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A career blooms from the ground up

Stalin wanted to hire him, but he stayed in the United States and helped turn around agriculture here. Get reacquainted with George Washington Carver at the national monument bearing his name.

By MICHAEL SCHUMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


George Washington Carver. For many of us, the name triggers vague memories of fourth-grade history reports and social studies. Long before there was Black History Month, Carver stood out as one of the most famous and most appreciated African-Americans in U.S. history.

But most of those memories probably have become a bit faded. What was it that Carver did with peanuts? Surely it took more than peanuts to make his a household name.

The answers can be found at the site of Carver's birthplace, today the George Washington Carver National Monument, in the town of Diamond, Mo. Diamond is in southwestern Missouri, known among locals as the land where the Ozarks meet the prairie.

Here -- it is near the place where the Show Me State borders Kansas and Oklahoma -- visitors can experiment in a discovery lab, walk a nature trail past landmarks that had weighty influence on Carver's early years, screen a selection of related videos and learn in a visitor center just what made the man such a popular subject for all those fourth-grade reports.

In Diamond, visitors discover -- or at least learn again -- how a man born into slavery embarked on an illustrious career to help farmers wallowing in poverty get the most from their land.

Carver was dedicated to aiding so-called one-horse planters, despite tempting offers from Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and even Josef Stalin, who asked Carver to work in their labs. Or, in the case of Stalin, to remake Russia's hurting agriculture.

Carver turned them all down, staying at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, where he felt he could be of the most help to dirt-poor farmers trying to eke out a living from land ravaged by overplanting cotton.

At the national monument, visitors meet both George Carver the child and Dr. Carver the man. Visitors walk a wooden and gravel trail through the adjacent woods and prairie to see the haunts of his childhood, past the location of the one-room cabin where he was born into slavery in 1864, and by the spring where he drew water every day for use in the farm home of Moses and Susan Carver.

Moses and Susan Carver are said to have been reluctant slave owners. After the Civil War ended and George's mother had been kidnapped and murdered, the Carvers reared George and his brother, Jim, as their own children. In his later years, George often recalled the love and care his adoptive parents had shown him.

The two-room Moses Carver House, dating from 1881, is the only complete structure seen on the walk. George had left the farm by the time the Carvers built this cottage, now filled with exhibits, but he did stop by before going off to college.

The most moving stop on the Carver Trail is the Boy Carver statue, depicting young George, perhaps 8 years old, sitting in a moment of wonder, musing on the natural world around him. It was near this spot that he tended his favorite plants in his secret garden.

A quote of Carver's is posted here: "Many are the tears I have shed because I would break the roots or flowers of some of my pets while removing them from the ground and, strange to say, all sorts of vegetation seemed to thrive under my touch until I was styled the plant doctor."

The plants truly were Carver's pets, but had he been born a century later, numerous career options would have awaited him. As a boy, Carver was adept with the accordion, piano and violin, and he showed a talent for painting. He received an honorable mention at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair for his painting The Yucca. Three Carver landscapes keep company with the family fiddle in the visitor center. Carver's first career choice was to paint and draw. But, according to an introductory film, the faculty at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, advised against it.

It was too hard, they counseled him, for a black person to make a living in the arts in the 1880s. So botany became Carver's calling.

If the plants were Carver's pets, his students at the Tuskegee Institute were his children. Carver never married; his career was his lifelong companion, although one could say his other true partner was his faith. Carver once said that God charged him nothing for knowledge, and he would charge mankind the same price to share it.

Indeed, to Carver, God spoke to people through nature, "If we only would tune in," he said.

Touring the historical site, visitors understand how Carver's spirituality compelled him to provide service to others.

After receiving bachelor's and master's degrees from Iowa State, Carver turned down a lucrative career at the university to work with educator Booker T. Washington at the fledgling Tuskegee Institute. Washington informed Carver that since 85 percent of the African-Americans in the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico were farmers, most of them entrenched in poverty, the new school's greatest need was an agricultural department.

Carver's goal, he later said, was to improve the situation of "the man farthest down." And undoubtedly his greatest accomplishment was helping renourish the South's soil, in turn assisting the Southern economy's rebound in the early 1900s.

King Cotton, planted for decades in the same fields, was a heavy-feeding plant that drained the soil of its mineral resources. The cotton-devouring boll weevil killed most of what remained.

Small farmers typically would leave their barren fields behind, until Carver spoke to them and published free bulletins advising them to plant legumes, which drew nitrogen from the air and fixed it in the soil.

"Plant peanuts," he suggested. "That'll keep the soil productive. And the boll weevils don't attack peanuts."

By then, Carver's reputation as the "peanut man" was solid. The historical site lists more than 100 byproducts Carver developed from peanuts, including versions of foods such as coffee and chili sauce, as well as hand lotion and lubricating oil. He applied peanut oil massages to the affected muscles of people with polio during the 1920s, and in the 1930s he taught people in Africa to make peanut milk after their sheep and cows had died from sleeping sickness.

Carver also developed dozens of products from sweet potato plants, including dry paste and synthetic cotton.

Visitors may try their own Carver-esque experiments in the Carver Discovery Center, a hands-on learning lab on the grounds. Making peanut milk was on the schedule when we visited, so we ground handfuls of peanuts with a mortar and pestle before mixing with hot water and straining. Current health regulations prohibited our tasting it, but the concoction smelled like, well, peanuts.

Elsewhere in the discovery center, our kids played computer games and answered quizzes about plants.

George Washington Carver died Jan. 5, 1943, and is buried on the grounds of Tuskegee Institute.

Michael Schuman is a freelance writer who lives in Keene, N.H.

If you go

GETTING THERE: George Washington Carver National Monument is 2 miles west of Diamond, Mo., south of Joplin and about 10 minutes north of Neosho, which has several motels. Take Exit 18 off Interstate 44.

The site is open year-round, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Allow two hours for a satisfactory visit. Admission is free.

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