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More than Peanuts: George Washington Carver and Tom Huston (Part 2)

SOURCE: More than Peanuts: The Unlikely Partnership of Tom Huston and George Washington Carver by Edith Powell, 2022. EDITOR'S NOTE: Please know that the information included in this History Spotlight is not the complete history, nor is it intended to be. The purpose of these spotlights is to highlight the story and encourage the reader to explore and research. If you are interested in learning more, the book by Edith Powell is available on Amazon and other sites. You can also learn more about the history of Tom's Foods in our previous History Spotlight from April 8, 2021, found in the Blog section.


Moses Carver, at age twenty-five, had established a farm with his brother, Richard, after migrating to Newton County in southwest Missouri from Ohio and Illinois in 1837. Moses was able to purchase four adjoining tracts of 240 acres, select an excellent site with plenty of water, and build a rough one-room cabin with one window, a fireplace, and a dirt floor. The cabin was constructed with logs cut from the property. The little settlement community grew during the next twenty years and was called Diamond Grove. By 1853, the Moses Carver farm produced corn, wheat, oats, potatoes, hay, and cattle. Oxen were used to plow the fields and vegetable garden. Moses also maintained an orchard and beehive. Moses and his wife, Susan, raised his brother’s children for fifteen years. By 1855, Moses and Susan were now in their fifties and needed help on the farm. On October 9, 1855, Moses purchased a thirteen-year-old girl, Mary, from a neighbor for $700. Four years later, Mary’s son, Jim, was born. Mary then gave birth to a second son, George, in 1864/1865.

Near the end of the Civil War, the Carver farm was attacked and raided by Confederate bushwhackers. Six-year-old Jim and Susan Carver had time to hide and were safe, but Mary and baby George were kidnapped. Moses paid his neighbor, John Bentley, to search for them, but only George was found and returned. Mary was never seen again. Young George had pneumonia and was not expected to live. The Carvers moved the two brothers into their cabin and raised them as their own. Jim grew into a healthy young man who could help Moses with the chores in the fields. Jim would later die in 1883 during a smallpox epidemic. George, however, was a frail, sickly child who was reported to have whooping cough and constant battles with coup. As a result, George mostly helped with the inside chores and was given only light outside work. Because of his ability to nurse sick plants back to health, he became known as the “Plant Doctor.”

To this point in his life, George had always lived with White people. He was not familiar with racial prejudice until he and Jim tried to enroll in a school that was taught in the same church building in which they attended services on Sunday. They were denied admission. Since he could not go to school in Diamond Grove, he was privately tutored by a young man named Steven Slane. But soon, he knew more than Mr. Slane, so the Carvers made arrangements for George to attend a school for Blacks in Neosho, Missouri, about eight miles away. George was 12 when he began his long and arduous journey for an education. George was disheartened to learn that the teacher in his new school knew little more than he did. He soon hitched a ride to Fort Scott, Kansas, where he found a job to earn money to continue his search for education. It was here that George witnessed the lynching of a Black man, who had been accused of raping a White woman. The man was pulled from the jail, dragged through the streets with a rope around his neck, and then hanged from a lamp post. George was terrified and moved immediately to Olathe, Kansas. He lived there with Lucy and Ben Seymour and helped Lucy with her laundry business.

