John Rust’s relentless pursuit of perfecting the mechanical cotton picker revolutionizing the post World-War II Southern economy.
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John Daniel Rust was born on September 6, 1892, near Necessity, Texas. His father, Benjamin Daniel Rust, was a Civil War veteran, a farmer, and a school teacher, while his mother, Susan Minerva Burnett, was a homemaker. Rust showed an early aptitude for invention as he tinkered with his father's farm equipment and dreamed of creating a machine that would make the back-breaking work of picking cotton unnecessary. Unfortunately, his parents died when he was sixteen, and he moved from Texas to Oklahoma and Kansas to support himself. He picked cotton, harvested wheat, and worked as a repairman and carpenter. In 1924, Rust married Faye Pinkston. They had two children, John Daniel and Mary Agnes before they divorced.
While he was in Kansas City, Rust had enrolled in a mechanical drafting course. He was determined to build a mechanical cotton picker. Most inventors used barbed spindles that became clogged with cotton fibers as the cotton was pulled from its casing. While resting in bed one night, Rust remembered how the cotton fibers would stick to his fingers in the early morning dew when he picked cotton as a boy. Instead of a barbed spindle, Rust decided to use a smooth, moist spindle. After this epiphany, he quit his job and moved back to Texas to live with a sister in Weatherford where he created his own mechanical cotton picker. He assembled his first working prototype in his sister’s garage, then tested it using artificial stalks on a board. The machine picked ninety-seven out of one hundred locks of cotton. Rust continued to improve the prototype by using money invested by family and friends. In 1928, his brother Mack, a mechanical engineer with a degree from the University of Texas, joined him in Weatherford. Rust received his first patent in 1933. He and Mack went on to own forty-seven cotton picker patents. That same year, Rust married Thelma Ford of Leesville, Louisiana.
During the Great Depression, the Rust brothers moved from state to state in search of financial support for their invention. In 1930, they lived in Louisiana’s Newllano cooperative community, which invested in their project. Two years later, they moved to New Orleans and chartered the Southern Harvester Company. They soon moved to Lake Providence, Louisiana, where local planters financed their experiments.
In 1935, the Rust brothers founded the Rust Cotton Picker Company, which succeeded the Southern Harvester Company in Memphis, Tennessee. They demonstrated their cotton picker at the Delta Experiment Station in Stoneville, Mississippi, on August 31, 1936. The demonstration attracted large crowds of planters and national press coverage but the reviews were mixed. The machine knocked cotton to the ground and mixed leaves and stems with the cotton it picked, lowering the cotton’s grade and price. The Rust picker signaled the death of hand-picked cotton and the South sharecropping system that had thrived after slavery.
Even with these successes, the Rust Cotton Picker Company struggled to become a commercial success as they lacked the money and resources to build thousands of machines. Rust also believed that his cotton picker was not durable enough for commercial production. Soon after, the Rust brothers ended their partnership, and Mack moved to Arizona.
In 1942, the International Harvester Corporation of Chicago, Illinois, was forced to delay the mass production of their barbed-spindle cotton picker because of the scarcity of steel during World War II. Fortunately, in 1947, they opened a new manufacturing plant in Memphis, Tennessee, and became the first company to commercially produce a mechanical cotton picker. The presence of mechanical cotton pickers slowly increased in the South. With the decrease in available farm jobs, many people moved from rural areas to cities to find jobs.
During this time, Rust went bankrupt, but he never gave up on perfecting his cotton picker. In 1943, he redesigned his machine’s spindle to make it more durable. His new design earned him two new contracts. The Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, manufactured cotton pickers in Gadsden, Alabama, using the Rust patents. In 1949, Rust’s patents were used by the Ben Pearson Company of Pine Bluff, an Arkansas company known for archery equipment. Rust moved to Pine Bluff to act as the company’s engineering consultant. Pearson later went on to market Rust pickers on the international market.
With this turn of events, Rust became a wealthy man as his cotton pickers achieved commercial success. With his newfound wealth, Rust repaid his sponsors and established scholarships at colleges in Arkansas and Mississippi. He died on January 20, 1954, just as mechanical cotton pickers were changing the face of agriculture and business in the South. He is buried in Graceland Cemetery in Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard