The Velveteen Rabbit, one of my favorite childhood books, tells the story of a little stuffed rabbit—shabby and with all of his whiskers loved off—and the boy who loved him. After the boy recovers from scarlet fever, the rabbit is discarded and forgotten outdoors, along with germ-laden trash. The rabbit’s grief conjures a fairy from a flower who uses magic to make the rabbit real. Because the boy had loved him, the fairy explains, the rabbit gets a second chance.
At first glance, this classic children’s story may seem to have little in common with a dusty old cotton gin.
Second-generation cotton ginner Donald Coker and his family, wife Beverly and sons Terry and Todd and daughter Penny, built the Longworth Gin in 1973, 7 miles south of Roby on Highway 70—along with Coker’s then-business partner Bill Hunter.
“When the gin was built, the ground was dug out first, then the machinery was put in,” Todd Coker said. “Concrete was poured when the machinery was set and then the exterior walls went up, so the building was literally built around the equipment. The hill is one big rock, which is why the gin office is so far away from the gin,” he added.
Each fall, the gin would crank up, processing local farmers’ cotton crops through the harsh West Texas winter. When the gin processed its final bales in 2007, the doors closed. “There was no sweeping or cleaning,” said Missy Coker, Todd’s wife. “Everything just stopped. I worked in the office when Todd and I got married. For years after the gin closed, I’d drive past it on my way to work and see everything just going to waste, and it made me sad.”
Worn out and abandoned, the gin got its second chance in 2018—because of love.
When Colton, Todd and Missy’s oldest son, graduated from Texas Tech University with a master’s degree in 2016, he wanted to take a year off to build an events venue. “We told him, ‘That’s crazy; you have to get a job!’ ” Missy said. When Colton became engaged, he and fiancée Sarah Hillis started looking around the Lubbock area for wedding venues and discovered that some popular venues were old cotton gins. Shortly thereafter, Todd uttered some fateful words: “I know where there’s an old gin.”
With that, work began in November 2018 on what would become the Longworth Gin Wedding and Event Center.
“You could hardly walk through the gin because of all the machinery,” Missy reminisced. “Sarah’s dad thought we were crazy. We had to take the tin off the building to get the equipment out, but when we did, we realized what a great view we had, and that was when we knew we had to put in glass garage doors. We all had different ideas and formed our own visions of what it would look like in the end, but none of us imagined it being as cool as it is now. We had plans, but so many decisions had to be made on the fly. It was chaos at times! There were a lot of discussions and a lot of compromises.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. When the Cokers look back, they are proud of what they accomplished with the help of many friends.
“There was one day that we were bundled up in so many layers we could hardly move and took a break to huddle around Todd’s propane heater,” Missy said. “Sarah was wearing Todd’s brand-new, heavy work coat and we realized the coat was on fire! She and I screamed and hollered, but Todd very calmly reached over and swatted out the flame,” she said, laughing. “In winter we looked forward to the summer, but in the summer, we missed winter. Those 108-degree days were miserable in here.”
Painting the building’s exterior was a project that was supposed to take two weeks in the spring but, once again, Mother Nature had other plans. “[Kameron Alexander] would pick up his paintbrush and it would start to rain,” Todd said. “[As a cotton farmer] I really should have thought more about when we wanted him to start painting so the rain would have been timed better!”
Extreme weather wasn’t the only obstacle Mother Nature threw at the Cokers. Two beehives, one disturbed rattlesnake den and a skunk also surprised them along the way. “We had to call a beekeeper from Abilene,” Missy said, “because we didn’t want to kill the bees. The rattlesnakes were another story, but we had to let the skunk leave on his own time.”
Despite the hiccups, work carried on at the gin as equipment was moved and cleaning projects got underway.
“We put the ginning machines on casters,” Todd said. “We can move them, but they’re so heavy it takes four men to do it. And we even took the saws out to lighten them up, but they’re still made of heavy steel.” Missy added, “We rented a steam power washer. The grease and dirt—ugh! We washed this place top to bottom several times, removing layers at a time.”
Some machinery was removed altogether, and some was just moved around, in keeping with the Cokers’ goal to preserve the equipment’s authenticity but also make it usable. “The machinery in the ceiling is where the real work of the gin was done,” Todd said. “Everything on the ground was to move cotton using air.” And if you look overhead, you can see the heart of the gin is still in place—aged but very, very clean. Many of the ground-level machines became conversation pieces for visitors and attendees. The swivel plate of the press is welded shut, but otherwise the press is still fully capable of pressing and banding cotton bales.
“We wanted people who come here to be able to see how cotton is baled,” Todd said. “But the base of the press goes down 30 feet below ground, so we had to weld the swivel shut to be safe.” The old module feeder, which once chewed up the modules and sent the cotton into the gin to be processed, is now a bar and, like the press, everything would be fully functional but for the welding that keeps any parts from moving.
Missy said the most fun and heartwarming part of the process was watching Donald see his old gin get a new lease on life. “He’s been more excited than any of us,” she said. “He’s always telling stories and trying to find old memorabilia to incorporate. This really has been a fun family affair.”
As you walk into the Longworth Gin Wedding and Event Center, you’re greeted by something that, in Todd’s words, “any of our old ginners would recognize immediately: the old Dearborn heater and wooden chairs.” The entryway and most of the event space is framed by tin and wood that came from the family’s old barn, which is nearby. Old, rusty farm implements grace the property; those items came from family members’ farms.
“The old Farmall tractor was how we moved trailers in the early days,” Todd said. The former warehouse—once full of dirt, machinery and spare parts—is now a beautiful bridal suite. Its counterpart offers slightly less desirable accommodations for grooms. “That old jail cell came from my Uncle Floyd’s place,” Todd said with a laugh, pointing toward the iron lockup that Missy’s brother Steve has dubbed “the groom’s suite.” Plans to add a real groom’s suite are being made, and it will be added in the near future.
Through sweat and tears and encounters with rattlesnakes, bees and skunks—not to mention the months of long days and hard work—the shabby old gin has a new life, all because of love.