In what is surely evidence that there is now national recognition for just about every kind of food, November is National Peanut Butter Lover’s Month. This not to be confused with National Peanut Butter Lover’s Day on March 1, National Peanut Butter Day on January 24, or National Peanut Butter Fudge Day on November 20. Ironically, National Peanut Butter Month comes on the heels of an announcement that peanut butter prices are dramatically rising – the result of a drought in the south this past season that ruined a number of crops.
In honor of this auspicious month, The American Table remembers Dr. George Washington Carver – who made the peanut into the major commercial product it is today and arguably did more for American agriculture than anyone of his generation.
Born into slavery in Diamond Grove, Missouri around 1864, Carver was too sickly as a child to work in the fields. Instead, he was assigned to the household, and did ‘lighter’ chores in the garden. The nature of Carver’s work as a child provided him with the rare opportunity to have ‘free time,’ which he often spent in the woods around the farm. He was drawn to nature, and without a formal education, studied the life cycles and patterns of the local plants. At a young age, he became known as the “Plant Doctor” for his ability to take care of sickly crops and gardens in the area.
In 1890, Carver headed north to Simpson College to study music and art. His still-life paintings of nature became popular, and were featured at the 1893 World’s Fair. However, he didn’t stay long at Simpson College before his interests in horticulture led him to the agriculture program at Iowa State University, where Carver became the first African American student – and upon graduation, faculty member.
After serving on the faculty at Iowa State, Carver received a letter from Booker T. Washington to become the Director of Agriculture at the recently opened Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School in Alabama (now Tuskegee University). Washington informed Carver that the school ran off of a small budget, and Carver would need to be resourceful in order to equip his own laboratory. While others would have taken this call to resourcefulness to mean fundraising and seeking donations, Carver gathered his students for weekly scavenger hunts – digging through trash heaps for useful materials.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the American South was struck by a blight of boll weevils that had devastated the region’s cotton crop – crushing an economy that was still trying to recover in the Reconstruction years after the Civil War. As part of Dr. Carver and Tuskegee’s outreach work in the community, Carver researched other crops that farmers could grow in the climate including sweet potatoes, soybeans and the humble peanut. However, it wasn’t as simple just to ask farmers to plant the new crops – the market for crops like peanuts was small. So, in addition to revolutionizing the crop structure in the South, Carver also developed new uses for the crops and marketed them far and wide.
The most famous example of this was in 1916, when Dr. Carver published “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it For Human Consumption,” the first of fourty-four such agricultural bulletins he would produce in his lifetime. Livestock could eat peanuts, and Carver gave instructions on how cotton mills could be re-fitted to process peanut oil. Carver also developed applications for the peanut that encouraged its use in such diverse products as cosmetics, plastics, insecticides, axle grease and gasoline. In addition to finding new markets for items like peanuts, and instructing farmers on practices to convert their cotton plantations, Dr. Carver also gave instructions on how to build and maintain nutrient-rich soil.
Carver died on January 5, 1943 and was buried next to Booker T. Washington on the campus of Tuskegee University. As a testament to Carver’s importance to the nation, President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated $30,000 of federal money in July, 1943 to establish the George Washington Carver National Monument on the grounds of the farm where Carver was born into slavery. This was the first national monument dedicated to an African American, and the only national monument at the time to be dedicated to someone who had not been a U.S. President.