By Emmett Burnett
In the heart of downtown, a majestic maiden lifts a prize overhead. Outstretched hands hold a big, black bug. It is the world’s only tribute to an insect pest, in a city just as unique – Enterprise, Ala.
The Boll Weevil Monument turns 100 on Dec. 11, 2019. In town, Beetle-mania is everywhere and rightly so. For in Coffee County’s largest city, Anthonomus grandis is not a creepy-crawly. It is the bug of benevolence.
The statue symbolizes gratitude to a 6-legged foe turned friend. In the late 1800s boll weevils marched from Mexico, destination Alabama. Cotton was its all-you-can-eat buffet, and the swarm was unstoppable.
Farmers grimly waited their turns – except Enterprise. “But initially, growers did not embrace change,” notes Douglas Bradley, president of the Pea River Historical and Genealogical Society. “With cotton’s boll weevil invasion, we had two choices: diversify crops or cease farming.”
In 1913 after witnessing the demise of Texas cotton fields, Coffee County agent John Pittman assumed the role of Paul Revere, warning Enterprise, “The boll weevils are coming! Change your ways!” Meanwhile, local businessman H.M. Sessions explored agriculture outside Alabama and returned with the promise of peanuts. Cotton farmers eventually took heed, planting alternative crops, including peanuts, just in time.
By 1915, boll weevils had devoured the region, eating 60 percent of cotton production. But by 1917 Coffee County produced more peanuts than any other county in the U.S. In appreciation of the creature that made it happen, on Dec. 11, 1919, the Boll Weevil Monument was unveiled in tribute.
“There is a positive message in that statue,” says Enterprise’s director of tourism, Tammy Doerer, pointing at the display standing 13 ½ feet above street level. “It illustrates how open minds willing to cooperate with new ideas accomplished great things.” The spirit continues.
Enterprise has the world’s smallest St. Patrick’s Day Parade – one person. “I loved it,” says grand marshal and solitary entry, Sean Roehler. “People lined up to watch.”
The parade starts at the town courthouse and loops around the Boll Weevil Monument and back. “Including stops for photographs and handshakes, takes about 15 minutes,” recalls Roehler. “Absolutely I would do it again, except I want others to participate and enjoy as much as I did.”
Erin Grantham, president of the Enterprise Chamber of Commerce explains, “Our city encompasses lots of small things. We have a small pest, the smallest parade, and a very small race.” She refers to the city’s Half-K Run, covering about 547 yards.
“Our last .5 event had about 400 participants,” Grantham says. “There were conventional racers along with moms pushing baby strollers, people in wheelchairs, and people of all ages.” St. Patrick’s Day Parade participant Roehler ran the race too – donned in his Irish kilt.
Mayor William “Bill” Cooper notes, “Enterprise is different from other cities because of our military base proximity. We have Ft. Rucker (U.S. Army) personnel with roots from all over America in town. Such a diverse mix demands diverse services and we give it to them.”
Here’s something insiders know and the rest of us should: Enterprise has professional quality theater and food seasoned with wonderful. Southern Broadway, a dinner theater, combines both.
The repurposed 1902 former drugstore and barber shop runs sold out performances. “We seat 80,” says co-owner and set designer Susan Gilmore, preparing sets for the next performance of The Depot. “Everybody does everything, we even cook the food onsite.”
Plays are also homegrown, written by co-owner Lydia Dillingham. According to patrons, Southern Broadway is comparable to that other Broadway, up north somewhere.
Other adventures in art are available at the Performing Arts Center, for plays, ballets, musicals and more.
Enterprise’s eateries border on artistic too. The Rawls Restaurant is a Main Street must. The former opulent hotel now housing the eatery and bar was built in 1902. Chef Bill Schleusner and wife Daphne came onboard 107 years later. It’s about time.
The Rawls’ offerings are abundant and include sautéed grouper, listed in the state Tourism Department’s “100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama.” Or request a signature drink – “The Evil Weevil” – a bourbon-based mixture topped with floating happy local peanuts.
“Our restaurant is a continuation of this fine old building,” Chef Schleusner says. “We are honored to be its next torch bearers for those to enjoy good food.”
Many local restaurants obtain produce where everybody else does – the farmers’ market. Forty-plus vendors offering fresh fruits, vegetables, and crafts are available three mornings a week all year. “We can’t really track our attendance numbers,” market director Kay Kirkland notes. “But a thousand or more is not uncommon during special events.”
In the early 1900s the Enterprise Train Depot was here. Today it is a museum. “This puts history in perspective,” says Diane Napoli, Depot Museum director, as we walk across original 1902 wooden floor planks. “It’s a quiet remembrance of where Enterprise has been.”
Across town is another quiet remembrance. A memorial stands on a school campus. It pays tribute to 8 students and a nearby resident who died March 1, 2007 when a 170 mph tornado stuck Enterprise High School.
Pillars of brick, each with a heartbreaking image of a teenage victim, are permanent reminders of that tragic day. The inscription reads in part: “The loss of 9 precious lives left an endearing mark on our community and on our hearts.” The town vowed to never forget the victims lost as it persevered the aftermath.
Enterprise has always survived adversity, hardship, and sorrow. The tornado memorial quotes Adlai Stevenson, “It’s not the years in your life but the life in your years that counts.” Perhaps the words also exemplify the city that defied adversity and prospered. For Enterprise is strong. Boll Weevil strong.