Brundidge celebrates peanut butter past and present

Published 11:00 pm Thursday, November 1, 2012

The 21st Annual Peanut Butter Festival just might have been the biggest and best ever.

Lawrence Bowden, president of the sponsoring Brundidge Historical Society, said, if there’s been a better Festival, he certainly doesn’t remember it.

“Based on a preacher’s count and a politician’s estimate, we had more than 7,000 people in attendance,” Bowden said, laughing. “A lot of people worked to make this year’s Festival a great success, from the planning to putting it into motion on Friday night and Saturday morning.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

“Those who came seemed to really enjoy everything — the arts and crafts, the entertainment, the games and contests, the great variety of food and the demonstrations. The 5K Peanut Butter Run attracted the largest number of runners we’ve had in many years and the Nutter Butter Parade lived up to its expectations as the nuttiest parade around. People were laughing and having a good time.

“All in all, it was a great day, a great weekend, to celebrate Brundidge’s heritage in the peanut butter industry and pay tribute to the peanut and our farmers.”

On Sunday afternoon, the Pike County Historical Society met in Brundidge to learn more about the town’s proud peanut butter heritage.

The guest speaker for the combined meeting with the Brundidge Historical Society was John Phillip Johnston, Brundidge historian.

Johnston said Brundidge has always been a close-knit community especially during the heydays of the peanut butter mills and the “number please” telephone operators.

“‘Miss’ Myrtle Braswell worked at the telephone office for 29 years and she knew everything that went on in town because she listened in on every conversation,” Johnston said, laughing.

While “Miss” Myrtle was spreading the news around town, the J.D. Johnston Mill was helping spread the news about peanut butter around the country.

“Around 1903, George Washington Carver had discovered about 300 products that could be made from the peanut,” Johnston said. “A year later, peanut butter made its international debut at the 1904 St. Louis Universal Exposition where C.H. Summer sold $705.11 worth of the stuff.”

Johnston said the problem with the early peanut butter was that the oil separated from the butter, making it a rather unsightly sight.

“In 1922, chemist Joseph Rosenfield, added hydrogenated vegetable oil to the butter to prevent separation.

A few years later in 1929, J.D. Johnston began making peanut butter commercially in Brundidge. However, Johnston said some credit for the peanut industry in Brundidge should go to the Hightower Oil Company that began crushing oil from peanuts in 1915.

“The Hightowers could have become millionaires many times over except the bottom fell out the peanut market in 1921 and they had so much money tied up in the company that they couldn’t make it.”

Johnston said the Johnston Peanut Butter Mill was a pioneer in the peanut butter industry in the Southeast, as was the Louis-Anne Peanut Butter Mill that opened on the south side of Brundidge around 1930.

“The Louis-Anne Peanut Butter Mill was owned by brothers, Grady and Oscar Johnson,” Johnston said. “Both mills flourished until around 1951. But the small mills couldn’t compete with the big companies that were then producing peanut butter so they soon went out of business.”

Johnston said the Johnston and Johnson peanut butter mills provided jobs, income and an inexpensive and nutritious source of protein for the Brundidge townspeople for more than two decades. Now, the town continues to pay tribute to its proud history in peanut butter industry with the annual festival and the work-in-progress Johnston Mill Museum of Local History on Church Street.