Retrospect: First Harvest

A farmer, a banker and the power of the peanut changed Coffee County forever

In October 1915, banker H. M. Sessions and farmer C. W. Baston inspected Coffee County’s first peanut crop. Photo courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives & History.

Dedicated in 2019, Alabama Bicentennial Park contains 16 bronze panels portraying important events in the state’s history. Near the middle of the park, between depictions of the 1901 constitutional convention and New Deal-era electrification, is a quieter, but no less revolutionary scene.

Two men stand in a field. The man on the left in a well-tailored suit is Enterprise banker H. M. Sessions. Dressed in plainer clothes, the man on the right is Coffee County farmer Charles W. Baston. He proudly holds a large peanut vine, its golden bounty brightly rendered in high bronze relief.

The scene pays homage to the 1915 deal between the two men to fully invest in a 100-acre peanut crop. The event helped to change the course of agriculture in the Wiregrass and launched the successful Sessions Company Inc.

Horatio Moultrie Sessions was born in Chambers County in 1861 and raised in Pike County. With a few credits from a business school in Atlanta, Sessions secured a job at the Planters & Merchants Bank in Ozark in 1900, an institution he would eventually come to lead. Sessions arrived in Enterprise in 1913 as the founding president of the Farmers & Merchants Bank. He also owned a mule and trading company.

Three years older than Sessions, C. W. Baston was born in Georgia in 1858. He spent most of his adult life in Coffee County as a farmer and an active member of his local church. Men who work the land are mentioned in newspapers less often than bankers. Still, Baston was regarded by the editors of The People’s Ledger in Enterprise as “one of the progressive farmers of Coffee County.”

- Sponsor -

Like many of his fellow agrarians, Baston suffered mightily because of the pestilential boll weevil. Arriving in Mobile in 1910, the insects stalked eastward through Alabama, leaving devastation along the way. Nature could hardly have designed a more insidious predator for cotton, the state’s dominant cash crop. Nests of young weevils transformed cotton buds into nurseries for larvae that feasted on the cotton fibers as they developed. Once the bugs arrived, little could stand in their path. Yields fell dramatically. In 1914, Coffee County farmers lost 60% of their cotton crop to weevils.

As he bore witness to the weevils’ wrath, banker Sessions toured a number of peanut farms and associated businesses in other states. He returned convinced that peanuts could be the answer, if Coffee Countians would take the chance. At the time, only 14% of Alabama farmers planted any peanuts at all, and typically only in small patches as livestock feed. No one had yet fully abandoned cotton for the goober pea.

Then came farmer Baston. As the 1915 planting season approached, he found himself too indebted to purchase cotton seed for the coming year. H. M. Sessions and Baston made a deal. If the farmer would plant his entire acreage in peanuts, the banker would cover the cost of the seed and necessary fertilizer and purchase the entire crop for about $1 per bushel. Baston agreed.

And while the requisite funds came from Sessions, it was Baston who tended to the nascent crop’s needs over the spring planting season and long summer months.

There comes a moment near the end of the season when the farmer takes stock of his labors in the field. Though a great many aspects of peanut farming have changed since Baston’s first harvest in Coffee County, this moment remains largely the same. The farmer strides into the field and chooses a hardy plant to sample. He bends over and gathers the green vines into his hands. With a quick and firm tug, he coaxes the legumes from beneath the sandy soil to reveal their treasure.

For C. W. Baston, the results were impressive, indeed. He averaged about 800 bushels of peanuts, roughly 1,700 pounds, per acre. With a bumper crop of 8,000 bushels, Baston cleared enough to pay off his debt with profits to spare.

Pleased with the results, Sessions offered the entire harvest as seed peanuts, marketed to area farmers as the “celebrated Baston variety.” They sold quickly. 

School Day peanut butter was a product of Sessions Company Inc. in Enterprise. Photo courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives & History.

Well-placed newspaper advisements, paid for by Sessions, touted their success. One such piece took the form of a Q&A with Baston entitled “Peanuts and Prosperity” and circulated widely throughout the state. “Cut it out and paste it up somewhere,” a Montgomery editor told farmers, “so you can read it over and over when you hear the boll weevil chewing up your cotton.”

Baston proclaimed therein, “I will not plant a seed of cotton…. Cotton has kept me poor all my life.” Nothing could entice him back into the realm of tarnished King Cotton, he said.

No, Baston was converted, a disciple of diversification and the power of the peanut.

Workers make bales of peanut vines during a peanut harvest in Alabama in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives & History.

More Coffee County farmers soon followed Baston’s example. Fields once marred with weevil-eaten cotton now featured tall stacks of harvested peanuts, rising like giant otherworldly anthills. In 1917, Coffee County farmers boasted better peanut yields than anywhere else in America. That same year, Sessions transformed his former mule and equipment business into a peanut purchaser and supply company.

The boll weevil monument in Enterprise pays tribute to the critter that decimated the cotton crops. Farmers switched to other crops, like peanuts. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

In 1919, the citizens of Enterprise erected a monument praising the boll weevil for “what it has done as the herald of prosperity” pointing the county’s farmers away from cotton. Fittingly, the Sessions Co. offices were located in close proximity to the monument. 

The paths of Sessions and Baston diverged in later years. As the Sessions Co. entered into its second generation, farmer Baston changed careers, perhaps due to declining health. Two years before his death in 1924, Baston’s farm sold at auction.

Later in his life, H. M. Sessions was elected to the Alabama Legislature. He died in 1927. The company he started continues today, both as a purchaser for Wiregrass peanuts and as a manufacturer of numerous related products.

In Montgomery, the bronze scene in Bicentennial Park reminds us of a moment in 1915 when a farmer and a banker helped point the Wiregrass toward a different future.  

Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka.

This article appeared in the September 2022 issue of Business Alabama.

The latest Alabama business news delivered to your inbox