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, the 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 southeastern United States exported 138,000 pounds a year to Europe and to the northern states. 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 it consumed every, 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 the nail on your little finger. 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.
The insect is capable of destroying entire cotton crops and did just that 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 the losses caused by this wretched insect.
Within two years, Enterprise became one of the leading peanut producers in the nation. 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.
The idea was the brainstorm of one Roscoe Owen “Bon” Fleming, a man roadsideamerica.com describes as a “businessman, city councilman, and rogue promoter of the town of Enterprise”.
It was hardly coincidental that the thing was installed outside of Fleming’s General Store, but hey. This was a guy who let guinea hens loose inside his store and offered a discount, to anyone who could catch one. Roscoe Fleming had style.
Designed in Italy (or maybe not), the monument depicts a female figure in a flowing gown, arms stretched high over her head and holding in her hands, a trophy. Maybe the whole thing came from the Bama Iron Works 90 miles down the road, who knows. There’s nothing like a good story.
Critics railed against the $1,800 cost of the project, half of which came out of Fleming’s own pocket. The punditry also took aim at the subject of the monument. Why would you have a statue of a boll weevil in segregated Alabama when you could honor George Washington Carver, the African American agronomist who championed the peanut, in the first place?
Bon Fleming was not insensitive to such criticism and invited Carver to be the principal speaker, at the unveiling. It wasn’t meant to be. Rain washed out the tracks into town and Carver never made it.
So it is, a monument to a bug was dedicated on December 11, 1919 at the intersection of College and Main Street, in the heart of the business district, of Enterprise Alabama.
Now, you can’t have a boll weevil monument without a boll weevil, right? Thirty years later one Luther Baker added a bug to the top of the trophy. A big one, about the size of a Bassett hound. At the base of the memorial 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 it was moved it to a protected facility and a replica, put in its place. So it is you can drive down the Main Street of Enterprise Alabama, and there you will find a monument…to a bug.