Uncle Earl and the Kudzu Vine (part 2) by Lynne Mayhew

Glen Arden

Glen Arden

Needing more land, Uncle Earl and Aunt Lillie purchased 35 acres just south of Chipley on SR277, the Vernon Highway.  Glen Arden was the name Aunt Lillie gave to their new homestead and nursery. It was a name taken from a book she read that suggests a peaceful garden or sanctuary. It was here where Lillie’s father found so much serenity. It was here where Uncle Earl would plant specimen’s collected from all over the country. It was here where they would end up cultivating kudzu.

They had a love affair with life and were great fair goers.  In 1893 they attended the Chicago World’s Fair known as the Columbian Expo, commemorating the 400th anniversary of Columbus. In 1904 they attended the St. Louis World’s Fair which celebrated the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. Next was the Jamestown Expo in Norfolk, Va., 1907, commemorating the founding of the colony. In 1909, while Aunt Lillie stayed home, Uncle Earl attended the World Expo in San Francisco and visited relatives. Taking a month to get back home, he went on “field expeditions”, camping along the way, collecting plants, sketching them and bird watching. He and Aunt Lillie had a lifetime membership in the Audubon Society.

Chicago 1893 World's Fair

Chicago 1893 World's Fair

Their lifestyle often times was criticized by their contemporaries. Not having any children, they were free to travel and explore the world around them. Often times they marched to a different drum beat which was particularly true for their interest in kudzu. Kudzu was first introduced by the Japanese in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition as an ornamental. However, it was at the Chicago World’s Fair (1893) that Uncle Earl and Aunt Lillie first saw the plant. She thought its purple bloom and vine-like qualities would add beauty to her arbor at Glen Arden. It would be several years later before they acquired the plant.

The story is told that the plant not only took over the arbor but threatened to take over the house. Disgusted, Uncle Earl uprooted and threw it out by a fence line. It survived and the neighbor’s cows and goats reached through the fence and couldn’t get enough of it. Not wanting to cause any harm to the animals, Uncle Earl sent a sample to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture for analysis. The results proved it high in protein, 18% compared to alfalfa at 14%. A botanist’s report said, “You might have trouble making livestock eat it.” Learning that kudzu was a legume, a member of the bean family, they discovered its nitrogen, soil building qualities. Their neighbors’ fields of cotton had robbed the soil of nitrogen and yearly droughts had turned acreage into eroded, barren land. Corn withered in the fields and produced little fodder for animals. Watching this happen, Uncle Earl and Aunt Lillie turned their efforts toward conservation and erosion control, a concept that was new and not well accepted by their fellow neighbors. It wasn’t practical and was a waste of time, they declared. Uncle Earl and Aunt Lillie were concerned about conserving ground water, top-soil and keeping a balance in the eco-system. Preserving forests and not overcutting in order to protect habitat for wildlife was also of importance. Protect it now for the future was not a concept widely accepted.

CE Pleas inquiry

CE Pleas inquiry

All of their energy and money went into the development of kudzu, a twenty year crusade. Advertising its virtues, Uncle Earl started a mail order business and inquiries about the plant came in from all over the country. The Post Office Department stopped them from shipping plants by mail in order to investigate the legitimacy of their literature. They claimed they were using the mails to defraud. No plant can grow this abundantly, they thought.  Charges were promptly dropped and apologies offered after they witnessed themselves kudzu’s growing capabilities. Uncle Earl could get eleven tons of hay from four cuttings in a summer. “You control it by cutting low or putting animals in the field” he said.

Uncle Earl and the Kudzu Vine (part 1) **********  Uncle Earl and the Kudzu Vine (part 3)

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