Robert Sylvester Munger was born July 24, 1854 in Rutersville in Fayette County, Texas. He was the son of Henry Martin Munger and Catherine McNutt. Henry Munger came to Texas from Connecticut in 1840, settling at San Felipe in Austin County. He operated a freighting business and was involved in the lumber trade at various locations in and around Fayette and Robertson Counties. The family moved to Mexia in Limestone County about 1872, where Henry operated a sawmill. In 1879, Henry opened a gin stand to gin cotton and placed his son, Robert, in charge of the ginning.
The Munger Improved Cotton Machine
As a young man, Robert, or R. S. as he was often called, divided his time between work and school. He attended Trinity University at its original location in Tehuacana, Texas Meanwhile, he continued to work at his father’s gin in nearby Mexia. While working at the gin, Robert realized that the dust, dirt, and lint in the air as a result of the ginning process caused respiratory problems for the workers and created a severe fire hazard. He also realized that the ginning process used at that time relied heavily on intense manual labor and was terribly inefficient. After a couple of years of experimentation, Robert patented “The Munger System,” which revolutionized the cotton ginning business. He received ten patents for improved equipment for ginning.
Robert offered his patents to several gin manufacturers, but they were not interested. He moved to Dallas, and in 1884 he opened a small plant for the Munger Ginning System. Robert, approached Dallas banker W.H. Gaston in 1887 because he needed financing to expand his operation. In return for his financial assistance, Gaston was appointed vice president of the new Munger Improved Cotton Machine Manufacturing Company. Robert also sold stock in the company to raise additional working capital. Robert’s brother, Stephen I. Munger, a Dallas banker, began working for the company in 1887. Stephen was president of the Munger Oil & Cotton Company of Mexia, a business begun by Henry M. Munger, the father of Robert and Stephen; he was also president of Dallas Oil & Refining Company.
The Munger Improved Cotton Machine Manufacturing Company became very successful, but the plant in Dallas had difficulty filling orders east of the Mississippi. In 1890, Robert scouted for another location for a new plant, choosing Birmingham, Alabama. He moved to Birmingham to oversee the new operation.
In 1893, Munger’s Improved Cotton Gin was exhibited and recognized at the Chicago World’s Fair.
In 1899, the Continental Gin Company was formed, and Munger Improved Cotton Machine Manufacturing Company merged with the new company. Robert was elected a director and vice president of Continental Gin Company. Stephen was elected president of the company. The company continued to grow, establishing facilities in Atlanta, Georgia, Avondale and Prattville, Alabama, Memphis, Tennessee, and Bridgewater, Massachusetts.
Robert purchased 300 acres of land on an elevated site in Dallas in 1905. He began to develop the area, creating the first deed restrictive neighborhood in Texas. Munger Place, as the development was named, became a high-class neighborhood with lovely homes, broad streets and cement sidewalks. Swiss Avenue was set aside for large stately homes each of which must cost at least $10,000 to build. Robert’s son, Collett, became the manager of the development, with his son Eugene as assistant manager.
In 1973, Swiss Avenue became Dallas’ first Historic District, and in 1974 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1980, the Munger Place Historic District was created, and Munger Place is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Munger Place is still recognized as the single largest collection of Prairie-Style homes in one area.
Robert S. Munger is recognized as one of the fathers of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Munger gave both land and money to the University. His donation of $25,000 was the single largest contribution of the $300,000 that was raised to establish the University around 1911.
Robert Munger was recognized as a benevolent philanthropist by his adopted hometown of Birmingham. He gave freely to many civic and charitable causes.
In 1902, Robert purchased an antebellum home on six acres in Birmingham. The home was called Arlington, named by a previous owner. For the next twenty years he and his wife made renovations to the home, modernizing the house. In 1953, his daughter, Ruby Munger Montgomery sold Arlington to the city of Birmingham, which still owns it. The home is the only remaining antebellum house in Birmingham.
Robert Munger was an important donor to Methodist colleges in and around Birmingham. Munger was particularly involved with Birmingham Southern College and sat as a member of its board. The main auditorium and administrative offices for Birmingham Southern College are housed in Munger Memorial Hall. The Hall was built and named after Robert’s estate gave the college a donation of $250,000 in 1925.
In 1878, Robert married Mary Collett, the daughter of James and Margaret Daviss Collett. They had nine children: Collett H. (1879-1928), Robley C. (1881-1942), Eugene (1883-1963), Ethel (1884-1886), Rosa Munger Earle (1887-1968), Ruby Munger Montgomery (1889-1981), Leonidas P. (1891-1975), Mary Munger Thach (1894-1957), and Margaret Munger Brooks (1895-1972).
Robert S. Munger died in Birmingham on April 20, 1923. He is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Birmingham. Mary Collett Munger died in Birmingham on September 1, 1924 and is also buried at Elmwood.