In the center of Enterprise, Alabama, there's an intersection honoring an insect. "We are one of the few cities in the world where you have, in the middle of town, a pest that's standing up on a pedestal," said Mayor William E. Cooper.
It demonstrates, he said, how "Enterprise is a small town with a big heart."
But more than a century ago, a small creature – the boll weevil – nearly destroyed this town. It came for the cotton.
Attorney and local historian Dale Marsh said, "The boll weevil was a pest that was bad. And it just destroyed whatever was in its path. You think the locust plagues in the Bible, you know?"
Marsh's grandfather owned a cotton farm in Enterprise in the early 1900s. By the time the invasive insect got to town, the tale of the pest that feeds on cotton seeds was already national news. The head of the USDA had deemed it a "wave of evil."
"The boll weevil's destruction didn't just affect the farmers," Marsh told correspondent Conor Knighton. "If the farmer had no money from his cotton crop, he had no money to pay back the bank or the merchant. So, everybody was worried about what was going to happen."
What happened was, the farmers something pivoted … to peanuts.
Knighton asked William Birdsong, who owns a peanut farm near Enterprise, "A hundred years ago, what would people have been growing in this field?"
"They'd be growing cotton," he replied.
"And then the boll weevil changed all of that?"
"Changed every bit of it."
Today, Alabama is known for its peanuts. Alabama's Tuskegee Institute was once home to the most famous peanut promoter of all-time. "George Washington Carver was very crucial to the success of the peanut," said Birdsong, "because he led to the development and the introduction of many uses of peanuts, which obviously increases the demand and the need of all these peanuts that farmers would grow."
Birdsong said the majority of peanuts grown on his farm go into Mars bars, Snickers, M&Ms and Jif peanut butter.
But back in 1915, nobody ever had planted peanuts here. It was only when the weevil wiped out the cotton crop that the Enterprise farmers tried something new.
"That's the reason why that there's a statue in Enterprise to the boll weevil," Birdsong said. "It's very tongue-in-cheek. It's like, 'If it hadn't have been for you, boll weevil, you caused us to be resilient and look for other means to try to survive and make a living.'"
In 1919, the town put up a monument to celebrate their agricultural prosperity. Decades later, a weevil was put on top, then taken off, then put back on … it used to be a popular prank to mess with it.
Mayor Cooper said, "It has been taken, and we would find it some way out on the side of the highway, or whatever."
But it's no longer the only weevil statue in town; meet Mayor Weevil, and Officer Weevil. There are Weevils in front of the health clinic and the Ale House and the local real estate office. Everywhere from the pharmacy to the farmers market to the funeral home, there's been an infestation, created as a way to attract attention to local businesses.
Outside The Brick Pub & Pizzeria, Knighton asked Caryn Caswell, "A giant pest in front of a restaurant would not be the first marketing idea you might think of."
"No, it definitely would not!" she smiled. "But it seems to work."
"Does it? Do you feel like this drives people in?"
"Oh my gosh, yeah. The kids are climbing on it. People taking pictures all the time. It's great!"
The Boll Weevil continues to bring prosperity to Enterprise. There's the Weevil Nut Company, and Bowl Weevil Lanes. The Boll Weevil soap company sells "Unbollweevilable" lotion. From the Crossfit Gym's "Swole Weevil" to the community college's "Bo the Weevil" mascot, the pest is baked into the fabric of the local community. Even a national chain has played along, with Ronald McWeevil one of the latest stops on "Weevil Way."
Nine-year-old Amina Roston was spending her afternoon seeing them all. "I think it's kind of cool, too, because they ruined our crops, but it also makes us discover new things," she said.
You hear that sentiment a lot in Enterprise. It's not actually about the insect; it's about what it represents.
Dale Marsh said, "The lesson of the boll weevil is that when adversity comes your way, don't quit."
Mayor Cooper said, "If we look at it now, it was just something that made us move in another direction in a better way."
Whether you're an accountant, firefighter, mechanic, teacher … we all have weevils in our own lives. But they make us stronger. It's like the souvenir T-shirt says - "Fear no weevil." Celebrate it!
"It might be silly if you don't know the story," said Marsh. "But if you know the story, you know, it's a beautiful story."
For more info:
- Enterprise, Alabama (Official site)
- Enterprise, Alabama Chamber of Commerce
- Meet the Weevils on "Weevil Way"
- Boll Weevil Monument Live Webcam
- USDA/Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Boll Weevil Eradication Program
- Boll Weevil Soap Company
- Birdsong Berries (Facebook)
Story produced by David Rothman. Editor: Emanuele Secci.
More from Conor Knighton:
- A small town dreams big, with very big things ("Sunday Morning")
- ("Sunday Morning")
- ("Sunday Morning")
for more features.