A monument to the worst insect pest in the southern U.S.?
The century that followed is the one in which the United States rose to political prominence in the world, transforming itself from a small ex-colonial to a major producer of cotton and tobacco from the southern states and of industrial goods from the northern ones. This 19th century saw the rise of cotton to its new regal position as "King Cotton."
In 1892 the boll weevil (Anthonomus grandis, pictured above right) crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico at Brownsville, Texas. Within a few short years, cotton farmers discovered how destructive the boll weevil could be to a cotton crop, particularly to a mono-culture cotton plantation. The boll weevil is about one-fourth of an inch (6 mm) long and has a long, sharp beak, or snout. The female uses the beak to pierce cotton flower buds and then deposits within each bud an egg that hatches into a larva. The larva feeds upon the inside of the bud,
| Any of numerous beetles, of the superfamily Curculionoidea, especially the snout beetle,|
that characteristically have a downward-curving snout and are destructive to nuts, fruits, stems, and roots.
| boll |
|the fruit of such plants as flax and cotton, consisting of a rounded capsule containing the seeds|
a term used of various other machineries, from M.E. gin "ingenious device, contrivance" (c.1200), from O.Fr. gin "machine, device, scheme," form of engin.
|square||the actual flower of the cotton plant; the boll is the fruit|
| all definitions from dictionary.com|
causing it to wilt and drop off the stem. The larva develops into a beetle that continues to feed on the buds and bolls. Later, the adult weevil lays eggs inside the boll itself, so the larvae blight the boll when they emerge and settle down to their first real meal! Who would build a monument to that?
By 1915, the boll weevil had reached Enterprise, Alabama, which like most cities and towns in the south, depended primarily on cotton revenues to pay off last year's bank loans and secure next year's loan for seeds. Enterprise businessman H. M. Sessions determined that peanuts (Arachis hypogaea) would make a good replacement crop for cotton, since peanuts were impervious to boll weevils. He pursuaded Enterprise farmer C.M. Baston, whose crops had been ruined by boll weevils and who was deeply indebted to the local banks, to plant peanuts instead for one year. Sessions offered Baston the seed peanuts, a picker to help harvest and $1 a bushel! Baston could not resist such an offer. Sure enough, when the season was over, Baston had 8,000 bushels of peanuts, or $8,000, enough seed left over to share with his fellow bankrupt cotton farmers, and a renewed sense of self-worth.
In ancient times up through nineteenth century Europe, methods of crop rotation had been perfected for maximum yield with minimum acreage. Various theories were in play about why it worked; but it did work. However, in earth that had not been farmed for hundreds or thousands of years, such as that in the United States south, crop rotation was unnecessary—at first. The soil was rich and fertile and cotton grew. Plantation owners forgot all about scratching out a living in Ireland, England or France.
Crop rotation was one of George Washington Carver's 'inventions' or 'discoveries', and every bit as useful as peanut butter! While the types of nitrogen-fixing crops that had been grown at home (that is, Europe) like peas, beans, and even clovers would grow in the south, none seemed as customized for southern farmers as peanuts and cowpeas. Carver himself came up with over 300 uses for peanuts, some edible and many more industrial. When cotton was rotated with peanuts or peanuts and oats and/or alfalfa, depleted soil became fertile again and a variety of crops—not just cotton—could be grown. Even today, some estimate that one-third to one-half of the peanuts grown in the U.S. are grown withim one hundred miles of Enterprise.
So, back to that crazy statue in Enterprise. Another businessman, I imagine a wealthier businessman this time, had the brilliant idea of dedicating a statue to the boll weevil, for its role in showing the good people of Enterprise, Alabama about the value of crop rotation and diversification. His name was Bon Fleming. Apparently he bankrolled most of the expense of having the lovely lady carved in Italy and a huge fountain in which to install her created stateside. (Records indicate "donations" from townspeople helped offset some of the cost.) The total price came to approximately $3000 (in 1919 dollars, over $37,000 to $427,000 in today's dollars)!
But the original statue honoring the boll weevil, the pest that single handedly, or rather, using all six insect limbs, put an end to the cotton crops in the American south, had its feminine figure holding aloft nothing more terrifying than another fountain which poured into the larger one at her feet. This was the statue that was dedicated on December 11, 1919, nearly 90 years ago today! A crowd of around 5,000 folks cheered as she was unveiled for the first time. The plaque at her feet 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.
Rather than viewing the boll weevil's devastation of cotton crops as the end of something, the citizens of Enterprise chose to view it differently, as the beginning of something new. To use a modern colloquialism, they were making lemonade out of lemons. (Speaking of beverages, Coffee County was named after a Mr. John Coffee, not the drink.)
But the "Boll Weevil Statue" still had only a fountain, no bug. In 1949, local artist Luther Baker welded together some scraps of iron and voila, the first boll weevil. Baker stuck his weevil in the fountain held by the lady in her outstretched arms. Eventually, the first, 1949 weevil was replaced by bigger, more prominent boll weevils, and ultimately, permanently replaced the fountain she once held, so all she holds now is that darn boll weevil.
It is true that as The Boll Weevil City, Enterprise has garnered an unexpected tourist trade. Now, one can buy Boll Weevil Monument T-shirts, miniature Boll Weevil Monuments, and postcards of the Boll Weevil Monument. It may not be the prosperity Bon Fleming had in mind in 1919, but it will do nicely for the people of Enterprise!
For more information ...
about boll weevil eradication, go here.
about the history of farming, go here.
about the invention of the cotton gin, go here.
And to hear a popular folksong about boll weevils, click"> here.
IMAGES COPYRIGHT MELODY ROSE, NADINE HANNA AND THE 1912 USDA COTTON FARMER'S MANUAL.
http://www.tumbledownfarm.com/texts/Cyclopedia/Cyclopedia_II_V_Outline.html (Cyclopedia of American Agriculture, ed. 1911)