American Countryside: Monument to a Pest

May 24, 2017 03:28 PM
 
A cotton boll from Red Land Cotton.

In the early 1900s, cotton was king around Enterprise, Ala., and much of the southern U.S. But a silent southern invasion was just beginning.

“In 1915, the boll weevil moved into our county,” says Douglas Bradley, president of the Coffee County Historical Society. “That year, cotton ginning dropped from 15,000 bales to only 5,000.”

Local farmers knew the boll weevil was headed their way. The insect was moving about 75 miles per year, up from Mexico and Texas. Some thought the Mississippi River would provide a natural barrier. It did not. 

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Coffee County agriculture agent John Pittman travelled to Texas ahead of the weevil’s arrival to see what could be done. He returned to Enterprise preaching the importance of diversifying crops. The wise council fell on deaf ears and not a single farmer altered their crop mix. 

The cotton crop was so ravaged in 1915, though, one farmer did decide to make a change the following year. Local banker and entrepreneur H.M. Sessions took a trip to North Carolina to observe peanut production. He thought the crop might offer an opportunity for some of the farmers he bankrolled in Alabama, so he had seed peanuts shipped back to Enterprise. Peanuts had been grown in the area, but mostly for hog feed.

Sessions convinced farmer C.W. Baston to devote all 125 acres of his farm to peanuts in 1916. Baston was in debt to Sessions, so he had a reason to try the idea. “Baston harvested his peanuts and cleared $8,000 that year,” Bradley says. “That really turned the cash crop around from cotton to peanuts.” By 1920, Coffee County was the largest producer of peanuts in the nation. 

Farmers and townspeople were elated peanuts had saved their town. In 1919, Enterprise businessman and town promoter Bon Fleming suggested the town build a monument to, of all things, the boll weevil. After all, it was the boll weevil that forced farmers to switch from cotton to peanuts and discover a new cash crop.

Fleming donated money and raised other contributions for an Italian-made statue that cost $1.75 million. On Dec. 11, 1919, the 13½'-tall monument was dedicated in the main downtown intersection. A plaque on the statue reads: “In profound appreciation of the boll weevil; and what it has done as the herald of prosperity.”

Over the years the monument has undergone some changes, but it remains in the center of town. It’s a unique moment of history for a destructive pest—a place of honor for bringing prosperity to Enterprise.  

“American Countryside” is heard each weekday on a network of 100 radio stations, regularly on “U.S. Farm Report” TV and on demand via the Farm Journal Radio app. For details, visit www.American Countryside.com

 

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