One doesn’t have to drive far along the interstates and back roads of the south to witness mounds of kudzu taking over banks, running up telephone poles and blanketing trees. While in Mississippi, recently, I noticed perfectly manicured yards bordered by kudzu. Down the road was a large sign stating, Kudzu Destruction Demonstration. I chuckled, thinking about the person who is responsible for the “vine that ate the south.” He is my great-great uncle, Charles Earl (C.E.) Pleas, known to me as Uncle Earl. There is a Highway Marker outside the Agriculture extension office in Chipley, FL that pays tribute to the Pleases development of kudzu. Other than a few family stories I had heard as a child and only meeting him once at the age of eight, I wanted to uncover who my great-great Uncle Earl was. I wanted to know his story and especially his connection to kudzu.
At the turn of the Twentieth Century, Uncle Earl and his new wife, Lillie Conley Pleas, moved from Indiana to Chipley, a small frontier town founded in 1882 located in Florida’s Panhandle. This Quaker, educated couple brought with them talents little known and understood. Both were naturalists and collectors of specimens from their many trips, be it a rock from Colorado or a pine cone from the California Sequoias. Aunt Lillie was a taxidermist and had an extensive insect collection. It was their joint interest in “bugs” that began their romantic courtship. She was a talented artist, using oils to depict scenes from nature. Some of her artwork today is still displayed in the Washington County Hospital and owned by private collectors. Uncle Earl was a horticulturist and took up photography, setting up a small studio in town. When not at the studio, he was in the woods photographing plants, flowers and mushrooms.
But one can’t live off of art, photography and taxidermy alone, thus they raised and grew their own fruit, grains and vegetables on a four-acre garden patch on the edge of town. What they didn’t need themselves, they sold to others. Putting up over 1800 items yearly, they canned, dried, pickled and preserved, exhibiting their efforts at the Fair at DeFuniak Springs and the Florida State Fair at Tampa. Care and pride in their work earned them hundreds of blue ribbons and recognition. Aunt Lillie was also known for her flowers. She grew them, sold them and dried them. She became recognized for her artistic flower arrangements and shared her talent with others. Uncle Earl photographed her unique floral designs and made post cards. Often times she would preserve the flowers themselves and would use them for still life art subjects.
No wonder they loved nature. Uncle Earl was raised on a farm and plant nursery. He accompanied his father on his daily walks, collecting this and collecting that, learning their botanical names and classification system. Another influence was Aunt Lillie’s father, John J. Conley who was a charter member of the Wayne County (Ind.) Horticultural Society and erected the first greenhouse. He moved to Chipley in 1904 to live with Lillie and Earl until his death in 1907 at the age of 95. From his diary, I read his thoughts on living in Chipley: “A change of seven hundred miles toward the tropics is a great one for a man who has spent all his years where the summers are short and the winters long and barren. But to be able to spend my declining years in the “land of flowers” in the loving care of my daughter, Lillie, and her husband, where I can again work among the flowers and trees every day in the year is, indeed, like turning winter of old age into continual spring.”
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