Chapter 1: Little Windows
Mariah and Andrew Watkins had not seen George for more than thirty years when he appeared at their home in Neosho, Missouri’s quiet colored community. They had to study this self-possessed man, over six feet tall with a thick handlebar mustache, to see in him the shy, undersized twelve-year-old they had known. Mariah had caught young George sleeping in their shed and she and Andrew had given him a home so he could enroll in the school next door.
Mariah Watkins. She was 87 at the time of George's visit.
Mariah got word to Calvin Jefferson that George had “come home.” Jefferson, who had quit the colored school when he was nine, during the year George was there, dropped by dressed finely in livery, driving the horse-and-buggy equivalent of a limousine. Finding George in heavy ankle-high boots, blue jeans and a sturdy work shirt, he recalled, “I was all dressed up and had no brains and there he was in brogan shoes, jeans and a hickory shirt and all his brains. And I was ashamed. George was sitting there just as calm as an old shoe.”
Mariah had recognized George’s abundant brains in his constant questioning of nature’s ways, and she had urged him to use what he found to serve their burdened people. This is what George Washington Carver was doing as the Director of the Department of Agriculture at Tuskegee Institute, a renowned school for blacks in Alabama.
Early one morning during his visit, Carver set out to walk the eight miles from Neosho to his birthplace and boyhood home. Ambling along his wooded way, he paused often to observe birds or stoop and study flowers, fungi, soils and stones native to here as he was, and to greet them as old friends. The unschooled youth who had left here to find out everything about all his fellow life forms was returning with a Master of Science degree from Iowa Agricultural College, today’s Iowa State University.
He reached the rustic setting where, exactly seventy years earlier in 1838, Mose Carver, his wife Susan and his brother George ended a covered-wagon migration from Illinois and started a farm. Within a year George, a widower, had died, leaving two sons and a daughter whom Mose and Susan had brought up until they were grown and gone. Into the empty nest had come Mary, a thirteen-year-old slave. When she had been here nine years, slave raiders had abducted her with her eight-month-old son George. Mose had recovered the baby alone, and he and Susan had taken George and his brother Jim into their care.
At his old homestead, George greeted a great-niece of Mose and Susan’s whom he had known when she was a girl, along with those of her eleven children still living with their parents. Their presence here provided minimal impetus for his visit, making this a return mainly for reminiscence—the only time he would seek out scenes from his life’s ill-fated first chapter, which he had otherwise left behind with rarely a glance back.
Four years after he had left here, a cyclone had leveled the cabins where he had been born and raised, as if to help him forget. Today, the old outlines of his birth cabin are marked by thigh-high log walls built by the National Park Service as a point of interest at the George Washington Carver National Monument outside of the tiny town of Diamond, Missouri. Down a wooded slope, visitors can find a gurgling spring feeding into a tree-shaded creek and wander the prairies and forests that Carver regarded as his true boyhood home.
Creek and prairie, Carver's boyhood home. (photo by author)
From Neosho Carver took a train thirty miles west to Kansas, where his former foster father Mose Carver had moved six years ago to live with a nephew. Bony, bearded Mose, though ninety-six and half-blind from a wood-splitting mishap, was still useful around the farm but often in his rocking chair after a life of labor. Carver presented him with a gift of a suit jacket and pants that, two years later, would be the old man’s burial clothes.
Carver, five years before his trip to his birthplace; Moses Carver around the time of Carver's visit.
Mose took the occasion to pass along to George a little wooden wheel for spinning flax that had been his mother’s. In his years growing up in the Carvers’ cabin, that wheel, sitting in his birth cabin next door by the fireplace where his mother’s deft fingers had turned it, had been George’s one tangible connection to her.
As Mose bid George his final goodbye, he told him, “When you get back there, find yourself a good woman and get married.” His great-great-nephew Roy Porter, then sixteen, recalled Carver responding with a look that showed “that he was not interested in marriage.” He had been interested three years earlier, in the only romance of his life.
Missouri historian Gary Kremer has suggested that Carver may at some time have ventured to the northern Missouri village of Renick to look into a story that his mother had ended up there. Since that trip to his old home also took him to Illinois, he could have stopped in Renick along his train route.[ii]
Back at Tuskegee Institute in his two-room suite in a men’s dormitory, Carver set the spinning wheel by his fireplace. A visitor observed, “He never passes it without touching it with his long, caressing fingers.”
A couple of months after his return home, Carver received in the mail from Mose’s nephew the only other memento of his mother’s existence—a piece of paper he called “the bill of sale of my own dear mother.” Handwritten on it were the words, “Received of Moses Carver seven hundred dollars in full consideration for a Negro girl named Mary, age about thirteen years, who I warrant to be sound in mind and body and a slave for life.”