It’s hard not to notice the statue of a woman dressed in flowing robes holding a boll weevil in her upstretched arms in the center of the intersection of College and Main Streets in Enterprise.
Not only is she holding a bug in her hands, she is right in the middle of the street. That in itself is why some tourists dodge traffic coming in all four directions to get their photo taken standing in front of her.
The reason for her existence is the focus of history, legends and songs. The citizens of Enterprise dedicated the monument in 1919 “in profound appreciation of the Boll Weevil and what it has done as the herald of prosperity.” That is the short version.
The Boll Weevil Monument represents the triumph over devastation that ultimately put Enterprise on a new path from stagnation to prosperity. Enterprise proved that it was possible in the face of disaster to transform an economy completely.
The lady in white turned 99 Tuesday—with no fanfare. Dec. 11 marked the 99th birthday of the Boll Weevil Monument, the world’s only monument to a pest.
A long look back in history to an agricultural economy almost entirely dependent upon “King Cotton” is needed to truly understand the devastation the six-millimeter, six-legged beetles caused as they migrated across the Rio Grande from Mexico through Brownsville, Texas, to Virginia in the late 1800s.
Agriculture experts tell you that each spring, adult boll weevils lay eggs in cotton bolls destroying that year’s crop from the inside out. They call the bug the “cotton farmer’s worst nightmare.
By the end of 1915, Enterprise area farmers had lost 60 percent of their cotton crop.
George Washington Carver—a former slave and the South’s foremost agricultural innovator—advocated peanut-based crop diversification. Growing peanuts led to side products like oil and nut butters and the peanut plant’s use for hog feed led to a meat processing market. Peanuts also returned vital nutrients to soils depleted by cotton cultivation.
Facing economic disaster in the early 1900s a coalition of Enterprise growers and businessmen arranged to exchange their cotton crop for, literally, peanuts.
By 1917, Coffee County produced and harvested more peanuts than any other county in the United States, according to information garnered from the Pea River Historical and Genealogical Society.
By 1919, Enterprise leaders, under the direction of Bon Fleming, were confident enough in the town’s economic future to commission a cast-iron statue from Italy in the form of a monument to the boll weevil, the herald of prosperity through diversity.
So why a monument in honor of an agricultural nightmare that brought farmers across the South to near ruin? That’s what the producers of a national comedy show wondered when they came to Enterprise in 1998 to film a feature segment about the Boll Weevil Monument.
The end result of their interviews and research was supposed to be comedy and for the most part it was funny in the quirky way that parodies can be.
In the segment, titled “See No Weevil,” the narrator said, “For generations, inhabitants (of Enterprise) have worshipped the boll weevil with a pagan fervor centered around a sacred idol to the insect pest in the town square.”
But the comedy show missed the main point. The Boll Weevil Monument represents overcoming adversity and embracing the subsequent diversity. With the proverbial glass half empty, the citizens of Enterprise opted then—as now—to see instead a glass half full.
“The beetle that helped Alabama adapt to a changing environment,” is an article Ansel Payne wrote in 2016 for a national magazine about carbon emissions disrupting the environment. “For a lesson in climate resilience, consider the weevil,” he wrote, specifically citing Enterprise.
“How can an economy built on fossil fuels prosper in a post-fossil-fuel world?” he asked. “One answer might be found in the small town of Enterprise, Ala., where an unusual monument tells the story of another environmental crisis and of the leaders who overcame it.”
So, here’s to the lady who has brought national recognition to the strength of citizens who for nearly 100 years have personified overcoming adversity: Happy birthday!
Michelle Mann is a staff writer for The Southeast Sun and Daleville Sun-Courier. The opinions of this writer are her own and not the opinion of the paper. She can be reached at (334) 393-2969 or by email at email@example.com.