Town takes its favorite legume seriously

January 24, 1993|By Bob Dart | Bob Dart,Cox News Service

WAVERLY, Va. -- Compared to the Smithsonian Institution, the museum located catty-cornered from the Dairy Queen in this Tidewater town is just peanuts.

But the nation's first (and probably only) peanut museum is located here in Sussex County, where the nation's first commercial crop of peanuts was harvested about 150 years ago.

"You'd be surprised at how many visitors we get," said Lucye Hughes, widow of a Planters Peanuts executive and a volunteer at the tiny museum.

Most folks tend to associate peanuts with Georgia, and the Peach State produces nearly half the nation's peanuts -- much more than any other state. Virginia ranks seventh in peanut production, behind Georgia, Texas, Alabama, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Florida.

Meanwhile, the Sussex County citizenry decided to dig up its peanut heritage, so to speak, and display it in the white clapboard house with the red tin roof that was sitting empty behind the Miles B. Carpenter Museum of Folk Art.

That's right: Waverly (population 2,500) is a two-museum town.

The "First Peanut Museum in the U.S.A." was established a couple of years ago, allegedly out of popular demand by visitors who stopped at the folk art museum and ended up wanting to know more about peanuts. This is a town, after all, where the most imposing architecture is a warehouse that appears to be held up by a giant Planter's Mr. Peanut.

Virginia officials told the Waverly organizers they had set up the first peanut museum, Mrs. Hughes recalled. Now there is talk of a rival peanut museum being located a few miles away in Suffolk, which already boasts the nickname "Peanut City."

It was between Waverly and Suffolk that Mathew Harris harvested the first commercial crop of peanuts in the fall of 1842. The event was commemorated earlier this month in a drama entitled "Diary of a Goober."

Peanuts -- which are legumes, like butter beans, and not really nuts -- are indigenous to South America. The ancient Incas of Peru ate them, as evidenced by peanut-shaped jars and peanut designs that have been uncovered by archaeologists.

Early Spanish explorers took peanuts back to Spain and then to Africa, where the plants flourished. The word "goober," a Southernism for peanut, has African roots. Peanuts came into port cities -- such as Norfolk, Va. -- on slave ships, where the dried nuts were used to sustain the captured cargo.

From Colonial times through the antebellum era, peanuts were grown on Southern plantations mostly as a cheap, nourishing food for slaves.

Then Mathew Harris saw the commercial possibilities of peanuts and set up his Sussex County farm and factory.

The Civil War further popularized peanuts. They became a staple for Confederate soldiers, who sang "Eating Goober Peas" as they marched.

The Northern troops also developed a taste for peanuts, opening up new, postwar markets for Southern farmers, many of whom were black.

Then George Washington Carver, a black scientist and educator, discovered hundreds of new uses for peanuts and peanut oil. The business was further boosted when peanut butter was invented in in 1890.

The lowly legume assumed a prominent place in Dixie's economy. In Georgia, for instance, peanuts were a $2.5 billion business in 1991.

The plants grow best in sandy soils, like those in Tidewater Virginia or southwestern Georgia.

Peanuts have the peculiar habit of ripening underground. The plants have flowers and roots. After pollination, a branch-like appendix called the peg grows out from the stalk. The pods, or peanuts, develop under the soil as offshoots of the pegs. Peanuts aren't part of the roots like potatoes, but rather are like subterranean bean pods.

The museum contains peanut paraphernalia ranging from peanut shell Christmas wreaths and peanut sculptures to peanut stamps.

The museum is located near the intersection of Virgini Highways 460 and 40 in downtown Waverly. Operating hours are 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except Tuesday and Wednesday. There is no admission charge, but donations are solicited.

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