One of the days that Vaughn was gone driving for Samaritan’s Purse, the kids and I took a little road trip. Baxter Springs is on Route 66, and we followed that highway into Missouri, through the little town of… and into…where we drove by the new Joplin hospital, which is still getting the final touches put on it (the old hospital, destroyed in the tornado in 2011, was finally demolished last year)…About a dozen miles southeast of Joplin is the George Washington Carver National Monument…
George Washington Carver was born in Missouri, the son of a slave woman, towards the end of the Civil War. He and his mother were kidnapped while he was just a baby, and while George was recovered, his mother was never found. George and his older brother grew up in the care of the Carvers, the white couple who owned him.
George was sickly as a child; not being healthy enough to contribute to much physical labor, he was given a lot of freedom to explore the farm on which he was raised. George spent day after day in the woods collecting plants to add to his garden, and as they thrived under his care, he soon became known as ‘the plant doctor’.George left the farm when he was about 11 years old to pursue an education. While he would never again live with the Carters, he did go back to visit them at times. George’s trials to access an education (being denied and rejected because he was black) had an influence on how he chose to spend his adult life, but his greatest influence was simply observing nature during his time as a boy roaming the woods. He would later write, “As a very small boy exploring the almost virgin woods of the old Carver place I had the impression someone had just been there ahead of me….I was practically overwhelmed with the sense of some Great Presence….I knew even then it was the Great Spirit of the universe…Never since have I been without this consciousness of the Creator speaking to me through flowers, rocks, animals, plants and all other aspects of His creations.”
Despite his challenging beginnings, Mr. Carver would become one of the world’s best known scientists, educators, and humanitarians. After a rough time of being rejected from colleges, Mr. Carver attended Iowa State Agricultural College (today ISU) with the specific goal of being able to help the African American farmer. After earning a Bachelor and then a Masters of Agriculture, Carver accepted an invitation from Booker T Washington to head up the agriculture department at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. There he would begin his famous work with the peanut plant. Carver discovered ways to replenish the nutrient-depleted dirt that was left after years of harvesting cotton, and then came up with hundreds of uses for the peanuts and soybeans that were the crops that were soil-enriching. Carver could have made a fortune with his discoveries, but instead he just shared his finds with the mission ‘to help the man farthest down’. A man of great faith, Carver retained his humble spirit in spite of great accolades for his talents and works as a chemist, botanist, herbalist, artist, cook, and musician. He was even a masseur – he gave therapeutic massages, with peanut oil no less, to polio victims, and had a high response rate (it was later found that his massages, not the peanut oil, had a profound effect on the patient recovery). Carver would dedicate his life to helping others, and passed on at Tuskegee in 1943 (and is buried there).
While we have learned about George Washington Carver before, and have visited the Tuskegee Institute, we had no idea that he was such a fascinating man! His life was spent so intensely serving others, and he was vert talented in so many areas.
The National Park Service website for the GWCNM states, ‘George believed all of life’s problems could be solved through nature’, but I think it would be more accurate to say that George believed all of life’s problems had answers/cures provided by God through nature (creation). George saw God’s hand in everything, and knew that he was here to be an extension of God’s love; to literally be God’s hands and feet – just like we try to be as we volunteer on these disaster relief cleanups/rebuilds.
This national park is one of my favorites ever! We all enjoyed it, and so appreciated that it kept Carver’s christian beliefs an integral part of the presentation – after all, if faith was such a huge part of his life, shouldn’t it be a huge part of his story? The park retained a feel for his personality, motivation, and the faith that drove him to lead the extraordinary life that he did. We felt as if we got a feel for the man and his beliefs instead of just a list of cold facts and accomplishments.
The GWCNM visitor’s center has several different areas. On the main floor is a cute gift shop, a theater that plays a 45 minute film about GWC’s life (dated but good), and a museum area that includes factual displays about his life.
At the rear of the museum, and up half a flight of steps is a discovery area. Filled with hands on activities and interactive exhibits, this area covers many of Carver’s discoveries, his history, and what life was like back then.
There were a lot of opportunities for the kids to discover Carver’s surroundings and discoveries, even to see what a peanut plant really looks like (and one of my obviously-flunking-science students said, ‘is that really a peanut plant? I thought peanuts grew on trees!’)
There were fun exhibits to help the kids experience what life was like in the late 1800s… The one room schoolhouse shows what education might have been like for Carver once he found a school he was allowed to attend (though a school for African American children would not have been nearly so nice!); the room is used for ranger-led park programs. In the later years of his life, Carver became quite a popular and well-known speaker. The discovery section of the visitor’s center offered this fun station where the kids could do radio interviews with each other much like Carver would have been interviewed back then. ‘From the discovery area, there is a balcony/observation deck that looks out over fields that Carver used to explore nearly 150 years ago.
It also overlooks the end of the one mile walking trail that leads to the Carver house that was built in 1881 (George visited the Carvers in this home – it was built to replace Carver home that George grew up in, which was destroyed by a tornado). The beautiful path goes past George’s birthplace, over 2 creeks, to the Carver house (there is an optional loop around a lake here), back over the creeks, past the Carver cemetery and back to the visitor’s center.
Of course, we did the Jr. Ranger program here! This park has two different booklets, depending on the age of the student. At this park, you can go online to the NPS website and print off the booklets ahead of time if you would like to complete part of them before you get to the park; we like to do this sometimes as it makes our visit more leisurely if the kids do the activities that are not location specific (like mazes and word finds) before we arrive; working on the booklets as we drive to the park also gets the kids interested in the location and often gives them some background information on what we will be learning about. The Jr. Ranger booklets are also great for some fun activities even when you are not going to visit the park, and make great additions to your home/summer/roadschooling! You can find the links to download these booklets here.
The area around Joplin and the George Washington Carver National Monument is beautiful! The park has RV parking, and there is a picnic area on the grounds. You can read up on the GWCNM on the National Park Service website at nps.gov/gwca.
We had a great time at the George Washington Carver National Monument learning about this great man of faith. We were inspired to also strive to serve others in whatever capacity that we find ourselves.