More than Peanuts: George Washington Carver and Tom Huston (Part 4)
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.
George Washington Carver continued to correspond with Bob Barry and Grady Porter, although not nearly as often as during the team’s eventful few years of research and education on the peanut industry. Carver’s early research harnessed the collective vision and broad expertise of the peanut research community. As the relationship of Carver and the team grew and data collection and processing increased, the need for constant communication to handle the quantity of data was evidenced by the hundreds of letters exchanged. While the Tom Huston Peanut Company benefited from George Washington Carver’s scientific work, this collaborative work did not receive government support. Huston did provide resources to support Carver’s work on the peanut disease research and publication, which were used as educational outreach. The Huston – Carver partnership played a pivotal role in establishing and expanding the Gulf States peanut industry until 1932.
A short five years after its beginning in 1925, the founder of the Tom Huston Peanut Company began to look for new ways to channel his creativity. He became an early entrepreneur in the business of quick-freezing foods. He established a plant in Montezuma, Georgia to produce a line called Frosty Morning: Fresh Georgia Peaches. Because of Tom’s desire to conquer new fields, Vice President Walter A. Richards became much more hands-on at Tom’s and in contact with George Washington Carver. Huston’s Frost Morning idea seemed to have been about ten years ahead of its time. Grocery stores and other retail outlets did not yet have the equipment needed to keep the products frozen. One year later, that situation, coupled with the effects of the Depression, found Tom unable to afford the loan payment. By 1932, he had lost his beloved peanut business, and the bank took it over. Walter Richards was soon asked to run the company. The relationship between Carver and the company continued until Carver’s death in 1943.
Carver also developed a peanut oil formula which he used to provide massages to people with polio, stroke, arthritis, and other muscular problems. The publicity from that effort generated hundreds of letters daily from persons wanting to purchase the oil. Carver worked long hours to offer his services to as many as possible. He did so up until shortly before his death. Dr. Carver continued to travel, making talks and presentations all over the country. He still did not worry about material things or being famous. He still received calls from the bank in Tuskegee on a semi-annual basis, reminding him that he had not cashed his paychecks and requesting that he search his desk drawer and find them. The bank would send someone to pick them up and deposit them so the annual bank reports could be completed. Even when he was tired and weak from anemia, he still rose at 4:00 AM and walked the campus as his strength allowed. His need to talk to God and observe the beauty of creation gave him energy to keep going.
Carver was appointed as Collaborator for USDA’s Mycology Disease Survey in 1935. To him, it was a supreme honor and brought with it the acknowledgement of his peers at the highest level for the contributions over his lifetime of collecting specimens and donating them to Iowa State University as well as to the USDA. This was recognition he never felt that he received at Tuskegee Institute. After years of travel back and forth between his Tuskegee University and the Tom Huston Peanut Company, Carver made his last appearing in Columbus in 1939. He was invited by a group of White business leaders to speak at Spencer High School to cool tense race relations and labor unrest at the peanut company, where Black males were threatening to strike in support of female workers. He commented later, “I have never heard a finer lot of addresses…It shows what can be done when representative people of both races get together. There is absolutely no need for misunderstandings and race riots and all sorts of disagreeable things. Columbus has set the pace for other sections.”
Carver, with the suggestions and help of his assistant, Austin Curtis, focused his creativity on developing a museum to house his specimens, research, and paintings. Toward this effort, he donated $30,000 of his life savings. Tuskegee Institute gave him a small building that had been used for the school laundry located behind Dorothy Hall Guest House where Carver lived the last few years of his life. He could walk the short distance from the back of Dorothy Hall to the building. There was also a small greenhouse at the corner of the proposed museum, where Carver’s students would bring specimens of his beloved flowers, especially his amaryllis collection, from the larger greenhouse in another section of campus. Although the size of the museum was reduced due to lack of funds, Carver was still pleased that he could provide a place for his life’s work while he was still living. However, he was not through planning for his legacy. He wanted to establish a research center where young African American scientists could learn and study without pressure from racial discrimination. The George Washington Carver Research Foundation was built across the street from the Carver Museum; however, this facility was not completed before Carver passed away in January 1943. Carver left an additional $30,000 to help fund his final dream.
The impact of the relationship on today’s peanut research and industry is readily apparent, as peanuts are today the twelfth most valuable cash crop in the United States and are grown on some 1.75 million acres with a farm value of more than $1 billion. The crop is a major study topic by university researchers, peanut growers, businesspersons, and farmers. Most importantly, the overall goal – increasing peanut production and consumption – of the Huston – Carver partnership had been achieved. The pioneering scientific and industrial collaboration of Huston and Carver over a commodity fueled the interest of universities, industry, and federal government to begin a unique and participatory efforts among stakeholders with different backgrounds for the common good and the production of commodities. The impact of the legacy continues in research innovation, public sector infrastructure, commercial development, and delivery systems. The federal government now provides oversight and financial assistance to each state’s land grant universities for increasing research and Extension work on peanut production and utilization.
George Washington Carver’s seminal work is associated with the expansion of the peanut industry with the research he conducted at Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, beginning in 1903. The talented botanist recognized the intrinsic value of the peanut as a cash crop. Carver proposed that peanuts could be planted as a rotation crop in the cotton-growing areas of the southeast where the boll weevil threatened the region’s agricultural base. Not only did Carver make a significant contribution to changing the face of southern peanut farming with support from unlikely stakeholders like Tom Huston, but his research identifying diseases of the peanut plant proved critical to the survival of the entire peanut crop.