It’s not often that a business survives for 100 years in the same locale and maybe even less often when it’s a cotton gin. But that’s a milestone the McClendon, Mann & Felton Gin Co., has reached this year.
The Mann portion of the McClendon-Mann & Felton Gin Co., traces its history back to the Mann Gin, which was founded by W.B. Mann and the Griffis-Newbern Co., near the tracks of the Missouri Pacific Railway in Marianna, Ark., in 1917.
The late Lon Mann, a cotton producer and ginner who served as president of the National Cotton Council and was a charter member of Cotton Incorporated, was a descendant of W.B. Mann. Lon Mann took over the operation of the Mann Gin following the death of his father, John Mann, in 1951.
He sold the gin to Larry McClendon, another cotton producer and former National Cotton Council president, in 1991. McClendon, who operates Soudan Farms near Marianna, also was, like Mann, president of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association and the National Cotton Ginners Association.
McClendon later sold an interest in the gin to the Mann Family in 1991. And, in 1995, he and Trent Felton, who he had known since the fifth grade, combined their gins into the present operation.
McClendon and Felton and their families and employees celebrated the 100th anniversary of the company’s operation with a dinner for more than 200 members of their community at the present-day gin last fall.
Both used the occasion to reminisce about their family histories, their employees and the contribution of cotton to the gin and the community.
Felton’s roots go even deeper, back to the founding of the Felton Gin by his great-grandfather, J.R. Felton, near Clifton, Ark., in 1912. That gin burned, but was later rebuilt on the site of the Felton Gin that was a fixture on Highway 1 North of Marianna for many years.
“This is a timetable that my father had written down starting in 1932,” said Felton, pointing to a document. “It’s the number of all the bales ginned from 1932, and then I added on to make it up to date through 1994.
“But, preceding that, we found the history that J.R. Felton, my great-grandfather, built a gin, the original Felton Gin, in 1912. We have pictures here from the early days of J.R. Felton, and my father, Dan Felton, when he was a young man.”
Lon Mann's legacy
“In 1991, I was a tenant on Lon Mann’s farm. They got ready to make a change in their family, and I was able to buy the gin” said McClendon. “Then, in 1993, I sold Lon’s family an interest back in the gin. (Mann continued to be a partner until his death in 2003.)
“In 1995, Trent came on board, and, in 2002, we built this second plant in Marianna, and, in 2005, we built a third plant near Hughes, Ark. In the meantime, we had bought out two or three other gins in Holly Grove and the Midway Gin east of Marianna. We consolidated all that business back into here.”
McClendon said the company literally “caught a wave of cotton” not long after he and Lon Mann and Trent Felton combined their operations that continued through the 1990s and into the early 2000s.
“Back in those days it was all things cotton,” he said. “In 2006, we were the largest ginning business in the United States. We ginned 207,000 bales here locally and another 10,000 to 15,000 bales at Holly Grove and Sweden.
“So we had a great expansion. We contracted, and we’re almost back to where we started 20 years ago. Thankfully, this year we’ve got a great acreage, and hopefully we’ll be back with a great volume again.”
Great customers, employees
McClendon paid tribute to the gin’s customers and employees saying those two elements are the most important part of the business.
“We’ve been fortunate here,” he said. “We’ve had wonderful customers, and we’ve had extraordinary employees. I just can’t say enough about our employees, the commitment, the diligence, the effort that goes on here.”
There’s much more to keeping a cotton gin operating than meets the eye, he said. “We actually stay busy here the year round just trying to run the gin.”
Felton and McClendon introduced the gin’s employees, both past and present, citing the roles they play in keeping it and their cotton warehousing operation, Marianna Warehouse LLC, running. The warehouse was expected to exceed a total of 2 million bales shipped during its 20 years of operation culminating in 2016.
“Our customer base and our employees are the strength of any business,” said McClendon, noting some of the events that have occurred during the 100 years of its operation.
“I’m happy and excited to be here tonight,” he said. “I think about what this business has accomplished. We survived the ’27 flood, the ’37 flood, the Depression, the ’73 flood, the 2011 flood, cotton merchants going broke, droughts and poor crops.
“A business that’s 100 years old truly exemplifies the human spirit – all the work, all the effort, all the good things. Tonight I just hope we can all relish this and think about the one common bond – cotton. Cotton has brought all this together; it’s made it possible; and it still continues.”