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Courtesy GWC National Monument
George Washington CarverFrom trash to treasure, George Washington Carver found hundreds of uses for different products from peanuts to old fruit jars.
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Courtesy GWC National Monument
GWC MonumentRobert Amendola created this boyhood statue of Carver.
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George CarverRichard Larrison holds a small sample of what you’ll find at the World’s Largest Small Electric Appliance Museum in Fidelity.
A wilting would say it’s a description of Hell: four thousand toasters, no bread. But hey, if Richard Larrison ever used all his toasters at once, it might create Hell, havoc, or at least a lot of heat, pulling enough electricity to cause a brownout in the tiny Jasper County town of Fidelity.
Besides, most locals know that the region’s most famous Hellfire hovers about a dozen miles southwest of Fidelity, as the raven flies. Near the tiny hamlet of Hornet at the end of The Devil’s Promenade, the Spook Light, also known as The Devil’s Jack-O-Lantern, dances nightly as it has since at least the Civil War.
Back in the loyal confines of Fidelity, Richard and Janet Larrison operate JR’s Western Store, tucked a mile south of Interstate 44 on the road to the George Washington Carver National Monument. It’s a nice store, with dandy duds and new boot leather smell. Attached to the store is The World’s Largest Small Electric Appliance Museum, a labyrinth of ceiling-high display cases tastefully packed with waffle irons, mixers, coffee pots, and toasters. Mostly toasters. In addition to 3.5 million watts worth of appliances, “I have eight hundred more to display when I make room,” Richard says.
My friends at the Missouri Tourism Welcome Center in Joplin tipped me off about the museum. It turned out to be a revelation. Did you know that every year, there’s a national convention called OcToasterFest? Me neither. Dozens of collectors converge on Fidelity to swap toaster tales, toasters, and generally jam to toasterity. I left hungry.
Traveling south to Diamond and turning west, I bypassed the Carver birthplace for the moment, drawing ever nearer to the Hornet Spook Light. According to observers, this mysterious ball of light actually dances in Oklahoma, but the best spot for viewing sits at the intersection of State Line Road and 50 Road, nicknamed The Devil’s Promenade, just south of Joplin, west of Route 43. There are many theories about the Spook Light’s origin. Personally, I believe it’s a wayward bouncing ball from Sing Along with Mitch Miller that somehow caught the fire of eternal damnation.
The Spook Light show usually doesn’t start until after 10, so at high noon, my empty stomach guided me to another intriguing spot, on old Highway 71 just north of Neosho. There, the busy KC Southern tracks parallel Shoal Creek, a floater’s delight. Tucked under a bluff, the Undercliff Grill and Bar has watched over the creek’s shallow Tipton Ford in one fashion or another since 1928. With a back wall that’s the face of a towering cliff, Undercliff is warm and inviting, in its campy cave chic. The locals keep coming back for the food. Now I know why. The French onion soup was protected by a helmet of Gruyère, and that’s a good thing. My eyes feasted on the décor: racecars, surfboards, airplanes, hornets’ nests, and classic cameos of Elvis, Marilyn, and James Dean. A freight train rumbled past the picture window. Soon, owner Mike Winn’s Dam Good Sandwich slid before me, a formidable stack of pastrami, ham, and Provolone cheese grilled and served on foccacia bread and slathered with slaw. I devoured the sandwich and the experience, said thanks to Mike and Melissa Winn, and returned my focus to the shrine of my idol.
In the annals of great mortals who made a difference, it’s hard to whittle down my list of favorites. The genius of Jefferson. The timeless prose of Twain. But my all-time hero is the son of a slave who grew up to change the world in ways most people don’t realize. George Carver was born outside tiny Diamond during the last shots of the Civil War on a farm owned by Moses and Susan Carver. As an infant, he and his mother were stolen by slave raiders. George was recovered by the Carvers, but his mother was not. The Carvers raised George and his older brother, Jim. Susan taught George to read and sent him to school in Neosho when he was about eleven. He boarded with a childless black couple, Andrew and Mariah Watkins, for two years before heading to Kansas with other African-Americans traveling west. Over the next ten years, Carver traveled from one Midwestern town to another, before moving to Winterset, Iowa, in the late 1880s. There, a white couple who befriended him encouraged him to enroll in nearby Simpson College, where he studied piano and art. After a year, though, George was admitted to the State Agricultural College, now Iowa State University, at Ames.
