Black History On The Ranch

I grew up basically in the 19th century, on a 280 acre (110 hectare) cattle ranch surrounded by miles of virgin forest full of wildlife, bear, mountain lions. No phone. No electricity, we made our own. It was called the “Rough Diamond Ranch”. We had our own cattle brand. And after my dad wasn’t around, on the ranch were my grandmother and grandfather, my mom, my aunt, my three brothers, and my three cousins. Another place, another time.

The nearest town was five miles of bad dirt road downhill. It consisted of a single weathered combination store/bar/post office/gas station. The grade school was in town. It served all the children from the other ranches for miles around. It was tiny, even though it was for first through eighth grades and served a large area. One year there were a total of twenty-one kids in the school, and seven of them were my family from the ranch.

Now, a remote cattle ranch in the middle of the forest primeval is a wonderful place to grow up. It abounded with opportunities for us kids to fail at all of the pursuits of life, and fall and stretch our length in the dust, and stand up and go again until we finally succeeded. Because when you live where there are no electricians or plumbers or mechanics on call, and no phone to call them even if they were there, failure isn’t an option—if something needs fixing, you fix it because you have no other choice.

However, despite providing the world’s best education about life, the drawback of living on that kind of isolated ranch, fenced in by endless forest, is that all you know is that tiny remote part of the earth. There was no TV, and our tired old radio barely picked up stations talking about stuff of no interest to me. I don’t remember ever seeing a black person, much less talking to one.

However, back then in the 1950s when I was in grade school, there was a town library. It was housed in a minuscule old toolshed that had room for the librarian and about four kids at a time. It was open one afternoon a week.

And for me, that tiny town library became a magical portal to the world’s mysteries, where any book that I picked off of the shelves might tell me about some part of life I’d never heard of. What I found I liked best were biographies. I would check out books about Kit Carson, and Geronimo. I read about the lives of Presidents and explorers and pirates. I read about the lives of scientists.

As we all did, I had my heroes. Heroes are very important to humans, look at the myths and legends we have. But I had real-life heroes. Captain Jack of the Modocs. Jim Bridger. Hey, I was a kid in the wilderness, gotta like Indians and mountain men. Abraham Lincoln, of course.

Some of my heroes were scientists. I read book after book about scientists. The big three for me were Thomas Edison because … well, because he was Edison and taught himself; Nikola Tesla, because of his ability to do strange things with electricity; and George Washington Carver, because he came from a farm like me, and because of his passion to use his knowledge to help poor people.

George Carver was a man who got an education through his own unending efforts. He was born into slavery about 1864. His mother was stolen when he was an infant. After the Civil War ended in 1865, he and his brother were raised by the white couple who had previously owned them … life is always more curious than we can imagine.

He went to school obsessively from childhood on, and after much frustration from the racism of the time he eventually earned a masters degree in botany.

Among other things, he was very concerned with what the mono-cropping of cotton was doing both to the soil and to the people.

For the soil, he was one of the earliest people to recommend crop rotation with nitrogen-fixing plants … a practice that we followed on the ranch. I remember reading that he was an early advocate of that and being proud to be still following his prescient lead.

For the people, he was a fanatical proponent of the lowly peanut. To start with, peanuts are a nitrogen-fixing plant. This means they actually add nitrogen to the soil, and so they could be used in a crop rotation with cotton.

More to the point, peanuts are a very valuable food item to this day. Look at the number of items in the stores that have to be specially marked for those folks with peanut allergies.

They grow in poor soil, don’t require fertilizer, and they keep in the shell. As a result Carver advocated that the poverty-stricken families plant them as a food source. His work provided untold nutrition to some of the poorest people in America at the time, black southern sharecroppers.

All of this traces back to George Washington Carver. He worked tirelessly developing peanut products—peanut butter, peanut flour, peanut oil, he ended up with well over a hundred different ways to utilize peanuts and peanut shells. His work ethic was legendary, he never slowed down.


What George Washington Carver proved to me was that a man could overcome endless adversity if he had both passion and compassion, he worked hard, and he persevered through disappointment and adversity.

And I can think of few better lessons that a young man in the middle of nowhere could possibly learn.

So for my contribution to Black History Month that started today, February 1st, I want to stress that black history is all of our history, and that the contributions of black men and women are so strong and pervasive and supportive that they inspired a child who had never met a black person in his young life

I learned through my reading that just as a black botanist’s work fifty years earlier had made our very ranch soil more fertile, my own life on the ranch had been enriched and inspired by that same black philosopher’s vision.

So this paean to George Washington Carver is my own poor contribution to Black History Month, and my shout-out to all of my black relatives, friends, inlaws, outlaws, and people of color around the planet about a man who inspired my own life.


Can’t say fairer than that,


15 thoughts on “Black History On The Ranch

  1. Another enlightening post sir, and what graceful and excellent words from a most remarkable human being. George Washington Carver is an example of a man who’s life and legacy continues to influence and positively affect so many to this very day. Adversity didn’t kill the man, it revealed the man and what an amazing man he was.


  2. Easier, that tolerance, if you turn off the nightly news.
    You might never even notice any strife (other than the usual), which ain’t going away anytime soon.
    It’s in our nature, mistrust of “aliens”.
    We don’t need anyone fomenting things.


  3. It should be noted that George Washington Carver also mentored a child named Henry Wallace — and instilled the love of agriculture in him. He eventually developed hybrid strains of corn that resulted in doubling and tripling the yield of corn. Wallace later became Secretary of Agriculture and eventually Vice-President. In that capacity he was able to get the Rockefeller Institute to sponsor an experimental agricultural in Mexico, which resulted in more hybrid corn that grew well in Mexico — and vastly increased the yield in that nation.

