Peanut Harvest in the Wiregrass Area

Alabama’s Landmark Park keeps peanut harvest tradition alive with vintage equipment

An early 1940s Lilliston stationary peanut picker

An early 1940s Lilliston stationary peanut picker. Peanut stacks were hauled to a picker run off a tractor belt pulley. Often, farmers within a community would share the expense of the stationery picker and share the labor.

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Thanks to the hard work and dedication of farmers yesterday and today, peanuts changed the agricultural face of the Wiregrass area. The Wiregrass region is an area marked by high humidity and mild winters, consisting of southern Georgia, southeastern Alabama and the panhandle of Florida. “Wiregrass” is the common name for Aristida stricta, a warm season grass native to this area of the South. 

While the peanut harvest usually happens in October, the process of planting and cultivating begins much earlier. Decades ago, land was broken for peanuts with a mule-drawn steel moldboard plow in late winter to early spring. Farmers planted peanut seeds in mid- to late April, using the moon to gauge the best time for planting.

Celebrating traditional practices

At Landmark Park, Alabama’s official museum of agriculture, the peanut harvest is demonstrated from start to finish every year. Located in Dothan, the self-proclaimed peanut capital of the world, the museum’s peanut harvest is a signature event for the park.

“Usually the second or third week of April was ideal for planting peanuts in the Wiregrass area,” says Landmark Park farm manager Sid Brannon. “That time was generally referred to as the Dark Nights of April because the moon is in its darkest phase then.”

Because herbicides were not readily available, farmers in the 1940s and earlier depended on mechanical cultivation to keep their crops clean. With normal rainfall, farmers started cultivating as soon as the grass sprouted. “A farmer would first bring in a mule-drawn cultivator and if that didn’t work,” Sid explains, “cultivation would have to be done with a hoe or by hand.”

A Fowler plow — a small, mule-drawn cultivation tool — was commonly used to cultivate peanuts as well as corn and cotton. For peanut growers, the Fowler was the cultivator of choice because it could get close to the crop, moving dirt in and out to kill weeds and grasses. In an era predating chemical herbicides, the Fowler was often used weekly.

Before 1910, fertilizer was not commonly used. But by 1915, farmers were using guano (bat droppings) to fertilize farm crops. Fertilizer was purchased in 100-pound burlap bags and applied by hand.  

The crooked path

When peanuts were first being planted in the Wiregrass area, farmers took in new ground rather than figure out what compounds could be used to solve the problem of disease. When early pioneers moved to the area, they cleared land, killing huge pine trees, to create farmland. In a common practice, farmers would cut around a tree to deaden it but leave the stump in the field, planting rows around the stump instead of making the rows straight. At that time, trees were plentiful in the piney woods and there were very few sawmills. Removal of all of the stumps was considered too labor intensive to be practical. Even today, farmers often hit stumps from the original piney woods.

From goober peas to cash crop

Before 1910, most peanuts planted in the Wiregrass area were planted as food for farm animals, not cash crops. At that time, cotton was king. The devastation of the cotton crop by the boll weevil in the 1910s-1920s brought cash crop peanuts to the area.

In 1915, in an effort to diversify local crop production, Enterprise, Ala., banker H.M. Sessions traveled to the Carolinas where he purchased seed peanuts and a mechanical peanut picker. On his return home to Coffee County, he persuaded local farmer C.W. Baston to plant peanuts. Baston harvested 8,000 bushels that year. By the end of the next year, Coffee County farmers had planted more than 20,000 acres in peanuts.

From that the peanut industry in Alabama was launched. In 1919, the city of Enterprise erected a monument dedicated to an insect, the boll weevil. Without the devastation of the boll weevil and Sessions’ innovation, the peanut industry in Alabama might never have been born. Today, one-quarter of the American peanut crop is harvested around Dothan, just across the county line from Enterprise.

Stacking the crop

In the early 1900s, the peanut harvest began with a moldboard plow. Usually a blacksmith would extend the point a few inches to allow it to plow under the peanuts. Each row required two passes, one on the left and one on the right. On the second pass, the moldboard clipped the taproot so the peanuts could be lifted by hand and shaken. Children often helped with the shaking.

Once the peanuts were dug, the stacking process began. During the summer, 10-foot stack poles were cut from various species of trees. Pitchforks were used to bring peanut vines to stack poles positioned in the field. Vines were allowed to dry for about one month. Sawmill slats sat at the bottom of the posts in a cross-shaped fashion to keep vines off the ground, providing ventilation as the plants dried and protecting the crop from the elements.

After about one month, the peanuts were processed with a stationery picker. Not every farmer had a peanut picker. Working in a cooperative manner, neighbors joined together to purchase a picker and provide manpower, moving from farm to farm. Seed peanuts were shelled by hand.

Stacks were pulled to the picker by mules using ground slides. A tractor with a flat belt on the belt pulley ran the stationery picker. Stack poles were pulled out of the stacks and vines were hand-fed with pitchforks into the throat at the front of the picker. The machine separated peanuts from hay, tearing the hay and catching the peanuts in washtubs. The peanuts were put into sacks or dumped on wagons. As hay accumulated at the back of the machine, it was fed into a hay baler powered by a gas engine.

“Moving hay from the picker to the baler was the most hated job,” Sid says. “A fan blew dust and dirt, and no matter how the operation was set up, the man working in this position was covered from head to toe in dirt. The man doing this job was called the hay doodler.”

From breaking the land to doodling the hay, peanut crops stay on Wiregrass farmers’ minds all year long. FC 

For more information: Landmark Park, 430 Landmark Drive, Dothan, AL 36303; phone (334) 794-3452; online at www.landmarkpark.com. The park is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 6 p.m. Sunday; closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.  

Laura V. Stakelum is the public relations director for Landmark Park, Alabama’s Official Museum of Agriculture. Contact her at lauravstakelum@yahoo.com.