On this day in 1919, the town of Enterprise, Alabama dedicated the world’s first, and probably only, monument to an insect pest. Through most of the nineteenth century, and the early part of the twentieth, Alabama farmers planted cotton. They harvested it and then they planted more cotton. Planting the same crop over and over again in the same soil is not a great idea. But they were cotton planters. Apart from growing a bit of wheat to feed themselves and their livestock, they were all about growing cotton. Then, in the 1890s, a pest called the boll weevil started to push north from Mexico. What the boll weevil is all about is laying eggs inside the fruits of the cotton plant. This causes the fruits to turn yellow and drop off. By 1910 the weevils had reached the cotton plantations of Alabama and were doing serious damage to the crops. By 1915 the farmers of Enterprise were losing about sixty percent of their cotton. The farmers were in debt and, with such a poor harvest, they were in trouble. Everyone hated the boll weevil.
Then, in 1916, a farmer called Sessions thought he would try planting peanuts instead. He got financial backing from another farmer called Baston. Their first crop paid off all their debts and was used to supply other farmers with peanuts to plant on their own farms the following year. In 1917, Enterprise and the surrounding Coffee County produced more peanuts than any other county in the United States. By diversifying their crops, the farmers had managed to save themselves from ruin.
In 1919, a business man called Fleming decided that the boll weevil was a hero. Its arrival had really helped the people of Enterprise turn their economy around. The boll weevil was a symbol of the way a disaster can lead to change and the way the town had adjusted in the face of adversity. He put up the money for a statue to be erected in honour of the boll weevil. The statue was in the Classical Greek style. It was a lady in flowing robes, holding aloft a fountain. At the base there is an inscription which reads: “In profound appreciation of the Boll Weevil and what it has done as the herald of prosperity this monument was erected by the citizens of Enterprise, Coffee County, Alabama.”
In 1949, an artist called Luther Baker decided that the Boll Weevil Monument ought to have a boll weevil on it, so he made one. So the statue now has a Greek lady holding above her head, a little tray with a massive boll weevil on it. The original weevil was stolen in 1953 and it was replaced by an even bigger one. The statue has been the target of quite a bit of vandalism over the years. The whole statue was once dragged away, but it was found and re-erected. People have also put alligators in the fountain at the base of the monument. In 1998, the weevil went missing again, but this time the thieves took the statue’s arms as well. This time, the repairs were too difficult. The statue has now been replaced by a replica made from resin, and the original is in the museum.
It’s an odd, and possibly unique, thing to build a statue in honour of an insect pest. It’s especially odd as there was an actual human person who was really working quite hard, at the beginning of the twentieth century, to persuade cotton farmers to diversify their crops. His name was George Washington Carver. As he was born into slavery some time in the 1860s, he doesn’t have a birthday I can celebrate. But he definitely deserves to be in this story. Carver knew that planting cotton over and over again was depleting the nutrients in the soil. He knew that nitrogen could be restored to the soil by planting crops of sweet potatoes, soya beans and peanuts. Not only would it make the soil better, but they were all crops that were good to eat. Poor farmers would be able to improve their soil and improve their diets at the same time and, if they rotated their crops, they would still be able to grow cotton too.
In 1906, he designed a mobile classroom that he could take out into rural areas to teach farmers about the new crops he was suggesting. He, and the department he headed at the Tuskegee Institute, worked tirelessly to find and promote new uses for the crops. Over more than forty years at Tuskegee, he published forty-four pamphlets which were mainly practical bulletins for farmers. They explained how to grow the crops and what uses they might be put to. His first, in 1896, was about feeding acorns to livestock. His first pamphlet about the peanut was published in 1916, the same year that Sessions and Baston decided to plant their crop in Enterprise. This pamphlet was his most popular, you can read his ‘How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption’ here. If you dig around a bit, you can probably find his recipes for sweet potatoes and tomatoes too.