George Washington Carver. For many of us, the name triggers memory cells of4th-grade history reports and social studies with Mrs. Nesbitt. For longbefore there was even such a thing as Black History Month, Carver stood out asone of the most famous and best loved African-Americans in United Stateshistory.
But just who was George Washington Carver? Yes, he had something to do withpeanuts, but it took more than peanuts to make the man a household name.
The answers can be found at the site of Carver's birthplace, GeorgeWashington Carver National Monument, in the small town of Diamond insouthwestern Missouri, known among locals as the land where the Ozarks meetthe prairie.
Here, near the spot where the Show Me State joins borders with Kansas andOklahoma, visitors can experiment in a discovery lab, walk a nature trail pastlandmarks that had weighty influence on Carver's early years, screen aselection of Carver-related videos and learn in a visitor center museum justwhat it was that made this person such a popular subject for all those4th-grade reports.
It is in Diamond where one discovers how a man born into slavery embarkedon an illustrious career to help farmers living in poverty to get the mostfrom their land. Carver was dedicated to aiding one-horse planters, despitetempting offers from the likes of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Josef Stalin,asking him to work in their labs or, in the case of Stalin, to remake Russia'shurting agriculture.
Carver turned them all down, opting to stay at Alabama's TuskegeeInstitute, where he felt he could be of most help to dirt-poor southernfarmers trying to eke out a living tending land that had been ravaged by theoverplanting of cotton.
Here, visitors meet both George Carver the child and Dr. Carver the man.One can walk a wooden and gravel trail through the adjacent woods and prairieto see the haunts of his enervated childhood, past the location of theone-room cabin where he was born into slavery in 1864 and the spring where hecollected water every day for use in the farm home of Moses and Susan Carver.
Moses and Susan Carver were reluctant slave owners. After the Civil War hadended, and George's mother had been kidnapped and murdered, they raised Georgeand his brother Jim as their own children. In his later years, George oftenrecalled the love and care Moses and Susan had shown him. They are buried inthe tidy Carver cemetery, a small plot of prairie tucked into the southern endof the site, seen on the walking trail.
The two-room Moses Carver House, dating from 1881, is the only completestructure seen on the loop walk. George had left the farm by the time hisadopted parents built this cottage, now filled with exhibits, but he did stopby 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,mulling the magic of the natural world around him.
It was around this spot where he doted on his favorite plants in his secretgarden. A quote of Carver's is posted: "...many are the tears I have shedbecause I would break the roots or flowers of some of my pets while removingthem from the ground, and strange to say all sorts of vegetation seemed tothrive under my touch until I was styled the plant doctor..."
The plants, truly, were Carver's pets. Had he been born a century later,numerous career options would have awaited him. As a boy, Carver was adeptwith the accordion, piano and violin, and he showed a talent for painting. hereceived an honorable mention at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair for hispainting "The Yucca." Three Carver landscapes keep company with the familyfiddle in the visitor center. Carver's first career choice was to paint anddraw, but, according to an introductory film called "George Washington Carver:Man of Vision," the faculty at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa,, which heattended until transferring to Iowa State University, advised against it. Itwas too hard, they counseled him, for a black person to make a living in thearts in the 1880s. So science, specifically botany, became Carver's calling.
If the plants were Carver's pets, his students at Alabama's TuskegeeInstitute were his children. Like many who made their livelihoods inventingand exploring, Carver never married. His career served as his lifelongpartner, although one could say his other true partner was his faith. Carverwas a devout and religious man who said that God charged him nothing forknowledge and he would charge mankind the same price to share it.
Indeed, to Carver God broadcast to people through nature. "If we only wouldtune in," he implored.
While touring the site, one comprehends how this spirituality compelledCarver to provide service to others. After receiving bachelor's and master'sdegrees from Iowa State, Carver turned down a lucrative career at theuniversity to work with educator Booker T. Washington at the fledglingTuskegee Institute. Washington informed Carver that since 85 percent of theAfrican-Americans in the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico were farmers,most entrenched in poverty, the new school's greatest need was an agriculturaldepartment. Carver's goal, he stated, was to improve the situation of "the manfarthest down."
Arguably, his greatest accomplishment was converting nutrient-poor soilinto fresh, fertile land, in turn helping the Southern economy rebound in theearly 1900s. King Cotton, planted for decades on the same plots, was a heavyfeeding plant that drained the soil of its mineral and vegetable resources.The cotton-devouring boll weevil killed whatever crops remained. Small farmersleft their wasted fields behind, that is until Carver spoke to the ruralfarmers and published free bulletins, advising the growers to plant legumes,which drew nitrogen from the air and enhanced the soil. "Plant peanuts," hesuggested. "That'll keep the soil productive. And the boll weevils don'tattack peanuts."
By then, Carver's reputation as the "peanut man" was cemented. One can readhere a list of well over 100 by-products Carver developed from peanuts,including things ranging from a coffee substitute and chili sauce to handlotion and lubricating oil. He applied peanut oil massages to the affectedmuscles of polio victims in the 1920s and taught people in Africa to makepeanut milk in the 1930s after their sheep and cows had died from sleepingsickness. No one-trick pony, Carver also developed dozens of products fromsweet potato plants, including dry paste and synthetic cotton.
Visitors may try their own Carver-esque experiments in the Carver DiscoveryCenter, a hands-on learning lab on the grounds, meant to be for kids butenjoyed by just as many adults. The making of peanut milk was on the schedulewhen we visited, and we proceeded to grind handfuls of these legumes with amortar and pestle before mixing with hot water and straining. Modern-dayhealth regulations prohibit tasting, but we were allowed to smell theconcoction. It smelled, well, like peanuts. Finished with our milk-making, westayed in the Discovery Center while the kids played computer games, answeringquizzes about plants and taking cyber snapshots of various flora and fauna.
George Washington Carver died on Jan. 5, 1943. He is buried on the groundsof Tuskegee Institute. And should you run into Mrs. Nesbitt after visitinghere, you can tell her you're prepared to add some considerable information tothat 4th-grade social studies report.
IF YOU GO
George Washington Carver National Monument is 2 miles west of the center ofDiamond, Mo., just a few miles southeast of Joplin. Take Exit 18 offInterstate Highway 44. The site is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily exceptThanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Allow two hours for a satisfactoryvisit: 30 minutes for the introductory film, 45 minutes to walk the looptrail, 15 minutes to see the visitor center museum and 30 minutes in theCarver Discovery Center. Admission is free, and picnic tables are on thegrounds.
All the following are in Neosho, about 10 minutes south of the site
Super 8 Motel, 3085 Gardner/Edgewood Dr.; 417-455-1888. Doubles: $47-$55.
Best Western, 1810 Southern View Dr.; 417-455-2300. Doubles: $62-$67.
Neosho Inn, 2500 S. 71 Highway; 417-451-6500. Doubles: $48.
George Washington Carver National Monument, 5646 Carver Road, Diamond, MO64840; 417-325-4151; www.nps.gov/gwca.
M.S.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times