    One of the first scientists who was stationed at the Mexico Experimental Agricultural Station was Norman Borlaug — who won a Nobel Prize for his work developing high yield wheat, and is credited with perhaps saving the lives of a billion people from starvation.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks, Willis. i know of Mr Carver too. though I live on islands bouncing off the antarctic circumpolar winds. sometimes hot, sometimes cold, often both before lunch. Also, raised, lived, and now retired with livestock, horse, forest, grasslands, and the sea. I have no excuse not to be happy no matter what, and would recommend the life. Not for the timid, though….
    Now, why do I know of and respect Mr Carver ( I respect Cassius too, pity he did not seem to know the provenance of that name in American history)? The reason is, we share a story of common beginnings and long struggle. Thanks to Gutenburg, we get to lose ourselves in these tales from an early age. We slowly learnt the lessons told us of the need to hew to the truth, no matter what. We have serried ranks of gravestones overseas to stand as reminder. A slave reared by ex-masters is one of many who light the way, and hint that PC tells not the truth. One of our family graveyards (a small plot) has the stone of Tui, a Maori nurse, who saved my great-grandfather’s life from raiders, They killed about 51, and she remains honoured. We now ‘live in trembling hope’ that after Brexit, a second forlorn hope in the form of DT can help turn the tide. There have been many unlikely heroes before who were reviled. Paul and Winston come to mind. Also, just now, the smell of horse and creak of leather. Aaaah!


  5. Thank you for the essay Willis. Once again I find that like many others, I’ve also paralleled your voyage of discovery. In Kansas, our town was fortunate enough to have a Carnegie Library with an excellent librarian. She nurtured our minds suggesting biographies, adventure stories, geography books, and much, much more. My discovery of stereo 3D imaging of the great buffalo hunts, and places in Egypt let my mind expand and gave me a new perspective. Little did I know that 60+ years later, I’d be reading of the exploits of a young(er) man in some of the areas of which I dreamed. Thank you so much for your autobiographical writings. They fill out much of what I imagined, first as a little boy, and later as a would be surf nut.

    I never got to The Trestles, nor Rincon, but Big Corona and Huntington were fun. The thought of Mavericks or Waimea Bay gives me chills – too far outside my pucker factor.. but reading about Fiji, and PNG brings back times reading the geography books in that cool library on a hot summer day in Kansas.


  6. If you ever get the chance, pay a visit to the George Washington Carver Museum on the campus of Tuskegee University in the small Alabama town of the same name. You will be in awe of the man. GWC was also an artist and some of his drawings, paintings and textile art are on display (unfortunately a fire destroyed many of them). There is also another man who holds a place of honor there – Booker T. Washington.


  7. I once had dinner with Justice Clarence Thomas in the Great Hall at SCOTUS. (He personally gifted me gold SCOTUS cufflinks as thanks for several years of volunteer advisory work on complicated jurisdiction and standing issues in the emerging internet/cellphone/ecommerce era, done for the appellate judiciary section of ABA). Asked him who in history had influenced him most because his own story is so amazing (revealed in his memoir, My Grandfather’s Son–highly recommended reading for Black History Month). He mentioned George Carver, Booker Washington, and Thomas Jefferson (the Declaration, the Jefferson presidency constitutional precedents, and the Sally Hemings slavery connection). You are in very good company, WE. Another beautiful post.


    • Thanks for that interesting story, Rud. I’m proud to be mentioned in the same sentence with any of the Supremes. Regardless of whether or not I agree with any individual’s judicial philosophy, they are awesome intellects and impressive individuals.


      Liked by 1 person

      • Another snippet just to show how sharp Justice Thomas is. Never told anyone this before. I used to fly first class, came with the then territory. So get on a late transcontinental (redeye) flight west to east and guess who is sitting beside me–Clarence Thomas, then EEOC head appointed by Ronald Reagan. We spent ~6 hours just chatting. At the ~1.5 decade later SCOTUS ceremony, he remembered that redeye flight and chat, which I had long forgotten! He is one of my heros.


  8. Willis;

    Like others here, your essay resonated with me also. At age 8 I came across my uncles college chemistry textbook and decided then and there to become a chemist, which, arguably, I did. At about the same time ( roughly when I had my tonsils out, to show my age they used diethyl ether to knock me out) I read biographies of G. W. Carver, mme Curie (m Curie not so much), and, of course, Thomas Alva. I especially enjoyed Carver whose research had the central organizing principle of making discoveries that helped recently freed black farmers to make the most of their farms. Peanuts were to be a cash crop intended to provide additional income on top of the farmers main crop (probably maize). Keep up the good work W.



  9. Thank you Willis. What a trip down memory lane. The first library that I can recall visiting was housed in a single room of the Vollbrecht family in Oak Run, California. But oh the stories that came home to be read by kerosene lamps, and Alladin lamps after the dishes were washed and dried. Ralph Moody’s biographical sketches of early pioneer life in Colorado and the west. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s many books. And biographies.

    I too was fascinated by George Washington Carver. Just the thought that so many things could come from the lowly peanut was a challenge to me to visualize beyond the obvious. To think beyond what everyone else knew to be limitations. To realize that living in the big woods with no electricity, no hot water unless it was heated on a wood stove, and no heat until the wood was in the wood shed was not a limitation, but a jumping off point…because we had read about what was possible in the books that came from that little library.



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