In the early 20th century, Downtown Memphis didn’t have a major NBA basketball arena filled with excited Grizzlies fans. Nor did it have AutoZone Park or even the Beale Street Flippers. What it did have, however, was a bustling trade center at the corner of Union and Front known as the Memphis Cotton Exchange, which connected local cotton farmers to the worldwide textile market. The fortunes made there define Memphis in its present day. “For more than 150 years, cotton commerce in this area played a major role in establishing Memphis,” says Carol Perel, operations manager of The Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange. “Many people don’t realize that.” The exchange was organized in late 1873 when cotton buyers of the city decided a separate exchange was a necessity for the trade business of Memphis. It was established as a place where cotton farmers could bring their annual crops to sell. After receiving its charter in April 1874, the exchange conducted business in the Chamber of Commerce rooms at 306 Front, and in a one-room location at the northeast corner of Front and Madison. When these spaces grew too small for the growing activity of the exchange, a four-story building was built at the corner of Madison and Second. The move was made in September 1885, but by 1909, the exchange had once again outgrown its quarters and a 19-story structure was built at the same location. In 1923, the Memphis Cotton Exchange decided it needed to be closer to the action on Cotton Row, and it To 65 Union, where the museum sits today. In its prime, the exchange was the epicenter of cotton buying and selling. In fact, Memphis was the largest spot cotton market — bought and sold “on the spot” — in the world. “Here we were, landlocked except for the river,” notes Perel. “And yet we were doing more cotton business than almost anybody else.” This was not only because of Memphis’s location on the fourth Chickasaw bluff, but also because of the perseverance of making good connections in the industry from generation to generation. However, as technology became more modern, so did the business of trading cotton, which made for both a more decentralized economic hub Downtown in the 1970s and ’80s and an uncertain future for the Memphis Cotton Exchange building. To preserve its place in the city, Calvin Turley, owner of Turley Cotton Company, committed to opening a museum that would share the story of cotton and its impact on daily life in the Midsouth. After many years of fundraising and hard work collecting hundreds of artifacts — both bought and donated — and stories to share, the museum opened its doors in 2005. Because the Memphis Cotton Exchange was a “members-only” club that allowed only certain clientele on the trading floor, museum visitors get a unique look into what the exchange floor was like during its operation. This, notes Perel, is what sets the museum apart from other cotton museums around the world. “We cover all aspects of cotton’s story in our exhibits,” she says, “but to my knowledge we are the only museum that also focuses on the commerce aspect.” Exhibit highlights include the very phone booths used to communicate to merchants on Front Street, an authentic Western Union telegraph office, and a massive trading board that has been restored to include cotton prices of 1939. These items, along with many other relics in the museum, provide a unique insight into cotton’s impact on Memphis culture and music, the technology of cotton, the history of Front Street, and the society of cotton. One of Perel’s favorite items in the museum is the 135-foot custom mural painted by Memphis artist David Mah that adorns the very top of the walls. In the mural, Mah chose to share stories of cotton through small scenes showcasing its influence on the blues, daily life, and commerce. “I love the depth of the artwork and how uniquely it captures cotton’s history in pictures,” she says. Now, four years after its opening, The Cotton Museum is in the midst of expansion, both in its physical space and educational outreach. The expansion — sponsored by Case IH Agriculture, Cotton Incorporated, and Monsanto — is slated for completion in September and features a new permanent exhibit plus a kid-friendly classroom where visitors of all ages can experience the story of cotton and learn about its many uses. The main feature of the new exhibit is a timeline that takes visitors from the late 1920s to present day, with an eye on the future. The timeline runs the circumference of the new 1,650-square-foot room, just across from the museum’s lobby. In the middle of the room, designated cases showcase three main elements in the industry: advances in biotechnology, mechanization, and environmental sustainability. “With this expansion, we’re dramatically enhancing our ability to fulfill our educational role within the community,” says Turley. “We’ll be able to accommodate more student groups and enrich their learning experience at the museum.” Also new this year is an audio walking tour of Front Street: “From Squidge to Snake: The Legends of Cotton Row.” The 20-minute tour takes visitors outside the museum, through Downtown, and on and around Front Street, where many cotton exchanges once were made. A squidge is an apprentice or intern in the trading business, and snakes are the bagged samples of cotton discarded after inspection. “The Memphis Cotton Exchange wouldn’t have been able to function without the merchants on what we call Cotton Row,” says Perel, referring to the area along Front and Union. “The tour expands the physicality of our story and gives visitors the feeling of being right in the middle of all the activity.” The museum also offers a free brownbag lunch series of speakers on the third Thursday of each month. The events have no designated topic, but they always relate to Memphis. One of the biggest challenges the museum faces, says Perel, is there are so many stories to tell. “Like most museums in Downtown Memphis, the majority of our trade is through the tourism industry,” she notes. “However, we will continue producing programs that bring more of our own citizens Downtown to experience our story — which is ultimately their story.” The Cotton Museum at the Memphis Cotton Exchange, 65 Union, 531-7826, memphiscottonmuseum.org.
Published by Downtowner Magazine. View All Articles.