Few machines have changed the course of history, like Eli Whitney’s cotton gin.
The long, hot summers of the southeastern United States have always been ideal for growing cotton, but there was a time when the stuff was extremely expensive to produce. Cotton comes out wet from the boll, its protective capsule requiring about ten man hours just to remove the seeds to produce a pound of cotton. By comparison, a cotton gin can process about a thousand pounds a day, at comparatively little expense.
In 1792, the year that Whitney invented his machine, the region exported 138,000 pounds a year to Europe and the northern colonies. Two years later that number had risen to 1,600,000 pounds. By the time of the Civil War, Britain alone was importing ¾ of the 800 million pounds they used each year, from the American south.
Enterprise, Alabama got its start when John Henry Carmichael first settled there in 1881. Within a few years the Alabama Midland Railway came to Enterprise. By the turn of the century the place was a major cotton growing hub.
Anthonomus grandis, the boll weevil, is a small beetle, about the size of your little fingernail. Indigenous to Mexico, the beetle crossed the Rio Grande near Brownsville, sometime around 1892. The insect spread rapidly, producing eight to ten generations in a single growing season and preying mainly on the young cotton boll.
Boll weevils are capable of destroying entire cotton crops, which it did in 1915, the year the insect reached Enterprise and most of Coffee County. Facing economic ruin, local farmers were forced to diversify their crops, just to recoup some of the losses caused by the beetle.
Within two years, Enterprise became one of the leading peanut producers in the country. Not only had farmers been able to stave of disaster, but they were already becoming prosperous as a result of the thriving new crop base.
Town fathers decided to build a monument, their “herald of prosperity”, to the boll weevil. The bug that had almost ruined them.
Designed in Italy at a cost of $1,800, the monument depicts a female figure in a flowing gown, arms stretched high over her head, and holding in her hands a trophy.
The monument was dedicated on December 11, 1919 at the intersection of College and Main Street, in the heart of the town’s business district. You can’t have a Boll Weevil monument without a Boll Weevil on it. Thirty years later, Luther Baker added a big bug on top of the trophy. At the base of the monument appears this inscription: “In profound appreciation of the Boll Weevil and what it has done as the herald of prosperity this monument was erected by the citizens of Enterprise, Coffee County, Alabama.”
The original has been vandalized so many times that they moved it to a protected facility, and put a replica in its place. And that is why you can drive down the Main Street of Enterprise Alabama today, in the footsteps of my own brother Dave, and there you will find a statue of…a bug.