The Land of Peanut Lore; In Southeastern Va. Stands a Museum Dedicated to the Lowly Legume
By Steve Schmadeke
Back before the abandoned coal shed behind the Miles B. Carpenter folk art museum was converted into a storehouse of peanut information, visitors traveling through the loblolly pine forests and swamps of southeastern Virginia often stopped with an inquiry that drove Shirley Yancey nuts.
"Where can we see the peanut trees?" they'd ask Yancey, director of the museum's board. "I'd tell 'em, 'The peanut does not grow on a tree. It's not a nut. It's a legume, and it grows in the ground.' "
Folks are a little more educated now, thanks in part to the Peanut Museum, which opened here in 1990. When Yancey discovered that it was the only such museum in the country, she rechristened it the First Peanut Museum in the U.S.A.
The name stuck.
To a forgotten town known mostly for its two nearby prisons and a massive landfill that daily welcomes tons of trash from the Bronx, the peanut museum is a tiny dot of distinction for Waverly, population 2,300.
It stands here, just off Route 460 behind the folk art museum, a small, white-boarded structure with a brick floor. Inside, a glass case displays the tools of the trade: a peanut scooper, needles for sewing peanut bags and a pea-popper used to dislodge peanuts from their shells.
Also in the display case is a peanut sleigh being pulled by peanut reindeer, a gift to the museum after their elderly owner died. A colorful Mr. Peanut, made with masking tape, stands in one corner.
About 6,500 visitors poke their heads in each year, Yancey said. They can see the entire museum in about the time it takes to shell a peanut, or they can linger, maybe visit the shed out back and examine the cobwebbed antique peanut planters and cultivators.
"They used to pick 'em by hand," said Yancey's husband, Thomas, pointing to a weathered black-and-white photo on the wall showing peanut workers hard at their labors. "Here they've loaded 'em on a train back in 19-and-O-4. Of course, now, with tractors, they pick 'em four rows at a time. There's none of this pitchfork business."
People say there are three P's here in Sussex County: pine, peanuts and pork. They slap "I work for peanuts" bumper stickers on their pickups, and they talk about how the Fleetwood, Gray and Hartz families ran the town with their peanut and pine fortunes in an unbroken succession that started in 1879.
History, especially peanut history, is important here. Tradition has it that in 1842, Matthew Harris hitched up his team and drove his peanut crop straight into the annals of town history. He was the first to see the commercial possibilities of peanuts, selling them on the streets of Petersburg.
A highway marker commemorating the moment was erected 3 1/2 miles outside town. But that wasn't enough.
Some of the women in Waverly dreamed of a full-fledged museum honoring the peanut. Rebecca Massie, recalling a cranberry museum in Massachusetts that she had visited, thought it was time "the lowly peanut" got its due, she said in a recent interview.
Opportunity presented itself with the death of Miles Carpenter in 1985. The folk artist's home was bequeathed to the Waverly Women's Club, which turned it into a museum in his memory. Club members then debated what to do with the dilapidated structures out back.
Before you knew it, the First Peanut Museum in the U.S.A. was born.
Reaction has been mixed.
"Of the two I've seen, I'd rank it the highest," said Betsy Owens, executive director of a trade group called Virginia-Carolina Peanut Promotions, in Nashville, N.C. Others, such as Jeanette Anderson, president of the Alexandria-based National Peanut Council, say they have driven past but never stopped.
And then there is James Hollaway, who has lived in Waverly for 20 years, yet was surprised to hear it has a peanut museum.
Shirley Yancey said she doesn't dwell on "the negatives." Sitting in what was once Carpenter's breakfast room, she nursed a diet soda and let her mind drift back to the museum's opening in May 1990.
Hundreds packed the place that day, she said, and as she looked over their heads, past the totem pole carved from a tree struck by lightning and past the town's only stoplight, she swelled with pride. When she cut the twine stretched between two burlap bags of peanuts, officially opening the museum, people crowded to get in, she said.
This day, though, was different. "Slacker time," she called it. The sun was sinking, and not a single visitor had stopped by, despite the steady rumble of traffic a few feet away on Route 460. Conversation turned to the museum's claim to be the first and only peanut museum in the nation.
"We are . . . because there's nothing in that building but peanuts," Yancey said. "Other museums may have a display of peanut things . . . but that is just part of a display. So there's your difference."
A rival is looming to the south, however, in peanut president Jimmy Carter's home state, where a shrine to James Shepherd, inventor of the once-over mobile peanut combine, is set to open next year.
"We do feel that, once we get everything completed, we will be the premier peanut museum in the country," said Kim Littleton, director of the Georgia Agrirama in Tifton, Ga., which will house a $250,000 replica of the barn where Shepherd invented his combine, as well as 16,000 peanut artifacts. "Virginia may not want to hear that," she added, laughing.
Listen, said Yancey, "we didn't set it up to be, 'Hey, rah rah, we've got the first peanut museum in the U.S.A.' We want to educate people about the peanut.
"There's very little in Waverly anymore," she added. "We have a place here with a little culture."
© Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company