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George Washington Carver. For many of us, the name triggers memory cells of 4th-grade history reports and social studies with Mrs. Nesbitt. For long before there was even such a thing as Black History Month, Carver stood out as one of the most famous and best loved African-Americans in United States history.
But just who was George Washington Carver? Yes, he had something to do with peanuts, 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, George Washington Carver National Monument, in the small town of Diamond in southwestern Missouri, known among locals as the land where the Ozarks meet the prairie.
Here, near the spot where the Show Me State joins borders with 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 Carver-related videos and learn in a visitor center museum just what it was that made this person such a popular subject for all those 4th-grade reports.
It is in Diamond where one discovers how a man born into slavery embarked on an illustrious career to help farmers living in poverty to get the most from their land. Carver was dedicated to aiding one-horse planters, despite tempting 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's hurting agriculture.
Carver turned them all down, opting to stay at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, where he felt he could be of most help to dirt-poor southern farmers trying to eke out a living tending land that had been ravaged by the overplanting 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 prairie to see the haunts of his enervated childhood, past the location of the one-room cabin where he was born into slavery in 1864 and the spring where he collected 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 had ended, and George's mother had been kidnapped and murdered, they raised George and his brother Jim as their own children. In his later years, George often recalled the love and care Moses and Susan had shown him. They are buried in the tidy Carver cemetery, a small plot of prairie tucked into the southern end of the site, seen on the walking trail.
The two-room Moses Carver House, dating from 1881, is the only complete structure seen on the loop walk. George had left the farm by the time his adopted parents 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, mulling the magic of the natural world around him.
It was around this spot where he doted on his favorite plants in his secret garden. A quote of Carver's is posted: "...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. 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 called "George Washington Carver: Man of Vision," the faculty at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa,, which he attended until transferring to Iowa State University, 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 science, specifically botany, became Carver's calling.
If the plants were Carver's pets, his students at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute were his children. Like many who made their livelihoods inventing and exploring, Carver never married. His career served as his lifelong partner, although one could say his other true partner was his faith. Carver was a devout and religious man who said that God charged him nothing for knowledge and he would charge mankind the same price to share it.
Indeed, to Carver God broadcast to people through nature. "If we only would tune in," he implored.
While touring the site, one comprehends how this spirituality compelled Carver 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 entrenched in poverty, the new school's greatest need was an agricultural department. Carver's goal, he stated, was to improve the situation of "the man farthest down."
Arguably, his greatest accomplishment was converting nutrient-poor soil into fresh, fertile land, in turn helping the Southern economy rebound in the early 1900s. King Cotton, planted for decades on the same plots, was a heavy feeding plant that drained the soil of its mineral and vegetable resources. The cotton-devouring boll weevil killed whatever crops remained. Small farmers left their wasted fields behind, that is until Carver spoke to the rural farmers and published free bulletins, advising the growers to plant legumes, which drew nitrogen from the air and enhanced 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 cemented. One can read here a list of well over 100 by-products Carver developed from peanuts, including things ranging from a coffee substitute and chili sauce to hand lotion and lubricating oil. He applied peanut oil massages to the affected muscles of polio victims in the 1920s and taught people in Africa to make peanut milk in the 1930s after their sheep and cows had died from sleeping sickness. No one-trick pony, 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, meant to be for kids but enjoyed by just as many adults. The making of peanut milk was on the schedule when we visited, and we proceeded to grind handfuls of these legumes with a mortar and pestle before mixing with hot water and straining. Modern-day health regulations prohibit tasting, but we were allowed to smell the concoction. It smelled, well, like peanuts. Finished with our milk-making, we stayed in the Discovery Center while the kids played computer games, answering quizzes about plants and taking cyber snapshots of various flora and fauna.
George Washington Carver died on Jan. 5, 1943. He is buried on the grounds of Tuskegee Institute. And should you run into Mrs. Nesbitt after visiting here, you can tell her you're prepared to add some considerable information to that 4th-grade social studies report.
IF YOU GO
George Washington Carver National Monument is 2 miles west of the center of Diamond, Mo., just a few miles southeast of Joplin. Take Exit 18 off Interstate Highway 44. The site is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Allow two hours for a satisfactory visit: 30 minutes for the introductory film, 45 minutes to walk the loop trail, 15 minutes to see the visitor center museum and 30 minutes in the Carver Discovery Center. Admission is free, and picnic tables are on the grounds.
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, MO 64840; 417-325-4151; www.nps.gov/gwca.