Like the tough, resilient grass of the land on which they live, the people of the Wiregrass region in Alabama’s southeast corner know how to overcome adversity. The town of Enterprise has powerful evidence of this in the form of a 10-foot-tall marble statue of a woman in flowing robes holding one of the region’s toughest foes, a boll weevil, high above her head.
The statueThe Boll Weevil Monument stands in the center of this Coffee County town as a constant reminder of the community’s perseverance.
Erecting a monument to a pest that has cost the U.S. cotton industry $14 billion might seem a bit bizarre until you know the story of the Patterson family and others like them. Tales of the boll weevil are woven into the fabric of their agricultural heritage.
In 1939, Willie Pearl Patterson set up a farm with husband Clinton Cecil, who promptly joined other Coffee County farmers in declaring war on an already established invader, the boll weevil. Now, at age 78, she recalls the insects destruction, including how they forced her grandfather off his farm in 1917.
“I knew of them (the weevils) all my life. People here worried about them coming back and tried to keep them away with poison for years,” she says.
The Mexican boll weevil had marched across the border into Texas in 1892, entering Coffee County and southeast Alabama in the late summer of 1915. At the time, cotton was still king in the region. Farmers relied on it as their main cash crop, harvesting an average of 35,000 bales a year in Coffee County alone.
The year the weevil arrived, production dropped to about 60 percent of the normal. Local farmers responded by planting more cotton than ever, dusting crops with calcium arsenate, DDT, and other pesticides. But none fazed the tenacious bug, which destroys the cotton plant by eating its internal fibers.
“Part of them (the farmers) believed that if you plowed the cotton plants under during the hot part of summer, it would get rid of them, but it didn’t,” says Henry Patterson, Willies son. “People didn’t worry a lot about starving; they just kept fighting and kept on going as best they could.”
Then in October 1915, a local mule trader and businessman, H.M. Sessions, brought back a load of peanuts from a trip to Virginia and the Carolinas, promoting the plants merits to Coffee County farmers.
The idea took root immediately, and within two years, local farmers were growing and harvesting more than a million bushels of peanuts for market–more than any other county in America.
A local city councilman, R.O. Bon Fleming, decided the boll weevil deserved credit for forcing the town to diversify, so he commissioned The Boll Weevil Monument, dedicated on Dec. 11, 1919.
With five sons working alongside their father, the Pattersons continued to diversify–growing hay, corn and other vegetables, and raising stock, in addition to growing peanuts. Henry Patterson now manages the 1,400-acre farm with help from his son, Clint. They took the farm full circle by planting cotton again in the 1990s and haven’t had to spray for the boll weevil in four years. Intense pest management from California to Virginia, including sterilization, finally has yielded results.
Through the years, the Wiregrass region has added new businesses and industries and witnessed the installation of Fort Rucker, a U.S. Army Aviation center. Farming remains important to the region, however, with poultry, peanuts, and produce still a substantial part of the local economy.
As difficult as it was to shell peanuts and wash clothes for five boys by hand, Willie Pearl Patterson says working together kept the family close. Despite the hard work and death of her husband in 1998, her blue eyes sparkle when she looks back in time.
“It’s been a good life,” she says. “I’ve got what I need. The wants don’t hurt me–I can do without the wants. It made me appreciate the conveniences as we got them.”