5 Star Stories: A look inside the Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange

Published: Jan. 4, 2022 at 9:51 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - While the history of the cotton industry has many dark chapters, including slavery, greed, and the Civil War, historians say cotton, in many ways, put Memphis on the map.

Action News 5′s Kym Clark toured a small downtown museum with a big story to share -- the Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange.

The building at Front and Union in downtown Memphis was once home to the Memphis Cotton Exchange, which was not only the heart of the city but also the cotton industry.

”As a matter of fact, Front Street was once known as Cotton Row,” said Cotton Museum Manager Ann Bateman. “And all the cotton businesses were up and down here. Not only did Memphis have the river, which was the transportation and so forth, but Memphis had one of the very first railroads that went from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River. And so they could transport heavy cotton all the way back from one seashore all the way to the Mississippi River.”

The Memphis Cotton Exchange, founded in 1874, produced rules and regulations, set standards for buying and pricing cotton in the Bluff City, and allowed cotton merchants to get back to the global business of trading cotton after the Civil War and slavery, which had been the engine of the cotton industry.

”And so, they wanted to be able to still transact business with England where the textile mills were located at that time,” Bateman said. “And they were not in the global commodity business, you know, it had never really come about. So, they had to figure out a way to band together and get the job done.”

The first cotton exchange building, built in 1885, was replaced by the exchange building on Madison Avenue in 1910 and housed both the cotton and merchant exchanges.

”Well, the cotton exchange people became so much more numerous and more powerful, they decided to split them off. And the Merchants Exchange became the Chamber of Commerce, and the Cotton Exchange then became its own entity. And they moved here,” explained Bateman.

That was in 1925. The building’s first floor served as a spot market where 175 members-only could socialize, get information about world markets, and trade their cotton.

”And any kind of government report, or that kind of thing, you would have found out about here before you would have anyplace else,” said Cotton Museum Founder Calvin Turley. So, it was a very important part of the central marketplace.”

Turley, who still has offices in the cotton exchange building, actually joined the exchange in 1973.

”When I started working on what was then referred to as ‘The Street,’ back in those days,” he said.

The cotton exchange floor closed a few years later in 1978 due to the advent of computers and less dependency upon the river, carts, and mules to transport the commodity. But, Turley, who saw that empty space every day, had an idea.

”But I just knew that what I was looking at from a business standpoint was sort of an artifact,” Turley said. “But I just knew that Front Street and the way we did business back then was quickly vanishing and for this to have become an architect’s office or law office or something like that, to me would have been a shame.”

By 2006 and with the blessing and financing of many of the former movers and shakers from the cotton exchange, Turley’s dream was realized and the Cotton Museum opened.

”We have oral histories that we have grabbed of different people who have been from this era,” said Bateman. ”We have a lot of different artifacts that kind of explain how business was done.”

The museum also takes on the cultural connections that cotton had on the music, food, and history of Memphis.

“You realize that you had a lot of people that were coming from different parts of the world, mingling probably for the first time in the history of the world and they were doing it right here on the banks of the river,” said Bateman. “And cotton is the reason that they came. And so, they were hearing music and instruments, and things they had never heard before. They were tasting foods and smelling aromas. It all started in those cotton fields.”

Now, the famed crop and its influence on a city and the world is open for all to see.

Copyright 2022 WMC. All rights reserved.

Click here to sign up for our newsletter!

Click here to report a spelling or grammar error. Please include the headline.