FROM THE ALABAMA LAWYER - Lessons of the Boll Weevil: “Perspectives from a Lawyer”
Published on July 21, 2017
By M. Dale Marsh
I would be less than honest if I did not tell all you fellow lawyers that I believe I practice law in the best spot in Alabama – the town of Enterprise in Coffee County. Our city is the home of a world-famous statue – and the only statue in the world honoring an insect called the boll weevil. This statue exemplifies and honors the adversity, determination, diversity, and triumph the people of Enterprise and Coffee County faced more than 100 years ago. From humble beginnings, Enterprise has grown at a faster pace than neighboring towns with more industry, population and transportation assets and stands as a symbol of what can be accomplished by dedicated people to make their town better in every way.
Let me tell you a little bit about how the Boll Weevil Statue came into being:
Southeast Alabama, now called the Wiregrass, and which includes the counties of Covington, Coffee, Geneva, Houston and Henry, was once Creek Indian territory. When the Creek Indians ceded their lands in southeast Alabama, pioneers took over, but found the most fertile parts of Alabama already taken. These pioneers were left to settle in those Wiregrass counties known as “cow counties” because of the apparent unproductivity of the soils, the inaccessibility to markets, the lack of transportation, and the impoverished condition of the meager population. They wrestled with infertile red clay and sandy soils covered by grass so tough they called it “wiregrass.” Most of the settlers were poor and did not have the money to buy large tracts of land and the fertilizer necessary to produce cotton. These pioneers turned their efforts toward raising cattle and hogs. Later, after the railroad came to town in 1898, the price of fertilizer decreased and made it possible to plant and grow cotton in the poor soils of the Wiregrass. Cotton then became the principal money crop of our farmers.
Enterprise was located in a long-leaf pine forest served by two small roads in 1881 when John Henry Carmichael moved there and built a small store and his residence on what is now North Main Street. The first post office was in his home.
Prior to the coming of the Mexican boll weevil, farmers planted as much cotton as they could and depended on their efforts and the Good Lord to produce a good crop in the fall. In the late summer of 1915, the Coffee County cotton yield averaged about 35,000 bales each year. Cotton was “king,” and until the arrival of the boll weevil, it was the most dependable crop. Our farmers knew little about growing anything but cotton and raising food for cattle and hogs. There were hundreds of families – both black and white – in Coffee County who farmed for a living. Families with many children were especially desired as this meant more available hands at cotton-picking time. That was the only way they knew to make a living, and if the cotton crop failed, farmers could not meet their financial obligations to banks, who held notes and mortgages on their farms.
The first year the boll weevil made his appearance in Coffee County, 1915, the cotton yield was cut to about 60 percent of normal, due to the ravages of the bug. Farmers did everything they could to fight back against the boll weevil. They used homemade remedies and entire farming families took the fields and pinched the bugs off the plants by hand and killed them. These attempts to fight the boll weevil failed.
Despite the production loss in 1915, the farmers planted for a bumper cotton crop in 1916 and continued to combat the boll weevil. In that year, less than one-third of a crop was harvested. The conditions that confronted the farmers in Coffee County and the Wiregrass confronted farmers throughout the entire cotton belt from Texas to Georgia. Farmers were unable to repay their crop loans and merchants/advancers who sold to farmers on credit with debt to be paid from the proceeds of the fall cotton crop could not pay their suppliers or the banks – a financial domino effect – with the bankers and merchants left “holding the bag.”
Several Enterprise bankers, merchants, and farmers heard about the success of peanuts (ground-pea, goobers or penders), which were being grown in the Carolinas and Virginia, so they proceeded to check into the matter. In 1915, Coffee County farm agent John Pittman and local banker Horatio Moultrie (H.M.) Sessions, the president of Farmers & Merchants National Bank (F&M) in Enterprise, visited North and South Carolina and Virginia to study a crop then unknown in Alabama, the peanut. Sessions was impressed with what he saw in South Carolina, and he bought peanut seed and had them shipped to Enterprise. They arrived in October 1915. He made arrangements with C.W. Baston, who was indebted to Sessions and Farmers & Merchants National Bank, to raise the first crop of peanuts and guaranteed their purchase. Sessions and Pittman knew that the Coffee County loose sandy soil was ideally suited for the growing of peanuts.