His legacy transcends mere peanuts. He grew up to be the grandfather of green. A name with no less impact than John Muir or Teddy Roosevelt or Rachel Carson, he became America’s preeminent recycler, its patron saint of sustainable agriculture, and its social conscience. Schoolchildren have a wonderful opportunity to discover Carver’s reach. On the homestead where he was born, the George Washington Carver National Monument is a scientific wonderland waiting for inquiring minds. It’s the oldest of Missouri’s six national parks, packed with enough common sense to save the world, compliments of Carver.
In the middle of a restored prairie, the monument offers equal parts Carver science, Carver care, and Carver lifestyle. I visited the George Washington Carver National Monument a few years ago. It was inspirational then. But that old presentation pales in comparison to the site’s new makeover. It has expanded from thirty-seven hundred to eighteen thousand square feet, encompassing a replica classroom based on young George’s Neosho school experience complete with McGuffey Readers and small slate blackboards at each seat. A movie theater shows the film Man of Vision. Visitors get a hands-on experience in the Carver laboratory, an exact replica of Carver’s classroom at Tuskegee Institute, complete with all the tools necessary to participate in science. Even outside the classrooms, the whole experience is hands-on, with opportunities to look through microscopes and conduct experiments.
It’s understandable that in America’s fast-food appetite for history we know little more than peanuts about Carver. In too many instances, America’s collective knowledge about our icons gets boiled down to the substance of a slogan. Whole lives get reduced to tombstone histories, not enough information to fill the average movie trailer. Yet Carver strived to be a trailblazer, in agriculture for sure, but also in education, ecology, and life. Sure, he developed more than three hundred uses for the lowly regarded peanut, including paper, ink, gasoline, shampoo, insecticide, and nitroglycerin. No, he didn’t invent peanut butter. But he did develop seventy-five uses for pecans, and colored paints from clay. He made synthetic marble from wood pulp, paint from used motor oil, athlete’s foot medicine from persimmons, paving bricks from cotton, and stamp glue from sweet potato starch.
Perhaps most important for agriculture, Carver introduced the peanut plant as a rotation crop away from continual cotton, which had ravaged soils. Peanuts in rotation with cotton introduced nutrients back into the soil. Just as important, Carver’s novel idea to rotate the peanut crop with cotton dealt a blow to the boll weevil’s devastating grip. Carver pioneered chemurgy, the movement toward renewable bioenergy systems. He made clothing from sweet potatoes, medicine from pine needles, and fuel from corn. And on this day, in tiny Diamond at the Carver monument, I stood in awe of another Carver invention.
His Jesup Wagon was a movable school. This horse-drawn laboratory on wheels is one of the earliest examples of university extension. I walked the trails young George walked every morning. It was on these morning walks that he would “collect my floral beauties and put them in my little garden I had hidden in the brush not far from the house, as it was considered foolishness in the neighborhood to waste time on flowers.”
He made it a practice to find creative uses for things normally thrown away. As such, Carver became America’s foremost recycler. He believed that nothing around the house should be discarded if it could be used. “America has got to turn its attention in those directions to save what we have,” he said. He warned that destroying usable items was a lack of vision: “And where there is no vision, people perish.”
“Everything on earth has a purpose,” he told students, and Carver practiced what he preached. To illustrate, he often recounted one of his first days after leaving his alma mater. He had accepted the invitation by Booker T. Washington to become the new director of agriculture at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. “I went to the trash pile at Tuskegee Institute and started my lab with bottles, old fruit jars, and any other thing I found I could use.” From that trash, he built on a concept that guided his every move: “Nature produces no waste.”
I stayed longer than I planned at the Carver site. It was dark when I left, and I thought about heading to Hornet to see the Spook Light. Instead, I started the three-hour journey to my own bed and a home-cooked meal, maybe a BLT ... on toast.