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81 Things to Love about Alabama: The Enterprise Boll Weevil monument — and the story of one ugly bug

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This is a good story that we don’t appreciate enough.

HAIL WEEVIL, HAIL HYDRA

WikiCommons CC license

WikiCommons CC license

Everyone in Alabama knows about Enterprise’s boll weevil statue.

It’s the story behind the statue, of what the statue means, of the 100 years of misery and desperation that are far more interesting. So, let’s talk about that first.

The most destructive pest in American history was not the swarm of 17-year locusts that devoured most of the Midwest in the 1870s and 1920s. That seems inconceivable, since those pestilential insects caused mass famine, livestock die-offs, and even population migrations.

No, the worst agricultural pest outbreak in US history was the devastation visited upon the South by the boll weevil.

This ugly sucker hails from Central Mexico, and — because natural selection is equally parts cruel mistress and dark comedy — it evolved to survive off of just one plant: cotton. The boll weevil began creeping its way north and eventually reached the US in the 1890s (on the heels of a plague of locusts, by the way.) And, by the time the weevils had fully infiltrated America’s Humidity Belt in the 1920s, the devastation it wrought was almost total. (Did I mention that there was a plague of locusts in the 1920s too?)

Per Brittanica, over the span of nearly a century, the boll weevil destroyed 30-50% of America’s total cotton harvest...because, you know, the South is rich enough to afford having its major crop gobbled up. An aggressive eradication campaign would not begin until 1978.

It has taken nearly four decades for the critters to be largely stamped out and for crops to marginally rebound. The eradication project is still ongoing too — as of 2016, sixteen states were still receiving millions of dollars in federal aid to combat the insect. And, in some areas (notably large locations in Texas, for instance), there are still weevil infestations.

Insert Mexican migration joke here.

And, did that bug ever change America, folks.

First and foremost, it drastically changed an entire region in ways that we as soft, modern 21st century Alabamians can not fully grasp.

The South could no longer rely upon its sleepy sharecroppers, yeoman planters, and gentry planter class. At the farm level alone in 2018, cotton was a $5+ billion industry, and the total cotton industry is worth $120 billion. Now: subtract half of that — and that’s a helluva’ hit for a region that was already rural, poor, and which saw very few Reconstruction dollars (and those dollars that were allocated were were often gobbled up by graft, corruption, bribery and used by out of state interests to shunt the region’s wealth north and west).

The insect’s effects on Alabama were even harsher than that:

Losses during the initial years of infestation reached 60 to 75 percent. Because farmers, and the many industries that depended on them, could not shift to alternate sources of revenue quickly during the first half of the twentieth century, the state’s economy was devastated. In 1950, the worst year of the crisis, losses in the U.S. reached $750 million; [unadjusted for inflation]. Economic losses to the weevil in Alabama were $20 to $40 million each year [id.] for more than 80 years. Some historians maintain that the boll weevil was the most important event in Alabama history until the mid-twentieth century, eclipsed only by the Civil War.

Irony came home to roost. The plant that built the South destroyed the South, and the region would have to modern-up and diversify, and do so in a big way.

Complicating those efforts were the effects the weevil’s devastation had on the South’s population too. With automation and assembly lines springing up in the North, and few agricultural options available locally, states like Georgia saw a positive diaspora of its population to the larger northern urban areas, especially among the South’s black farmers. (Literally ask any black person in the South if they have an auntie in Chicago or a cousin in Detroit or a grandma in Milwaukee — you already know the answer.) So, claw in the dirt and hope for a 50% yield or move 800 miles north and spot-weld motor mounts on Mr. Ford’s shiny new Model T?

The devastation, the emigration, the economic hardships gave everyone the blues. It even gave us the forerunners of the Blue Dog Dems, spawning a movement of conservative Southern Democratic politicians known as the Boll Weevils.

So, how did the South turn it around, even though eradication would take almost a century? And why does Enterprise celebrate the worst pest in US history? The answer is as instructive as it is long. So, bear with me for this wall of text here:

The boll weevil’s story was different in Enterprise. By 1909, the weevil had reached nearby Mobile County, Alabama. Like elsewhere, cotton was the main cash crop, and with the weevils now in their fields, farmers were getting smaller and smaller yields.

“The Enterprise cotton gin ginned only 5,000 bales [in 1915] compared to 15,000 the year before,” says Doug Bradley, president of the Pea River Historical and Genealogical Society. H.M. Sessions, a man who lived in town and acted as a seed broker to farmers in need, saw the devastation and knew he needed to act.

Farmers could switch to other crops that wouldn’t support the boll weevil, but cotton generated the highest profits and grew on marginal land—“sandy, well-drained land that not a lot of crops can tolerate,” Reisig explains. One of the few crops that could tolerate those conditions: peanuts. After visiting North Carolina and Virginia, where he saw peanuts being grown, Sessions came back with peanut seeds and sold them to area farmer C. W. Baston.

“In 1916, Mr. Baston planted his entire crop in peanuts. That year, he earned $8,000 from his new crop, and paid off his prior years of debt and still had money left over,” Bradley says. At the same time, Coffee County cotton production was down to only 1,500 bales.

Word of Baston’s success spread quickly. Farmers who had once scorned the idea of growing anything other than cotton jumped on the peanut train, and by 1917 regional farmers produced over 1 million bushels of peanuts that sold for more than $5 million, Bradley says.

By 1919—right when the boll weevil scourge was reaching its peak elsewhere in the South—Coffee County was the largest producer of peanuts in the country, and shortly thereafter became the first in the region to produce peanut oil.

No good idea goes unshared, and soon those old cotton fields in the sandy South became home to peanuts...and then soy...and then alfalfa. Sometimes you need a good kick in the rear to make necessary changes. Alabama got a very sad and prolonged one in spades. But from that calamity, a goober renaissance was born, and the agricultural fortunes of the state reversed.

Enterprise got in on the action the first, the fastest, and with both feet. By 1919, the town was prospering. It seemed only fair then to thank the hideous little bug that was the silver lining in one of America’s darkest clouds. In America that means naming a street after someone...or erecting a statue. And Alabamians particularly love ourselves some statues.

To an outsider, the Enterprise Boll Weevil is wonderfully weird. To those in the region, it is a bittersweet reminder; a marble and bronze memorial and thanksgiving of 90 years of poverty, resilience, and eventually landing on your feet.

That is a good story. And this is a good statue.

81 Days Until Football Season.

Roll Tide