Boll Weevil Monument at dusk.
Boll Weevil Monument at dusk. Way up at the top, that's the weevil.

Boll Weevil Monument

Field review by the editors.

Enterprise, Alabama

The Boll Weevil Monument, now a century old, comes from a less-demanding time of roadside novelty. Like other venerable marvels -- the Fountain of Youth, the Paper House -- it has a weirdness that's easy to visualize, the kind of attraction you'd see drawn as a cartoon on a 1940s postcard map of the 48 states. A monument to a bug? How zany!

1919 dedication photo shows water spewing from the top of the monument.
1919 monument dedication. A rare photo of the original fountain in action.

The monument was the brainstorm of Roscoe Owen "Bon" Fleming, businessman, city councilman, and rogue promoter of the town of Enterprise. The boll weevil, a tiny cotton-eating insect, had invaded Alabama, and Enterprise seized the opportunity to abandon cotton for other crops -- particularly peanuts -- which brought newfound prosperity to the town.

In 1919 Fleming convinced Enterprise to put up a monument celebrating the bug, hoping to call attention to the town's triumph over adversity, and to entice curious travelers. "Objections came in from all over the country," according to a story in the Enterprise Ledger, but Fleming -- labeled the "daddy" of the monument -- "brushed criticism aside." Half of the money for the monument's purchase came from Fleming's own pocket. It was built in one of the town's main street intersections -- perhaps not coincidentally only a few feet from Fleming's general store.

George Washington Carver, circa 1910.
George Washington Carver: his peanut research helped spur Enterprise's economic revival.

Fleming has been bashed by some modern critics for honoring the weevil instead of George Washington Carver, the Alabama African-American agronomist who championed the peanut. A Carver monument would have been as newsworthy as one for the boll weevil, but, sadly, it was never going to happen in segregated 1919 Alabama. Fleming may have felt bad about that. He invited Carver to be the principal speaker at the monument's dedication -- but rain washed out the railroad tracks and Carver never made it to town.

Part of the Boll Weevil Monument's enduring appeal is its quirky design. A future generation might have simply built a giant peanut, but that would have missed the point. The monument wasn't really about peanuts -- or the weevil. It was about turning an insect plague into prosperity.

Fleming's monument was an elaborate fountain, over 13 feet high, with a neoclassical statue of a Greek woman wearing a peplos and holding an oil lamp over her head (which served as the fountain nozzle). Two pendulous light globes hung from the statue's pedestal, and a walled basin protected the statue from traffic and probably served as an unofficial drinking fountain for mules. Fleming supposedly imported the metal statue all the way from Italy, even though most of the monument came from the Bama Foundry Co., only 90 miles away in Montgomery. It isn't beyond imaging that Fleming simply made up the story about the Italian statue, or at least didn't discourage it. This was, after all, a man who turned guinea hens loose in his store and offered a discount to anybody who could catch one. He understood the value of flair.

Early tinted postcard of the monument shows 1920 cars, no weevil atop the monument.
The monument was considered postcard-worthy even before it hoisted a weevil.

Bon Fleming, circa 1920, wears a hat and suit for a studio portrait.
Bon Fleming, insect pest visionary.

Surprisingly, one thing missing from the Boll Weevil Monument was a boll weevil. The only hint of the bug was a single mention of it on a plaque bolted to the fountain, and it was a small plaque. That was enough; in 1919 simply dedicating a monument to an insect was considered headline-worthy.

But times changed, and the monument changed with them. The streets of Enterprise were paved, mules stopped plodding through downtown, and the walled basin was topped with a spiked rail to discourage pranksters from tossing things into the fountain such as laundry detergent and baby alligators. The metal statue was painted white, leading to the common misperception -- probably fueled by the Italy story -- that the Greek lady was marble (She wasn't).

The most significant change to the monument, however, was something it was never designed for: a boll weevil.

Credit for adding the weevil goes to to an Enterprise artisan named Luther Baker -- and also to the monument's messy fountain. There are many old photos of the monument, but only one, taken on its dedication day, shows water spraying out of the Greek lady's lamp -- and the ground outside the basin is wet, and no one is standing too close. The fountain appears to have been too vigorous for its own good. It was eventually shut off. Still, 30 years passed before Baker came forward with the seemingly obvious suggestion that a Boll Weevil Monument should have a boll weevil. He fashioned a small metal version, about the size of a man's fist, and in 1949 mounted it to the now-dry nozzle hole atop the Greek lady's lamp. If visitors didn't squint they'd probably miss it, but it was a start.

Close-up of today's monument, with its mega-weevil hoisted above the Greek lady's head.
Today's monument, topped with a mega-weevil.

The boll weevil proved to be a tempting target, despite its lofty perch and public location. It disappeared in 1953, 1974, 1981, and 1985 (a failed theft). Each time a new weevil was added, and each time the weevil was larger than the one before. Enterprise apparently understood the need for more a bug-focused attraction, and bigger weevils kept the monument at the top of the "quirky attraction" list amid ever-higher visitor expectations.

Bug-nappers made their final assault on July 11, 1998, not only ripping off the weevil but the Greek lady's arms as well. The damage was irreparable. Good fortune, however, again favored Enterprise: a mold of the entire monument had been made in 1996, and that mold was now used to cast an exact replica out of unbreakable polymer resin. It was unveiled on December 15, 1998, and has remained unmolested ever since.

The Boll Weevil Monument at age 100 looks better than it did at age 1 -- a tribute to Enterprise's stewardship -- and is topped with a weevil the size of a basset hound that would have astonished Bon Fleming. He would, however, still recognize the text of its plaque, now moved to a historical marker on the street corner:

This monument is erected by the citizens of
Enterprise, Coffee County, Alabama
In profound appreciation of the boll weevil
And what it has done as the Herald of Prosperity.

Boll Weevil Monument

Address:
Main St., Enterprise, AL
Directions:
In the center of downtown, at the intersection of Main and College Sts.
Hours:
Lit at night. (Call to verify)
Phone:
334-393-2901
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Depot Museum: Weevil RelicsDepot Museum: Weevil Relics, Enterprise, AL - < 1 mi.
U.S. Army Aviation MuseumU.S. Army Aviation Museum, Fort Rucker, AL - 8 mi.
Rear End of Pink VolkswagenRear End of Pink Volkswagen, Ozark, AL - 15 mi.
In the region:
Whiskey Bottle Tombstone, Clayton, AL - 46 mi.

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November 15, 2019

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