displays, and educational
place here is really interest-              trading traditions as founder                 for our area, but the old way of            presentations. Around 10,000
ing,” says Calvin Turley, who               and board chairman of the Cot- doing business was fast vanish-                            guests each year visit the
has spent 37 years as a cotton              ton Museum inside the Mem-                    ing,” says Turley. “We no longer museum to learn how cotton
merchant at the exchange. “In               phis Cotton Exchange building.                trade cotton through a localized, production has evolved from
the old days of cotton trade, we            The museum, which opened in                   door-to-door market. I realized             hand-picking to module-build-
had to be in close proximity to             March 2006, is housed on the                  that this piece of commercial               ing, how cotton influenced the
each other in order to do busi-             exchange’s trading floor, no lon- history for the Memphis com-                            arts and entertainment of Mem-
ness. This whole neighborhood               ger needed in the modern-day                  munity — as well as the region              phis, how cotton was marketed
                                                                                                                                      on Front Street and through the
                                                                                                                                      exchange, and how cotton is
                                                                                                                                      fashioned into clothing, textiles,
                                                                                                                                      and numerous by-products.
                                                                                                                                      The lobby of the building also
                                                                                                                                      houses the “Cotton Hall of
                                                                                                                                      Fame” that honors influential
                                                                                                                                      people in the industry.
                                                                                                                                         “There are other cotton
                                                                                                                                      museums, but there is no other
                                                                                                                                      story like this,” says Carol Perel,
                                                                                                                                      a Memphis native who has
                                                                                                                                      been operations manager of the
                                                                                                                                      museum since November 2008.
                                                                                                                                      “Memphis is unique. We hold
                                                                                                                                      a special place in the cotton
                                                                                                                                      industry and history.”
                                                                                                                                         Because of its strategic
LEFT: Carol Perel, a former elementary school teacher and restaurant owner, has been operations manager of the Cotton Museum          position on the Mississippi
since November 2008. In addition to hosting schoolchildren, senior citizens, and other groups, she says the museum is becoming
a popular stop for visitors touring Memphis. RIGHT: Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture now grades cotton samples with
                                                                                                                                      River, Memphis has long been
high-volume instruments, cotton “classing” used to be an art form practiced by trained professionals, like these men in the 1930s.    a stronghold of commerce and

16      February 2010
     of                  cotton                                                                                     daily prices, and start
                                                                                                                    making deals with
                                                                                                                                                      Museum visitors can hear
                                                                                                                                                  an audio re-creation of what
                                                                                                                    their contacts.               the Western Union office might
                                                                                                                        The Memphis               have sounded like on a typical
                                                                                                                    Cotton Museum                 business day, with telegraph
                                                                                                                    brings these “old             operators calling out messages
                                                                                                                    days” of cotton               and giving runners delivery
                                                                                                                    trading to life with          instructions.
                                                                                                                    display cases filled              Adjacent to the telegraph
                                                                                                                    with photos, memo-            office is a long row of telephone
                                                                                                                    rabilia, and audiovi-         booths that were used by trad-
                                                                                                                    sual presentations.           ers to contact farmers, brokers,
                                                                                                                    The focal point of            gins, mills, or other business-
                                                                                                                    the museum is the             men. Two switchboards — one
                                                                                                                    large blackboard              of which is still on display —
                                                                                                                    high above the                kept the calls organized and
                                                                                                                    trading floor, where          transferred to the right people.
                                                                                                                    prices from the                   “Cotton trading was built on
                                                                                                                    three main cotton             relationships and trust, especially
                                                                                                                    futures markets —             in the old days but even today,”
                                                                                                                    New Orleans, New              says Perel. “That’s why about
                                                                                                                    York, and Liver-              half of the world’s cotton is still
                                                                                                                    pool — were once              traded through Memphis, even
                                                                                                                    continually updated           though we’re in a virtual market.
                                                                                                                    by hand. Today, the Our traders established those re-
 based on the futures prices that are being updated on the large blackboard by the “markers.” Below the board       board is “staffed”            lationships early and maintained
ake deals and disseminate information. RIGHT: Today, the trading floor of the exchange is home to the Cotton        by mannequins and             them through the years.”
 e the 1930s, original features like the blackboard, Western Union office, and telephone booths remain intact.
                                                                                                                    shows pricing from                Throughout the museum, vis-
           distribution. Cotton became                   ton exchanges were organized.”               1939, when cotton was selling               itors can sit in the heavy wood-
           an important part of that com-                    In the early years, cotton from for 7 to 9 cents a pound in con-                     en armchairs that members
           merce in the mid-1800s when                   local farms and gins would be                trast to today’s 70 to 75 cents.            were given when they “bought
           area farmers and merchants                    hauled to Memphis, often by                  Computerized pricing finally                a seat” on the exchange, which
           established relationships with                mule and wagon. Trained cotton               replaced the board in 1978.                 was the only way to buy and sell
           the textile mills in England and              “classers” graded samples from                  Below the board is the West-             through the organization. Tra-
           began to centralize their market- their offices along Front Street                         ern Union office, once the nerve ditionally a “men’s only” group,
           ing in Memphis.                               and shared the information with              center of the exchange. Before              the exchange had as many as
               During the Civil War, the                 traders at the exchange.                     computers, telegraphs were the              175 members at one time and
           South backed its finances with                    Unlike the New York Stock                most efficient way to buy and sell today has around 90, includ-
           cotton, and speculators drove                 Exchange or Chicago Board of                 cotton, receive stock quotes, and ing Turley, who followed in the
           prices up and down at their                   Trade, Memphis traders didn’t                transmit important information.             footsteps of his father, Henry, as
           whim. Afterwards, there was                   bid against each other by open               Delivery boys were employed to              a cotton merchant.
           an outcry to start regulating the             outcry. They would come in to                distribute the telegraphs up and
           buying and selling of this crucial the exchange building, study the down Cotton Row.                                                                 (See Cotton, page 18)
           commodity, and the first cotton
           exchange was formed in 1870 in
           New York. Memphis followed
           in 1874, establishing rules to
           govern trade practices and reli-
           able standards for grading cot-
           ton. The Memphis exchange is
           structured as a “spot market” —
           cotton is bought and sold on the
           spot — unlike a futures market,
           where commodities are traded
           by contract for a specified time
           in the future.
               “Wherever growers brought
           their commodities to a central-
           ized place to sell, it became a
           spot or a cash market,” explains
           Turley. “Buyers and sellers
           needed information, a place to                LEFT: Museum exhibits illustrate the many sides of cotton in Memphis, such as costumes worn during the long-running “Cotton
                                                                   a series of parties and pageants that celebrated             in society                              of company signs
           gather, and a set of rules to keep Carnival,”lined Front Street, known as “Cotton Row,” hangcotton’s role wall belowand culture. ReproductionsStory of Cotton” by
                                                         that once                                                  on the back            a colorful mural titled “The
           the trading fair. That’s why cot- local artist David Mah. RIGHT: A view of Front Street in the 1960s shows the signs of several cotton-related companies.

