My Georgia History

Cotton Exchange

In 1736, our economic base, here in Augusta, was furs, well, and deer skins; only about 5% were really furs.  In 50 years, about 1785, right after the Revolutionary War, tobacco became our cash flow crop.  They didn’t realize that tobacco was bad for a person.  In 1850, cotton took over as our economic base.

It all started in 1793, when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin while visiting a friend on rocky creek, just south of Augusta.  They were able to get the seed out of the cotton, making the cotton easier to work with. There were a lot of farmers who switched over to growing cotton.  At the height of the cotton boom, Augusta was the second largest, inland cotton market, in the world.  Memphis, Tennessee was the only market that was bigger.  Men from as far away as England, Germany, South America, India and France, came here to Augusta, because of the cotton.  The men were dealing with cotton sales, worldwide.  In 1872, they decided to form a cotton exchange.  The purpose was for buying and selling cotton.  Over the next fourteen years, the men knew they needed their own building.  So in 1886, for $9,000 they built the Cotton Exchange Building, on Reynolds Street.  The building was built of brick.  It’s a typical high Victorian style, with the iron columns in the front, cast at Lombard’s foundry here in Augusta.  The building was often surrounded by such tightly packed cotton bales that it was said, a child could jump from one bail to another for a mile without touching the ground.  Each bail of cotton weighed 500lbs.  Between 1912 and 1920, approximately 500,000 bales of cotton, went through the cotton exchange annually.  It was something to see.

The Cotton Exchange Building on Reynolds Street, at its peak, had 200 members, that’s 200 men.  Women and children were not allowed.  The men had to dress in business attire.  There were eight phone booths in the exchange.  There was a weather map in the hall showing what the weather was doing around the country.  A ticker-tape machine was there.    A 40 ft. blackboard was along one wall.   When prices came across the wire, a marker would go and mark it on the blackboard.    Even John D. Rockefeller would come to the Cotton Exchange, when he vacationed in Augusta. In the city fire, of 1916, the building did not burn down, but it did loose the roof.   In 1921, the Boll Weevil came to Georgia.  The Boll Weevil would burrow into the cotton.  The cotton was destroyed.  The only way you could kill the Boll Weevil was to burn the cotton field. The days of “King Cotton” had drawn to a close. The Cotton Exchange stayed open, but there wasn’t much business.   The Exchange Building was last used by Cotton Brokers in 1964.  Since 1964, the building has been used for many different purposes.  In 1978, the building was entered into the National Register of Historic Places.  In 1988 Mr. Bill Moore, of Aiken, SC, purchased the building.  It was in great need of repair.  With a grant from the City of Augusta, Moore painstakingly restored the building to its original condition.  During the restoration, Charlie Whitney, a direct descendant of Eli Whitney, came into the building and told them, there used to be a blackboard behind the drywall.  They started chipping it off and sure enough, the blackboard was still there and it had writing on it.  The building cost $9,000 to build; it cost $750,000 to restore.  In the year 2004, Bill Moore sold the building to, “Georgia Bank and Trust Co.”  The blackboard is still there.  You’re welcome to come take a look at the wonderful old, Cotton Exchange Building.

Written by Mark Woodard

Research resources:

  1. The Story of Augusta. Cashin, Edward J. Spartanburg, SC. The Reprint Company Publishing. (1996)
  2. Augusta, A Pictorial History. Callahan, Helen. Richmond County Historical Society Publisher. (1980)
  3. Memorial History of Augusta, Georgia. Jones, Charles C. Spartanburg, SC. The Reprint Publishers. (1890)
  4. From City to Countryside. Published with the cooperation of Historic Augusta, Inc. Haltermann, Bryan M. (1997)
  5. Articles from the Augusta Chronicle.

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