In 1916, Baston planted his 125-acre farm in peanuts, and made a huge peanut crop of 8,000 bushels. Sessions agreed to pay Baston $1 per bushel for the crop, and Baston was able to pay his debt to F&M Bank, with a good amount of money left over. Baston and Sessions proved that peanuts could be grown successfully in the sandy soil of Coffee County and that farmers no longer had to depend on “King Cotton.” Sessions, referred to as the “father” of the peanut crop, installed a mechanical peanut sheller in 1917 and bought and shelled peanuts and later crushed peanuts for peanut oil. Sessions and family members formed Sessions Company, Inc. in the 1930s.
In the spring of 1917, hundreds of farmers, encouraged by Baston’s success, planted peanuts, including my grandfather, C.A. Marsh. The fall peanut crop was outstanding and, in 1917, Coffee County, Alabama grew and harvested more than a million pounds of peanuts for market, selling for $5 million. It is said that the peanut market ruled higher in Enterprise on Saturday, October 13, 1917 than in any market in the peanut belt of the state. Enterprise citizens began to refer to their town as the “Peanut Capital of the World.” As high as $102 and nothing lower than $85 was paid per ton. To this day, Coffee County still is the unit mentioned when comparisons are made in peanut production. Cotton then began to take second place to peanuts as the farmers’ top money crop.
An article of The Peoples Ledger, dated October 16, 1917, stated: “Nearly every vacant building in the town of Enterprise is being used to store peanuts, hay and corn. Nothing like it has ever been known here before. More than fifteen rail cars are loaded and shipped from this point daily, and this amount will increase every day during the season.”
When farmers came to town to do their business on Saturday, they often visited the store of R.O. (Bon) Fleming on Main Street, talking and chatting about crops, family, church, politics, and farming. Bon Fleming began to tell people about his idea to erect some type of monument in honor of the prosperity brought about by the boll weevil and how it caused the farmers of the area to diversify their farming and introduce peanuts as another cash money crop. This monument was to be erected at the intersection of Main and College streets in downtown Enterprise. Many farmers, merchants, bankers, and citizens of Enterprise gave donations to help fund the project. Someone sketched a semblance of a proposed statue, and as local legend has it, that sketch was sent to Italy for final design and manufacture. The statue arrived in Enterprise after several months, but was stored in the railroad depot in Enterprise until such time as the final cost could be raised by donations to take possession of it. It was reported that the monument alone cost $1,795, and by the time the work to erect it and provide a protective wall and pool around it was finished, the total cost was about $3,000, a large sum of money in those days.
The world-famous monument was dedicated on Main Street on December 11, 1919, a year and a month after the end of World War I, in front of a crowd of 5,000 people and farmers and shellers from Virginia and the Carolinas who had met earlier with Sessions and Pittman about the feasibility of growing peanuts in Coffee County. The keynote speaker for event was to be the famed peanut scientist from Tuskegee Institute, Dr. George Washington Carver. Unfortunately, Dr. Carver had to cancel his appearance due to heavy rains which shut down the railroad track between Columbus, Georgia and Montgomery, and he could not travel to Enterprise. At the very last minute, one of the guests attending the event, Luther Fuller, an agricultural agent for the Southern Railroad, volunteered to give the speech of dedication, in which he called the “boll weevil, a blessing in disguise. . .it pauperized the South. . . what the pest caused in damage, and what he did to refashion agriculture into a sound program of diversified farming is well known.”
The Boll Weevil Monument stands only 13 ½ feet high in a circular fountain. The figure is that of a beautiful lady with her arms raised high, symbolizing the prosperity brought about by the peanut. Many years later, a replica of the boll weevil was cast and placed in the arms of the lady figure. On the base of the monument these words can be found on a brass plate:
IN PROFOUND APPRECIATION
OF THE BOLL WEEVIL
AND WHAT IT HAS DONE AS THE HERALD OF PROSPERITY
THIS MONUMENT IS ERECTED
BY THE CITIZENS OF
ENTERPRISE, COFFEE COUNTY, ALABAMA
The monument has been featured in numerous newspapers and magazines articles and on television, and it holds a special place in the heart of those of us who call Enterprise home. Today, Enterprise continually seeks a proper balance between diversified agriculture and industry, and her monument stands as a symbol to the thinking and the vision of those in our past who helped create prosperity out of chaos and near despair.
