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Larry Peterson - Straight Shots

PETERSON: East Union grad produces IPTV documentary on George Washington Carver

Set your DVR or tune in at 1 p.m. Sunday to Iowa Public Television for a one-hour look at George Washington Carver’s rise from slavery to noteworthy scientific and agricultural accomplishments.

It’s also available anytime online at under the “Watch” link, local programs, and history section.

The latest documentary project by Thayer area native and 1991 East Union graduate Laurel Bower is a glimpse into the many layers of this humble genius, whose path to national acclaim included stops in Winterset, Simpson College in Indianola and a master’s degree in agriculture from Iowa State University.

Bower graduated from Drake University in broadcast journalism. She became interested in the longer format of story-telling at Iowa Public Television, where she worked as an intern, rather than the shorter clips produced in local newscasts.

In telling the Carver story, she made many discoveries about this complicated man born just after the Civil War in Missouri. He was drawn to nature, almost in a spiritual sense, and had an unyielding thirst to learn more about the environment around him.

I confess I only knew the surface of the George Washington Carver story until I watched the IPTV debut of the documentary on Monday night. It was fascinating.

The program reveals the full impact of his life and work. He was a scientist, teacher, humanitarian, environmentalist and even a talented artist. In fact, he was an art student at Simpson College. While there, people became familiar with his keen interest in plants and farming, and encouraged him to enroll at Iowa State University’s agriculture program.

Carver had fled the prejudice of the South when he heard there were places in Iowa that were more welcoming to African-Americans. He landed in Winterset, and met the Millholland family at church. They took him in as he worked for awhile in a local hotel before enrolling at Simpson College.

“He’s really an inspiration,” said Bower, now residing in Creston with daughter Halle, a student at St. Malachy School. “His determination to achieve an education as a black man right after the Civil War and his life’s work helping those who needed it the most, these are the reasons we are still talking about him 75 years after his death.”

As producer and director of the program, Bower worked for about 18 months on the project, while juggling other programming duties at IPTV. Assembled for the final 56-minute version is footage and interviews from Iowa State University, Simpson College and Tuskegee University.

Funding support for the program was provided by DuPont Pioneer, the Wallace Foundation, the Alliant Energy Foundation and the Des Moines Playhouse.

Carver left Iowa State when he was recruited by Booker T. Washington to establish an agriculture department at his Tuskegee Institute for African-American students in Alabama. Sharecroppers who basically relied on growing cotton in a poverty environment were shown, through an extension service approach, to apply farming techniques that could improve their lot in life.

Crop rotation to enrich the depleted soil was something Carver introduced to the area. This involved diversification of crops through the planting of peanuts, tobacco and various fruits and vegetables. He also discovered the use of organic fertilizers to boost the crops.

Along the way, Carver was hailed as a great classroom teacher, inspiring students by forcing them to discover their own answers, much in the style he used as a student constantly on a mission of discovery. That harked back to his childhood studying nature in the woods near Diamond, Missouri, after he had been taken in by Moses and Susan Carver. But, he had to travel to find the quality of education he desired as he grew older.

Des Moines native Gregory Allen Williams does a terrific job as narrator of the piece.

Last week, Bower presented a 30-minute preview of the program on the ISU campus, along with associate producer and ISU alum Paxton Williams, who has portrayed Carver more than 400 times.

“We had 230 people show up for that event. It was very well-received,” Bower said. “Through all of his portrayals of George Washington Carver, particularly in the Tuskegee area, Paxton was able to introduce me to people who remembered him.”

Carver died in 1943 at the approximate age of 78. During the slavery period, many birth records were not exact.

Next on Bower’s agenda is assembling a lot of the programming that airs around the time of the Iowa State Fair. She’s also working on a new online product called “Time Travel Iowa,” which involves going into museums and finding various treasures that can tell a story of Iowa’s past, such as old voting machines from the early 1900s.

And, of course, there’s always preliminary research going into what might become the next high-quality documentary program on IPTV. If there is a good story to tell with an Iowa angle to it, chances are Bower has looked into it!

Contact the writer:

Twitter: @larrypeterson


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