My friend Johanna is a firecracker: fun, friendly, and full of energy. Her life has been an adventure; she came to Joplin from Germany almost two decades ago and has traveled to over 20 states, which is more than many Americans can claim. I think she also knows more about our country’s history than many Americans, too.
Time spent with Johanna activates my wanderlust and elevates my IQ.
Ever since Johanna moved from Joplin to Oklahoma a few years ago, I don’t get to see her as often as I’d like. When she does visit, we try to maximize our time together by doing things that speak to our combined love of travel and history.
And the outdoors.
After all, this woman grew up with the Alps as her playground.
Johanna visited Joplin recently, on an autumn weekend when the sun’s rays beamed down as strong as on a summer’s day, and the air felt balmy. We wanted to take advantage of the unseasonably warm day, so we ditched our lunch plans and instead met at a place where we could spend time outdoors basking in the sun, then venture inside to soak up history and learn something new.
That and wrinkle cream would keep us young, we figured.
We decided on a place just south of Joplin that offers heavy doses of nature therapy, as well as educational, historical, and even spiritual lessons: George Washington Carver National Monument in Diamond.
This 240-acre park was established in 1943 and is part of the National Park Service. It’s also the first national park to be named after a non-president, as well as the first one to be dedicated to an African American.
It’s also one of my favorite places to visit in southwest Missouri.
I met Johanna at the welcome center, which houses a variety of exhibits. Although I’d been to this park numerous times before, I’d always come with my kids, finding it challenging to immerse myself in the exhibits while trying to keep track of them.
So coming that day with Johanna was like seeing parts of the center for the first time; specifically, the first-floor exhibit which details the biography of George Washington Carver. This time, I actually got the chance to read and learn about Carver without little hands tugging on my shirt sleeve.
George Washington Carver was a slave owned by Moses and Susan Carver. The Carvers raised George on their farm in Diamond Grove after his mother was kidnapped by Confederate night-raiders when George was a baby. George was a sickly boy, so he was excused from chores and allowed to wander the woods and prairie instead, during which time he learned about native plants and developed a talent for taking care of them, earning the name of the “Plant Doctor.”
“Hmm,” said Johanna. “I’d always thought he was ‘The Peanut Man.’”
While Carver is known as “The Peanut Man” because he discovered multiple ways to use peanuts, he also invented uses for a variety of other crops. He spent his life exploring and educating, and blazed the trail for other African Americans to follow.
On the second floor of the center, there’s an interactive science and nature exhibit which features examples of the animals that Carver encountered on his daily walks around the homestead, as well as native plants and the multiple uses that Carver found for them, which is extensive.
Next to this area is a lab where demonstrations, like how to make peanut milk, are held on the weekend.
Also upstairs is one of my favorite places at the center: the schoolroom.
“Check these out,” I said to Johanna, placing a 100-year-old schoolbook and an iPad-sized slate board in front of where she was seated at the wooden table. “Can you imagine what our kids would think if these were their school supplies?”
“I’m not sure they would understand what to do with the chalk,” she said with a chuckle.
Besides the novelty of looking at the teaching tools from Carver’s era, what I love most about this schoolroom is the information on its walls which offers examples of Carver acting as a humanitarian and teacher.
For instance, Carver the scientist never patented his inventions; he wanted everyone to have access so that they could use them.
As a teacher, Carver shared eight cardinal virtues with his students:
1st: Be clean both inside and outside.
2nd: Who neither looks up to the rich or down to the poor.
3rd: Who loses, if needs be, without squealing.
4th: Who wins without bragging.
5th: Who is always considerate of women, children and old people.
6th: Who is too brave to lie.
7th: Who is too generous to cheat.
8th: Who takes his share of the world and lets others have theirs.
“Carver would have made a great president,” I said to Johanna.
At this point, we wanted to get outside and explore the area that inspired the great and humble Carver, so we hit the trail.
Before entering the forest, the ¾-mile nature trail passes a replica of the base of the cabin in which Carver was born.
“It says here that the cabin measured 12 feet by 12 feet,” said Johanna, reading the historical marker. “Can you imagine that?”
We continued our walk, watching leaves detach from the branches above, dance through the air, then come to rest on the forest floor. At one point, we paused on a bridge that spanned a sparkling spring and admired the reflection of the autumn sky mixed with the fallen leaves.
In the silence, I thought about Carver’s quote: I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting station, through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in.
At that moment, I had adjusted the dial and was all ears.
That connection remained with me as I continued on the trail, observing the nature around me: the occasional twitter of songbirds, and squirrels searching earnestly for a winter hiding spot for their acorns.
I savored that connected feeling as we passed the Carver homestead, emerging from the forest and onto the open prairie, which provided a contrasting landscape and beauty of its own.
At the end of the trail, we stopped at the bronze bust of Carver and I thought about how this former slave rose from his circumstances and forged a successful path in his life all on his own.
More than just a girls’ afternoon excursion, this trip to George Washington Carver National Monument had proven to be a day of education and inspiration.
Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom. – George Washington Carver
George Washington Carver National Monument is located at 5646 Carver Road in Diamond, Missouri. Click here to visit its website.
To read more about my adventures in the area, visit JoplinMOLife.com.