What are the lessons to be learned from the boll weevil, and how can we fight them in our lifetime? The legacy of the boll weevil stands for the character and behavior of early Enterprise men and women pioneers and the lessons they taught for generations to follow:
- People must have a vision and the will to carry out that vision;
- People must have both moral and physical strength to stand up to adversity and meet repeated reversals and setbacks with courage and determination;
- United people working together can be the architects of solutions;
- Be generous with your time, talents, and finances to promote the greater good and “pay it forward;”
- Be kind, considerate, and fair to all people, and take up the challenge of the Apostle Paul to “give thanks in all circumstances;” and
- Never, never, never give up.
Are there boll weevil lessons for lawyers? Our profession faces huge technological, cultural, and institutional changes. To overcome these challenges and prosper, we must have a deep understanding of both the black letter law and human nature. We must use our training, our ethical duty to clients and the courts, and our commitment to justice to create legal solutions to the many problems that face modern society. We practice in uncertain times, and when we are faced with a “boll weevil” moment, disguised as a difficult witness, client, judge, or jurors, we must act quickly and use our best skills and legal education to make law work and to create conditions which foster successful results for our clients. In 1915-17, the profession of farming did not change – the process and the end result of growing a peanut crop instead of a cotton crop were what changed. Although the legal processes and products lawyers provide have changed and will continue to change, the one constant in our profession is the need for advice and counsel which only lawyers can provide. Lawyers, like the pioneer farmers of Enterprise, must have the insight to be aware of the need for change in their everyday practice in order to obtain a more prosperous future. Lawyers must continue to be hardworking, courageous, and creative and be willing to reconsider our viewpoints, take calculated risks, demonstrate the continued will to win and succeed, and, above all, persevere.
Photos courtesy of the City of Enterprise, Enterprise Chamber of Commerce, and The Southeast Sun newspaper and photo collection of Pam and Mike McQueen
- “Coffee County, Alabama, Ancestral Homeland” compiled by Bill and Sue Tubbs, Jasper, Alabama 06-2005.
- “High Cotton” song written by Scott Anders and Roger Murrah and recorded by American country music group Alabama.
- Sessions Company, Inc. (Sessions) is still headquartered in Enterprise and purchases farmers’ peanuts at various locations in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia. The current chair of Sessions is H.M. Sessions, Jr., and the president is William T. Ventress, Jr., both great-grandsons of founder H.M. Sessions, who died in 1927. Since its early beginnings, Sessions has been represented by the author’s firm, Marsh & Cotter LLP, and its predecessor firms.
- “From Pest to Prosperity,” heritage article by Emmett Burnett, May/June 2015, Alabama Living magazines.
- See Enterprise, The First 110 Years by Roy Shoffner, pages 62-64, 66-71, and Coffee Grounds.
- The Peoples Ledger, dated October 16, 1917.
- It is of interest to note that in 1918 while Enterprise was planning to build a monument to symbolize prosperity and the future. . . other neighboring towns had chosen to honor their Southern heritage and erected C.S.A. monuments to perpetuate the memory and valor of C.S.A. soldiers. Monuments were erected in Greenville (1903), Eufaula (1904), Tuskegee (1906), Clayton (1908), Troy (1908), Prattville (1908), and Ozark (1910).
- I always thought this was a most progressive step for the people of Enterprise and Coffee County to invite Dr. Carver to speak in 1919, at a time when many other communities and counties, due to Jim Crow laws and Southern customs, would not have invited a black speaker.
- Shoffner at pages 68-71.
- Another success story is the National Boll Weevil Eradication Program which was responsible for the eradication of the boll weevil in the southeastern states, including Alabama, and helped thousands of U.S. cotton-growers become more competitive. Enterprise continues to successfully raise cotton without the setbacks resulting from boll weevils.
- Claybank Memories, A History of Dale County, Alabama by Judge Val McGee, pages 111, 130-134, 142, 146-147.
- Where there is no vision, the people perish; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he–Proverbs 29:18.