The South of the Reconstruction was a landscape economically and physically ravaged. The North pushed financial woe southward, their weapons of taxes and fees wreaking havoc upon the already weakened and fragile economy. The lands themselves were thoroughly exhausted, the soil dry and infertile, and the cotton plants that sprouted as feeble and brittle as mummified bones. The South needed a savior, and it needed it fast. Salvation lay, surprisingly, in the humble peanut.
The Father of the Peanut Industry, as he would later come to be known, was George Washington Carver. From his youth Carver was interested in plants, horticulture, and agriculture, even earning the epithet “The Plant Doctor” as a young boy when he helped his neighbors with their ailing plantings. Carver, a bright young man, became the first black student (and eventually first black faculty member) to attend Iowa State Agricultural College to study botany in 1891. In 1896, the now-famous horticulturalist was invited by Booker T. Washington to head the Agricultural Department of the budding Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School for black Americans in Alabama. After an exceedingly short period of consideration, Carver accepted a pay cut and decrease in housing—and the position.
Carver’s primary incentive for accepting the position at Tuskegee was passion: he was determined to aid the poor families of the rural South who struggled invariably and whose crops upon which their livelihoods depended were almost entirely unprofitable. After studying the infertile farmland plaguing the South, Carver realized that the soil was completely depleted of valuable minerals from the unbroken annual cotton crops. The yearly crop drained nutrients from the soil like a siphon. On top of the tired soil, farmers also had to fight an infestation of boll weevils which had decimated already struggling cotton crops across the South.
Carver’s solution, crop rotation, was easy to implement. He educated rural farmers about the process, which involved choosing a crop to plant every other year which would replenish those valuable nutrients. The perfect crop? Peanuts. The plants were incomparably easy to grow, especially given the recent inception of equipment for planting, cultivating, harvesting, and picking peanuts, as well as shelling and cleaning the kernels. Peanuts also possessed excellent nitrogen fixating properties which improved the soil devastated by cotton.
The poor farmers Carver so desperately wanted to help latched onto the idea of crop rotation and quickly began alternating their cotton crops with peanuts. The results were impeccable; farmers were delighted with the profundity of peanuts and cotton. But the new-found fertility of the lands brought its own complication: what to do with all those peanuts?
Carver returned to the lab once more to help his apprentices. He emerged in 1916 with his “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing It for Human Consumption.” Carver discovered over 300 uses for the simple nut, including ink, coffee, axle grease, bleach, shaving cream, and wood stain. Needless to say, farmers quickly found a use for all those peanuts. The cotton oil mills across the South were easily converted to peanut oil mills. Farmers also began feeding their livestock the plants of the nut and feeding their families with the product they couldn’t sell. With his hundreds of discoveries, Carver furthered the movement toward complete self-sufficiency for Southern farmers.
Peanuts continued to grow as a Southern crop throughout the twentieth century. By 1920, the UPAA, or United Peanut Association of America, was formed, creating a Union for peanut farmers, and by 1940 peanuts were among the top six crops in the country. At the turn of the century, the rural Southern farm was on the verge of extinction. With passion and tenacity, Carver introduced a solution that not only returned the enterprise to its former glory but instituted a tradition that would form the livelihood of generations to come. In truth, George Washington Carver and the little peanut saved the South.