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Area's last cotton gin owner dies at age 75

Warren "Pete" Chappell stands in front of the twisted metal that remained of his cotton gin in 2005 in this file photo. The mill was destroyed by arson in 2004. Chappell died late Thursday at age 75, almost three years to the day afterº the fire.
Warren "Pete" Chappell stands in front of the twisted metal that remained of his cotton gin in 2005 in this file photo. The mill was destroyed by arson in 2004. Chappell died late Thursday at age 75, almost three years to the day afterº the fire.

The last York County cotton gin died three years ago. Almost to the day, the last ginner is now dead, too.

Warren Chappell, "Pete" Chappell to everybody all his life, died late Thursday after an illness, his daughter Nancy said. He was 75.

"Few -- if any -- ginned cotton like Pete Chappell," said Rock Hill cotton broker Leslie Moore, a friend and peer all his life. "He had the feel. Right heat, right moisture. The cotton had character. And so did he."

Chappell owned and operated Chappell's Gin in southern York County, the last working gin in South Carolina's Upstate, until it burned down July 11, 2004. That gin had been on the property for decades since replacing another that burned in 1949.

Pete Chappell, his brothers and father and the families who lived on Chappell land in those days, rebuilt the gin in 1949. With their own hands.

Chappell ran the gin all those 55 years afterward until it burned. Through those years, he also farmed full-time.

On Friday, the people in the cotton and farming worlds, his worlds, knew Chappell had died because word gets around quick among these tough souls from a generation that barely exists anymore.

Richard Roach, a longtime farmer just like Chappell in the area called the Blackjacks because of the dark soil -- and best of friends, too -- helped handle Chappell's 800-plus acres of soybeans and corn and yes, cotton, the past several days. Other farmers talked of helping get Chappell's work done. Nobody mentioned what it might cost, because it didn't matter.

It never mattered to Pete Chappell, either.

"He would have done the same for me," Roach said. "I told him I would help through the harvest. He was one of a kind where there isn't many left."

The word spread Friday morning to Bishopville, where a guy named Gene Davis has been in the cotton business since 1953 and knew the Chappells almost all that time. Most Chappell ginning customers had to go to Davis after the fire.

"After the fire, Pete was more worried about the farmers he knew making a dollar than anything else," Davis said.

Loyalty, everybody getting a chance to make a buck, was the Pete Chappell way.

The gin fire, ruled arson, remains unsolved. After the fire, Chappell said, "It's like a death in the family."

Then he went back to work his fields.

Chappell decided not to rebuild the gin because the cotton business wasn't what it once was anyway, and replacement costs would be too high.

But for all those years before the fire, brokers like Pete Moore and his father before him wanted Chappell cotton. Mills wanted Chappell family cotton because of the quality. Chappell's late wife, Harvey Sue, worked the office side of the ginning business, Moore said. The couple raised three daughters: Nancy, Amanda, and Miriam Sue.

Pete Chappell's way was the old way. He was burly, with hands like C-clamps. Talkative? Put your feet up because it'll be a while. He was gracious with knowledge and time, generous with money and expertise and tough, because all he ever did was work.

He ginned millions of bales of cotton. There is little doubt that somewhere tonight somebody will sleep on a cotton sheet ginned by Pete Chappell or wear a cotton shirt ginned by Pete Chappell.

Chappell soybeans, corn and cotton still line roads in southern York County.

But all that is left of the gin on Chappell Road is memories. On the anniversary of the fire two years ago, Pete Chappell poked through the rusty metal and told me, "Scrap is about all any of this is good for. But we ginned some cotton here. Yessir."

Pete Chappell may have died. The way of life he knew is dying, too. But what he did lives forever.

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