A soft spoken, humble civic leader with a relentless dedication to education is how the first Coffee County Agricultural Agent John Edwin Pittman is described.
As Enterprise counts down to the Dec. 11 centennial celebration of the Boll Weevil Monument, some of his grandchildren reflect on the man credited with hugely impacting Enterprise in the early 1900s.
“John Pittman was a most remarkable public servant who served quietly and with dignity,” said grandson and namesake John Edwin Pittman III. “He treated everyone the way he wished to be treated.”
More than being appointed the first Coffee County agricultural agent in 1911, Pittman was a teacher, a farmer, a merchant, a city councilman, a county commissioner, long time school board member and a member of the Alabama legislature.
Born in Pike County to Elisha Hiram Pittman, a Civil War veteran held Prisoner of War in Chicago, Ill., and Martha Hannah Windham in 1873, John Pittman was the eldest of 12 children.
He grew up on the family farm, attending school at the local academy and one year of high school in Brundidge. After that he taught school in Pike County for eight years and farmed.
In 1894 John Pittman married Frances “Fannie” Chapman of Jack and two years later moved to Coffee County after purchasing 80 acres of land, some of which remains in the family today.
A predominantly agricultural town as the 1900s began, Enterprise was among the victims of the boll weevil bugs from Mexico that ate through cotton fields in Texas and ultimately across the South.
Following the advice of Tuskegee Institute’s Dr. George Washington Carver, Coffee County farmers planted peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans and by 1917 harvested one of the largest peanut crops in the state.
“Many civic leaders saw the boll weevil crisis coming,” Pittman III said. “Mr. Pittman traveled to Texas and Louisiana and reported the dire news to a mostly stubborn public.
“As the county agricultural agent, John Pittman had a responsibility to aggressively confront the crisis and propose solutions,” his grandson said. “He was a believer in Carver’s crop rotation and diversification principles. He practiced these principles on his own farm and was an outspoken advocate.”
The boll weevil had actually been an asset, local civic leaders decided, because it necessitated crop rotation and they decided to erect a monument in the center of town with a plaque expressing “profound appreciation of the Boll Weevil and what it has done as the herald of prosperity.”
“When the Boll Weevil Monument was dedicated in 1919 it was a very happy time for Enterprise but for John Pittman there was some sadness,” Pittman III said. “His wife of 25 years and mother of his three daughters died.”
The next year the widower, then in charge of the census in the area, met Onyx McKinnon of Chancellor who was working in that office. She and John Pittman married and became the parents of John Edwin Jr., Daniel McKinnon and Joseph Stafford.
“The three brothers were probably as close as any brothers I know,” said Kinn Pittman as he recalled a story about his father, Dan, and two uncles. The two brothers with degrees from the University of Alabama called Kinn Pittman’s father telling him he should transfer from Auburn University. “They said, ‘Dan, you need to come here and graduate from the University of Alabama so we’ll all have a plaque to give to our mom and daddy.’”
“They packed up and went over the to University of Alabama just because of family,” he said. “That’s how close they were—and they all loved their town.
“I grew up right next to Granddaddy Pittman and I used to go, when I was about eight or 10 years old, to help feed the cows and pigs,” remembered Kinn Pittman. “I never saw him that he didn’t have a starched white shirt, a bow tie and a vest on.
“And a hat,” added granddaughter Pam Pittman Carroll with a smile. “Even when he was out farming and feeding the pigs.”
Pittman III also has a pig story. “I’m not exactly sure of the date of this but I was certainly old enough to have a very strong memory of it,” he said. “I came to visit the old house one day and my grandfather had his whole right hand bandaged up. He had gone into his hog pen—he kept hogs his entire life—he went in to inspect a litter of piglets. I think the sow took offense and attacked him.”
“I’ve appreciated the history of the boll weevil and significance of the peanut industry as far back as I can remember,” said Carroll. “In 1976 when the book ‘Billy Boll Weevil, A Pest Becomes a Hero’ by Hugh Maddox was first published, I was a first grade teacher in Enterprise and used the book to teach my class the story of the boll weevil, cotton and the subsequent planting of peanuts in our area.
“It was around this time that I first began to realize the huge impact of my granddaddy’s beliefs and ideas for agricultural change in Coffee County and, most importantly, how his actions had positively affected the area for so many years,” Carroll said. “In 2001, one of my daughters competed in the National Peanut Festival Pageant in Dothan and I took the opportunity to teach my family about my grandfather’s legacy considering the peanut industry’s impact on our lives and community.
“For me, it is a source of great pride to know that my grandfather played a pivotal role during a critical time. Change is never easy and can be especially overwhelming in a crisis. I like to think that my grandfather’s own brand of intention, thoughtfulness, strategy and persistence, coupled with a love for his home and community, was the special antidote the area economy needed at that desperate time,” Carroll added. “While he was no doubt a change agent, we should not lose sight of the fact that my grandfather’s work is a story of public service in its truest form. As county agent, he was entrusted to lead the county agricultural industry and represent its interests—it just so happened to be during a crisis.
“He found a solution to the problem and brought it to fruition,” she said. “At the end of the day, he simply did his job.”
Grandson Don Pittman said he grew up hearing stories about John Pittman. “He was very old when I was young but I do remember him and I remember my father talking about him,” he said. “My dad obtained an agricultural degree from Auburn with the intent of possibly being an ag agent too. They did not talk about him as being a great man but they did say that he was interested in the progress of the community and all its citizenry.”
“He had a very strong commitment to education,” said Pittman III about his grandfather who served on the Coffee County Board of Education for decades. “He also believed in vocational education.
“There was a time in about the mid 1920s that there was some state money available for a vocational school involving some matching funds,” Pittman III said. “He was not successful in raising the money but he blamed nobody but himself. He said ‘I was not big enough to get this done.’
“When he was on the Coffee County school board, he succeeded in getting vocational schools in Enterprise, Elba and in Kinston and he was very proud of that,” Pittman III said. “He believed in learning by doing. He was very dedicated to the vocational education programs around Coffee County.”
Pittman III has an antique train station master watch that is an illustration of his grandfather’s compassion and kindness. “In about 1925, Mr. John was approached by the older sister of his wife named Katie Smith. Her husband had fallen into bad health and it was going to be very problematic that he was going to be able to support his family,” he said. “A position opened up for a train station agent in Daleville for the Atlantic Coastline Railroad. She applied for the job and she approached my grandfather to aide her in getting it.
“She wound up getting the position,” Pittman III said. “In the mid-1920s in the South, it was virtually unheard of for a woman to hold this position. She was deeply resented by a lot of people in Daleville to the point where my aunt had to buy a handgun in order to protect herself,” he said. “Her youngest daughter gave me her mother’s original station watch that she carried to work with her everyday.
“The centennial celebration to us is very special,” Pittman III said. “Mr. Pittman’s role in the crisis was central. He felt a powerful responsibility to recommend solutions and to give advice on how to combat this cause of deep anxiety and fear in the public.
“The successful outcome is very gratifying and the fact that he played any role at all in that success story is a source of great pride,” his namesake said about his grandfather.
On Aug. 12, 1967, John Edwin Pittman died at the age of 94 in Enterprise. “He was a modest man,” Pittman III said. “He never stopped learning. He was just driven to understand things.
“He spoke softly but firmly,” Pittman III added. “I believe he will be best remembered for his central role in the boll weevil economic crisis. All of his descendants are very proud of this man.”