When “Lily” and I take folks up the river into the 246,000-acre Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve preserve, the second largest preserve in the USA behind Chesapeake Bay, we like to tell them a little history about Apalach during the cotton days before the “War of Northern Aggression,” as we like to call it. (I say it that way for a little humor but one day this guy bowed up at me and said, “You ever heard of Ft. Sumter?” To which I replied, “Naw, where is that at?” Then he got really mad, and I wasn’t sure he was going to pay me.) I know that’s not proper grammar. My editor of these stories, Dale Julian, proprietor of Downtown Books, would reprimand me and say, “It’s behind the at.” She is a former librarian so long ago she knows how to use a card catalog.
Anyway, if folks have already visited the Orman House, a state park, and have taken the tour with Ranger Mike Kinnett, they already know all that history. Ranger Mike and I, as well as many others in Apalach, belong to “A Mutual Admiration Society.” Ranger Mike wrote two wonderful historical novels of the cotton days in Apalach, “Apalachicola Pearl” and “Apalachicola Gold,” both a must read. So, I skip the part about the cotton days and launch into this story.
Now, why was Apalach founded in the early 1800s when nobody was here and not some other time? Well, in 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin and in 1807 Robert Fulton built his first steam boat. So, with the Chattahoochee River being the Georgia/ Alabama state line and the Flint River going way up into middle Georgia, this was an inexpensive way to get cotton to a seaport. So, we became a cotton boom town overnight.
So, here is where I tell the ladies I am going to give them a bit of ladies’ trivia. We all know that Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, right? We learned that in grammar school. Well, not so fast, maybe there’s more to the story. So, I got to looking into Eli Whiney and I kept running into Catherine “Caty” Littlefield Greene.
Here’s the deal. Seems there was this marvelous lady named Catherine Littlefield Greene. She was the widow of Nathanael Greene, a Revolutionary War general, who George Washington called his finest general. Nathanael Greene ran Cornwallis out of Georgia and South Carolina, for which he was awarded the Mulberry Grove Plantation outside of Savannah.
Not long after, he went to that big Southern plantation in the sky, leaving Caty, as she was called, with several children as well as other offsprings on the plantation. Education was important to her so she sought a tutor for the young’uns. Seems that Eli Whitney had recently graduated from Yale and was seeking employment, and somehow, he was retained by Caty Greene at her plantation.
Now, Caty, being a lady of vision, thought that if there was a way to process cotton faster and more efficiently, it would revolutionize the South. Well, duh! She often spoke of her vision with Eli Whitney, actually an accomplished machinist. So, Eli built a machine based on her description; the problem was it didn’t work, so Caty redesigned it and made it function properly.
Well, women couldn’t hold a patent back in those days, so Eli applied for it in his name. As for why Greene did not attempt to patent the gin in her name was that doing so “would have exposed her to the ridicule” of friends and “a loss of position in society,” which disapproved of women’s involvement in any "outside industry." I mean, really, we can’t give a woman credit for something like that! Next thing, who knows? they might even want to vote or some crazy notion like that.
So, with the ability to gin cotton, additional farmland was needed and a scheme called the “Yazoo Land Scandal” was devised to help farmers obtain lands to the west in Georgia. Caty and Eli invested their gin monies in this scheme and, alas, lost all of it. She lost the Mulberry Grove Plantation and spent the remainder of her life on her Cumberland Island property where she is interred.
Coincidently, my friend, Warren Emo, loaned me an autobiography of William Augustus Bowles, self-proclaimed “Director General of the Creek Nation.” Refer to the article in last weeks’ Apalachicola Times by James Hargrove. Bowles and the Creek Indians were in the Apalachicola River Valley, and their main concern was the intrusion into their lands by the “Yazoo Land Scheme.”
So, how do I know about all this. Seems a local young lady heard about my ramblins’ and gave me a copy of “Caty: A Biography of Catherine Littlefield Greene” by John and Janet Stegeman. That young lady is, to wit, our own Caty Greene, former librarian of the Margaret Key library and namesake of Catherine Littlefield Greene. Our Caty inherited more than her name, she has her indomitable spirit. Through Caty’s vision and perseverance, our beautiful library is a reality.