Deciding to try formal education again, he applied to and was accepted at a small Presbyterian college in Highland, Kansas. Upon arrival, he was told there was a mistake, and he could not attend after all. It was hard to tell the color of one’s skin by reading an application form. In 1886, George moved to Beeler, Kansas, where he purchased a quarter-section of land and became a sod farmer. Two years later, he was ready to continue his quest for an education. In 1888, he went to Winterset, Iowa, where he met the Millhollands, who were a White couple. This was the first big break that would lead George W. Carver to his life’s work. He had opened a laundry and began to attend the local churches. Mrs. Millholland heard him singing in the choir and asked to meet him. She persuaded George to apply to a nearby Methodist school, Simpson College, which he did and was accepted. At Simpson, he was well received, worked hard, and made many friends. In 1891, he transferred to Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts. He became the first Black student on campus. There he became friends with future Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace and Wallace’s son, Henry A. Wallace, a future vice president of the United States. On April 2, 1896, George Carver wrote to Booker T. Washington, principal of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and expressed his interest in working among his people, the poor Black farmers, many of whom were formerly enslaved, who lived throughout the region. In May, Washington offered Carver a position to be assumed upon the completion of his coursework at Iowa State in the fall of that year. Carver arrived on campus in October 1896 as the only member of the faculty to hold an advanced degree from a White college. He was to earn an annual salary of $1,000.

Carver, front row center, on the Tuskegee Institute faculty, 1902.

The peanut was increasing in popularity during the early 1900s, but commercial production was still being done by hand. This process left stems and trash in the product, which affected the quality of the product as evidenced by reduced demand and slow sales. While folks in Washington wrestled with responding to nationwide demands for farm assistance, in the South cotton growers faced devastating losses caused by the Mexican boll weevil, which had crossed into Texas in the 1890s and had steadily eaten its way across the US, arriving in southeast Alabama about 1909 – 1910. The weevil was decimating the South’s cotton crop, and George Washington Carver, in 1903, in his laboratory at Tuskegee Institute began focusing his research on the peanut.

Carver appreciated the total damage that this weevil would cause, and he recognized that this would be the end of cotton. Since cotton continually grown in the same field depletes the soil of essential nutrients, it was critical for the development of alternative crops. Carver began encouraging both sharecroppers and plantation owners to grow peanuts using the method of crop rotation to replenish the worn-out soil; the harvested peanuts would serve as a potential cash crop to replace cotton losses. Carver would publish his first bulletin on peanuts in 1916. On January 21, 1921, George Carver testified to the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee in Washington, DC, on the importance of the peanut to US agriculture, especially in the South. The purpose was also to get the Committee to vote for a protective tariff against Chinese and Japanese peanut imports. Once in office, President Harding responded to the needs of farmers by signing the Emergency Tarriff Act of 1921, which provided some relief, and the country saw the beginning of the first large-scale federal intervention in the farm commodities market.

Following his 1921 testimony to Congress, which was published by the media nationwide, Carver’s reputation grew, and he began to receive requests for peanut information from farmers as well as from commercial producers. Young Tom Huston grew up on a farm in Henderson, Texas. Determined to develop a mechanical sheller, by 1912 he had a hand operated model ready for production. The invention brought Huston to Columbus – the Columbus Iron Works agreed to manufacture the new product according to Huston’s specifications. He formed a partnership with Clarence Medley and built a plant, the Tom Huston Manufacturing Company, later the Medley Manufacturing Company. The plant manufactured a power-driven peanut sheller designed by Huston. Roasted, salted peanuts were already being marketed when Tom Huston began his experiments. By 1923 or 1924, Tom and a Mr. Talton of Texas, who had already worked to improve the peanut roasting process, found the right formula. Together, they determined that using coconut oil at 350 degrees to cook the small Spanish peanut produced a very tasty result.

By 1924, George W. Carver was firmly established as “the Peanut Man.” Tom Huston had sold his equipment manufacturing business and was now focusing his business acumen on finding ways to increase the total amount of peanuts in the marketplace. Thus begins our story of the unlikely, unique, and enduring partnership of a White entrepreneur and a Black scientist entrenched in the middle of the segregated South. Young Tom Huston, who had relocated to Columbus and started his fast-growing company from scratch, had the expertise of the agricultural Extension Service at the University of Georgia in Athens at his disposal, yet he chose George Washington Carver in Tuskegee, Alabama to become his partner and the problem-solver to lead his business. NEXT WEEK: We will continue with the correspondence of the two men and their strategy for the peanut's success. We hope you will join us!

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