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More than Peanuts: George Washington Carver and Tom Huston (Part 3)

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 of our website.


By 1929, the Tom Huston Peanut Company team of Bob Barry and Grady Porter and collaborator George Washington Carver was hard at work on its mission: part one, to grow and sell more peanuts: and part two, to control the diseases that would cripple part one. A trade magazine noted the plan, saying it would probably be the greatest single effort ever made by Tom to promote the sale of his products. One key goal was to get federal and state governments to recognize the potential of the peanut industry and support it with appropriations. For months Porter had been collecting diseased plants, so the team knew there were peanut diseases that could wipe out a crop overnight. But it was not known what the diseases were, how widespread the problem was, or how to treat the plants to control and prevent disease. The team did know this would be expensive, but the peanut had the potential to bring millions of dollars to the southeast region.

Since the beginning of their agreement to work together, Huston and Carver had exchanged many letters and had visited each other’s workplace. They had developed a deep relationship based on an intense mutual respect, both personal and professional. Each had come to a clear understanding of the needs and goals of the other, and both realized that to be successful hours and days of work would be required. Carver also had interacted with Barry and Porter, and they too had developed respect for each other and an understanding of their different roles. The team then decided on a model for working together in which the three men would share equally in correspondence and in input. Barry and Porter wanted to learn as much as possible about the peanut and the needs for growing the crop, and Carver wanted to learn more about the peanut company’s expanded plant operations. Bob Barry would present the directives of Huston from the Tom Huston Peanut Company. Grady Porter would be the man in the field visiting the growers, getting to know them, and begin to build trust and a collaborative relationship. Diseased plants would be sent to Carver for identification and treatment protocol. Carver would share his finding with peer groups and the USDA. The Tom Huston Peanut Company agreed to fund research and to publish the findings in a disease registry to be made available at the local, state, and national levels. This would be top priority work in 1930 and 1931. The first year would initiate the education and awareness effort by sharing the findings publicly through presentations, targeted mailings, participation in trade association meetings, and exhibits at local and state fairs. The second year, the team planned a media blitz of articles in major journals by themselves and as many experts as possible to give them more weight and be better received by farmers.

In this September 16, 1930, letter from Bob Barry to Dr. Carver, it illustrates the challenges of attracting the interest of government officials. Dear Dr. Carver, My mind has been going around in circles trying to decide what I think is the best thing to do about these peanut diseases so far as the agricultural experts of the country are concerned. Whatever we do will be approved by you first so I would like to tell you what’s on my mind at present. Possibly some high official in the Department of Agriculture in Washington could be startled into an appreciation of the seriousness of the situation. He could call a meeting of the agricultural powers of the Southeastern States and learn all the details of your discoveries. It might be the resto of them would boo at the situation because somebody else found it out. Then too people in political jobs are not looking for hard work as a rule. If they did attempt to do something, the chances are they would scare the farmer to death and cause him to reduce his peanut acreage unreasonably. As Grady Porter puts it, it would be like running a bear out in front of him without giving him anything to shoot him with. I am inclined to believe that the following is the best method to pursue. You have found out what the trouble is. The next thing is to find some way to overcome it. We might be able to do this in the greenhouse this winter. If so, we can get everybody busy next summer after the crops have been planted and advise them how to save them. I would like to have your candid and frank opinion of it, telling me how I am wrong and why if you think so. Hope to see you again in the very near future. Bob Barry

While Carver was generating his report on peanut diseases, Barry was completing the first copy of his bulletin on the culture of Virginia peanuts in the Southeast. The bulletin, with its partner on the small Spanish peanut, and Carver’s “Diseases of the Peanut,” was the backbone of the plan which would be the education and awareness component for the growers and the stakeholders. The importance of Carver’s publication cannot be understated. It also was the critically important, yet controversial at times, centerpiece for the public relations blitz that was to come in the next few months. The objective for the Tom Huston Peanut Company to publish a package that would include: “The Problem” – a set of reports based on thorough scientific data collections, clearly stating the problem for both the small Spanish peanut and the Virginia peanut – and Carver’s report as the “Solution to the Problem.”

Out of the 5,000 copies circulated to farmers, county agents, experiment stations, banks and newspapers in the southeast, one botanist (B.B. Higgins) criticized it severely. Because of Carver’s strong spiritual beliefs that had given him strength throughout his life, he could show respect and understanding following the character attack by Higgins. Furthermore, he had always realized that the farmer did not have the technical vocabulary to understand scientific reports, and that is why hundreds of Carver’s Bulletins have been requested and reprinted over the years. He wrote them at the level of understanding of the client, the farmer. This is translational science at its best: nontechnical communication to stakeholders, by such a pioneer as Carver. Carver was also very aware of the potential cost to Bob Barry for defending him against the negative insinuations made by Higgins. He realized that Barry could get in serious trouble with his company as well as the farmers his company served, for defending a Black person. Yet, he had faith in the total honesty, strength, and depth of his and Barry’s relationship; representing an unbroken chain of trust from Carver’s original agreement with Tom Huston, his own commitment to Huston’s vision, to Huston’s appointment of Barry to direct the work of the team. Thus, Carver would not permit such an issue to dissuade him from his commitment to help the Tom Huston Peanut Company, or the peanut growers. Barry and Carver would adequately and professionally handle Higgins negative charges, and they moved forward.

The journey was on the verge of its most exciting and rewarding time. The plan had existed for almost a year and a half, and the team had accomplished several goals, especially in increased awareness of peanut diseased among targeted individuals and groups. Peanut growth and disease data had been carefully and diligently collected; an ever-expanding number of the peanut growers/farmers in the southeast had been visited; research findings had been published in educational pamphlets, booklets, and informational letters; and a multilayered mailing list had been developed which included farmers, researchers, Extension agents, trade organizations, and local, state, and federal government officials. The interest in and understanding of the problem had initiate conversations among stakeholders who previously had neither connected nor shared information with each other.

With the groundwork now firmly in place, the team could take time to evaluate what had been accomplished and what still needed to be done to achieve the goal of the new plan. The team would continue gathering peanut growth and disease data to increase the database; expand the scope of the educational outreach component by increasing the number of presentations at professional meetings and fairs; initiate publication of educational materials in respected trade journals; and importantly, add a focus on wives of peanut farmers. Much work for the tree-man team would be required in the coming months to ensure that these activities were successfully accomplished. They had spent hours assisting the growers in understanding and identifying problems with peanut diseases and crop health, while offering advice and solutions at no charge. The arrangement for Professor J.H. Miller of the University of Georgia to conduct the multiyear survey of peanut diseases was a real breakthrough, since he had a link to interest at the federal level – the ultimate goal.

The team of Barry, Porter, and Carver was committed to continue its efforts to attract the attention and support of federal researchers. The latter was considered critical to the survival of the peanut industry, because it was the team’s belief that until those at the federal level recognized the problems caused by peanut diseases, fund would not be provided for the aid of farmers in the peanut-growing sections of the country. NEXT WEEK: We will see the plan come together for the Tom Huston Peanut Company and George Washington Carver. We hope you will join us!

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