           	                                                                                                                                               February 2010            17
                                           the advances that are expected       crouched down reading the            that it’s the jumping-off point
                                           in the future. The addition also     small print on the photographs.      to educate the public not only
                                           includes a classroom for extend-     It gives them a sense of history.”   about cotton’s past but also its
                                           ed educational programs.                 While the Cotton Museum is       future. To me, that’s extremely
                                              Perel says the museum             largely based on yesteryear, both    exciting.”
                                           expansion will be open in time       Perel and Turley hope it will           The Cotton Museum, located
                                           for the Farm and Gin Show to         help spread the message that         at 65 Union Avenue in Mem-
                                           be held at the Memphis Con-          the cotton industry is still alive   phis, is open Monday through
                                           vention Center on Friday and         and well — it just looks differ-     Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
                                           Saturday, Feb. 26 and 27. The        ent than the early days of the       and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.
                                           timing is purposeful, she says,      Memphis Cotton Exchange.             There is a nominal admission
                                           intended to entice visiting farm-        “When they set up the mu-        charge, and group rates are
                                           ers to come to the museum.           seum, the main purpose was to        available. For more information,
                                              “Many farmers who come            tell the story of Memphis and        visit online at www.memphis
                                           here are just absolutely en-         its place in cotton history,” says, call Carol
                                           thralled, especially the younger     Perel. “Why stop there? What         Perel at 901-531-7826, or e-mail
This mannequin, modeled after the late     ones,” says Perel. “I’ll find them   I love about this museum is          her at
James Echols, an influential cotton
merchant at the exchange, is displayed
in one of the historic telephone booths.
In the other booths, video monitors play
first-person accounts of what life was
like in the old-time cotton trade.

(continued from page 17)
   Although Memphis remains a
viable market and still regulates
the cotton trade for five states
— Tennessee, Mississippi,
Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mis-
souri — Turley is quick to point
out that the cotton industry
isn’t what it used to be. There’s
no longer a need for a “Cotton
Row” now that the Internet and
cell phones allow trading to be
done virtually anywhere.
   “The ways of operating didn’t
change much for the longest
time, and then the technocrats,
I call them, managed to speed
up the change from manual
methods to computerized equip-
ment,” says Turley. “Technology
prevailed. That was kind of the
last straw for the cotton busi-
ness as we knew it.”
   The influence of cotton isn’t
all that visible in downtown
Memphis today, but museum
guests can still experience the
industry at its peak through a
new, 25-minute walking tour
produced with a grant from the
History Channel. Outfitted
with audio headsets relaying
historical information, visitors
travel down Union Avenue and
Front Street with a total of nine
stops along the way.
   The museum is also work-
ing on a new, 1,650-square-foot
section that will be equipped
with exhibits sponsored by
Monsanto, Case International
Harvester, and Cotton Inc.
These displays will outline
cotton innovations from the
1930s until now and preview

18     February 2010

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