Daniel Pratt (1799-1873) was Alabama's first major industrialist and founded the present-day city of Prattville as a self-sufficient manufacturing center a few miles northwest of Montgomery. His factory complex, Pratt Gin Company, became the world's largest manufacturer of cotton gins, supplying machines to Alabama's Black Belt planters as well as ginning facilities as far away as Russia. Pratt's diversified business enterprise included grist and flour mills, architectural millworks, and cotton and woolen mills. After the Civil War, Pratt directed his attention to economic development in north Alabama and became involved in building railroads and developing the vast coal and iron resources surrounding Birmingham. Pratt was instrumental in Alabama's transformation from a predominantly rural agrarian economy to a more diverse industrial economy devoted to manufacturing and the production of coal, iron, and steel.
Daniel Pratt was born in Temple, New Hampshire, on July 20, 1799. His father, Edward Pratt, was a yeoman farmer who had moved to New Hampshire from Reading, Massachusetts. Daniel was the fourth of six children, all of whom were brought up under strict religious discipline and were obliged to work on their family's small New England farm. Daniel received a limited education and was apprenticed to an architect at age 16. He may have chosen this vocation because his paternal grandfather, for whom he was named, had become modestly wealthy as a woodworker in Reading.
In 1819, at the age of 20, Pratt earned release from his apprenticeship and sailed for Savannah, Georgia. Pratt worked at his trade in this seaport town for two years and then moved inland to Milledgeville, Georgia, the new cotton-growing center of the state. For the next several years, Pratt built plantation homes for wealthy planters in the vicinity of Milledgeville and Macon. These homes were some of the most beautiful in the state, featuring large white columns, broad hallways, and spiral stairways characteristic of the neo-classical style popular during the period. By 1827 Pratt was one of the South's leading builder-architects. On September 6, 1827, he married Ester Ticknor of Columbia, Connecticut, whom Pratt met while she was visiting her brother in Clinton, Georgia. Daniel and Ester had three children, but only daughter Ellen survived infancy.
Soon after his marriage, Pratt met Samuel Griswold, another New England transplant in Clinton. Griswold manufactured cotton gins and was so impressed with Pratt's skills that he asked him to manage his factory. After only one year, Pratt's mastery of the business earned him a partnership with Griswold. Pratt promptly tried to convince Griswold to expand the business into Alabama so that they could follow the westward expansion of cotton culture and take advantage of Alabama's river system to transport and distribute gins. Griswold initially agreed to the venture but changed his mind because of increasing conflicts between settlers and Creeks in central Alabama.
Undaunted by the potential dangers of the frontier, Pratt moved to central Alabama with his wife, two slaves, and enough materials to construct 50 gins. He formally named and founded the Daniel Pratt Gin Company around 1833, and in about 1836 he leased a site on Autauga Creek known as McNeil's Mill and began manufacturing cotton gins. Two years later he purchased 1,822 acres of land further up Autauga Creek, where he constructed a permanent factory and founded the town of Prattville. Pratt ensured the viability of this new town by diversifying its industries, constructing homes and churches for his workers, and building Alabama's first free school. The residents of Prattville worked in factories that produced such diverse products as cotton gins, various kinds of cloth, tin, carriages, wagons, windows, and door sashes. Pratt's initial workforce consisted primarily of yeomen farmers from the surrounding area, supplemented later with enslaved labor. Pratt brought in New Englanders, many of whom were either friends or relatives, including nephew Merrill E. Pratt (whom Daniel later adopted as his son), to supervise this workforce and to provide needed engineering and managerial skills.
During the 1850s, the Pratt Gin Company manufactured cotton gins for planters all over the world, taking orders from Russia, Great Britain, France, Cuba, Mexico, and countries in Central and South America. The increased business led Pratt to expand his gin factory, and by 1860, Pratt's factories were producing at least 1,500 gins per year. Pratt imported sheet steel from Sheffield, England, for his gin saws, but the iron came from Alabama companies, primarily Horace Ware's Shelby Iron Works near Columbiana.
Prior to the Civil War, Pratt was an ardent member of the Whig Party, which pushed for the expansion of industry, state aid to railroads, and other forms of internal improvements. In 1854 Pratt founded a Whig newspaper, the Southern Statesman, which he dedicated to "Southern industry, manufacturers, mechanics, and internal improvements." He was also politically involved on the local level, serving for many years as Prattville's intendant, with powers similar to that of mayor, and representing Prattville in Alabama's House of Representatives during the Civil War from 1861 until 1865. Although Pratt opposed Alabama's secession from the Union, he provided wool and broadcloth for uniforms for the "Prattville Dragoons," attached to the Third Alabama Cavalry under the eventual command of General Joseph Wheeler. He also donated $17,000 to meet other needs of the local unit, including horses and saddles for those who could not afford to provide their own.
With the great fortune he amassed from his cotton-gin business, Pratt invested in and actively promoted the development of Alabama's vast untapped mineral resources. In the early 1870s Pratt began purchasing thousands of acres of land in north Alabama. Pratt also began to entrust more and more of his business interests, including a new railroad venture, the South and North Alabama Railroad, to his ward and eventual son-in-law, Henry F. DeBardeleben, whom daughter Ellen had married on February 4, 1863. In 1872, Pratt and DeBardeleben acquired a controlling interest in the Red Mountain Iron and Coal Company and began rebuilding the Oxmoor furnaces destroyed by Wilson's Raiders during the Civil War.
In addition to taking a leading role in the development of the state's natural resources, Daniel Pratt was also an ardent supporter of establishing a more diverse economy in Alabama and the South. He preached an industrial gospel of regional self-sufficiency in numerous articles and letters in newspapers and periodicals throughout the South. Daniel Pratt's successes earned him widespread renown and respect. In 1846 the University of Alabama awarded him an honorary master's degree in the Mechanic and Useful Arts. In 1849, DeBow's Review, a business journal of the era, asserted that "no man in Alabama has contributed more than Daniel Pratt to its prosperity; none had done more to bring the loom, the plough, and the anvil into closer proximity." In 1949 the Alabama Newcomen Society appropriately honored Pratt posthumously as "Alabama's First Industrialist."
Daniel Pratt died on May 13, 1873. He divided his estate between his daughter Ellen and adopted son Merrill, who bought out Ellen in 1881. Merrill's son Daniel ran the gin manufacturing business from 1889 until 1899, when it was sold to Continental Gin Company. DeBardeleben continued in the iron and coal business under the new name of Pratt Coal and Coke Company, which eventually became part of U.S. Steel Corporation. As a tribute to his father-in-law, Debardeleben named the mining community near the Oxmoor furnaces Pratt City.
The Continental Gin Company later became the Continental Eagle Corporation and continued to manufacture gins in Pratt's original buildings until as late as 2009, when the company outsourced most of its operations to India. Late in 2011, the company put its Prattville property up for sale, prompting the formation of a local campaign in Prattville to save the historic site, believed to be the longest continuously occupied industrial buildings in the state and perhaps in the South. The importance of this effort was underscored by the previous loss of other original buildings, which were destroyed by fire on September 10, 2002. In March 2012, Longstreet Capital, an Atlanta based commercial real estate developer, signed a contract to keep the structures intact and to redevelop the historic property.
Armes, Ethel. The Story of Coal and Iron in Alabama. (Birmingham, Ala., 1910), 174-176; 280-282.
Pratt, Merrill E. Daniel Pratt: Alabama's First Industrialist. New York: The Newcomen Society of England, American Branch, 1949.
Herbert J. "Jim" Lewis
Published June 12, 2007
Last updated June 26, 2013