Alphabet Collins instrumental in advancing Bartow’s agricultural industry

'Seeds of Knowledge'

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Described as an “Extension agent extraordinaire, seed innovator and champion of collaboration,” M.W.H. “Alphabet” Collins is in the limelight, 47 years after his passing and more than half a century since he advanced Bartow’s agricultural industry.

Along with being nominated for the University of Georgia’s Georgia Agricultural Hall of Fame — an honor that was bestowed this year to former President Jimmy Carter — the esteemed Extension agent also is featured in the Bartow History Museum’s temporary exhibit, “The Call of the Land: Cultivating Bartow’s Agricultural Legacy.”
“One of the ways in which Bartow County contributed to improvements and advancements in agriculture was through the work done at the Georgia Institute of Genetics located on Highway 20 in Cartersville,” BHM Director Trey Gaines said. “The institute was begun by M.W.H. ‘Alphabet’ Collins and others in 1943 to continue and build on the work he and other regional farmers were [doing] to improve breeding and yields with cotton seeds and other crops.

“The advancement in cotton production seen in Bartow County over the next 10 years proved to be remarkable due in large part to the work done at the institute. Between 1933 and [1971], Collins, in his role as county extension agent and director of the genetics institute, contributed much to the understanding and advancement of agriculture through scientific experimentation and education that had far-reaching implications beyond Bartow County.”

Through photographs and video, Bartow History Museum’s patrons are gaining insight into Collins’ and the Georgia Institute of Genetics’ significant contributions.

“Visitors to the exhibit will see some items and photos from the Georgia Institute of Genetics, a report written a number of years ago on the history of the institute, as well as the results of the important work done there,” Gaines said. “Visitors will also hear portions of an oral history interview with John Murphy who describes Collins and the role he and the institute played in agriculture.

“Some of the buildings of the genetics lab are still visible on the property of Georgia Highlands. And with all the construction activity occurring around the site, we hope our visitors will gain an understanding of how important the institute and its experimentation were to farmers at both the local and national level.”

Along with BHM’s staff, Collins’ accomplishments also caught the eye of Etowah Valley Historical Society’s volunteers who nominated him for the Georgia Agricultural Hall of Fame. The EVHS’ submission also included letters from The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation President and CEO Mark C. McDonald and Bartow County Extension Coordinator Paul Pugliese, and a joint recommendation from two Euharlee Farmer’s Club members: Bartow County Commissioner Steve Taylor and Bob Neel with Aubrey Corp.

“Alphabet Collins was an entrepreneur in cottonseed breeding in the early 1900s,” Pugliese said. “He had an impact on Bartow County, the state of Georgia, the southern region of the United States as well as countries outside the U.S. with a cotton production economy. In many ways, Mr. Collins is an unsung hero of the Green Revolution. Mr. Collins’ tireless work to improve cotton genetics in the South during the 1920s -1950s predates the work of Norman Borlaug, the ‘father’ of the Green Revolution.

“Over time, the dissemination and multiplication of improved cottonseed by the GIG allowed Georgia farmers to diversify their agricultural operations, providing food and raiment for a growing world population while dedicating less land to cotton. By growing more cotton on fewer acres of land, topsoil erosion has been significantly reduced, forests cover more acreage today, and wetlands have been greatly restored — making Georgia a greener state. Because of Mr. Collins foresight, his legacy lives on today — all remaining assets of the former GIG were transferred to the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia, to be used explicitly for the advancement of agricultural education and experimentation.”

Born in 1895,  Collins received the nickname “Alphabet” in the early days of his career due to him abbreviating his first and middle names — Morris William Hallowvell. After serving as a Bartow County Extension agent from 1933 to 1946, his role changed to special county agent, which enabled him to focus all his attention on the Georgia Institute of Genetics from 1946 through 1967.

“In 1942, Bartow County had less acreage in cotton than many other counties of the state, yet ranked fourth in Georgia for total bales of cotton produced,” Pugliese said. “These high yields were achieved on individual farms earlier in Collins’ career, but now his influence on farmers to adopt a single variety was spreading to an entire community and ultimately the entire region. A letter of correspondence from M.L. Wilson, USDA director of Extension Work former USDA undersecretary dated Oct. 22, 1946, stated, ‘… I thought Collins was one of the best county agents that I have ever seen in the United States” in reference to his novel approach with the Georgia Institute of Genetics. 

“Over the course of Collins’ career, the average yield of cotton went from 181 pounds of lint cotton per acre in 1932 to 338 pounds per acre in 1942 and then 533 pounds per acre in 1955. By 1955, Bartow County became the first county in the history of Georgia to average a bale of cotton per acre under the leadership of Alphabet Collins. Bartow continued to lead the state in cotton production with an average yield of 507 pounds per acre from 1955-1960.”  

Originally consisting of 400 acres, the GIG farm was situated off Highway 20, where Georgia Highlands College is presently located.

“The original cotton gin and other outbuildings still stand adjacent to the main entrance of GHC today,” Pugliese said. “The GIG was founded in 1943 and remained viable until 1967 when the GIG board decided to conclude its work. The mission of the institute was to provide one place where seed stocks of various kinds could be bred, multiplied and distributed under absolute control. GIG provided the required facilities to do the necessary processing, storing and handling of these seed stocks and affordable high-quality seed.

“The advancements in cotton yield during Mr. Collins’ career were previously unattainable to many farmers due to limited seed stocks and high costs. The impetus for Mr. Collins to establish the … GIG was to provide all farmers access to improved seed stocks at a reasonable price. This enterprise met a great agricultural need that had never been adequately achieved either by commercial firms or by state experiment stations.”

In Neel and Taylor’s letter of recommendation, they noted their families — who have more than 200 years of farming experience in Bartow combined — “were some of Alphabet’s biggest supporters both financially and professionally.”

“Collins — Extension agent extraordinaire, seed innovator and champion of collaboration — was ultimately a farmer of ideas,” Neel and Taylor wrote. “Alphabet’s true legacy: He planted the seeds of knowledge that changed the seed industry forever. Others talked; Alphabet acted. Success breeds success and others followed.

“GIG’s success was the inspiration for the [Georgia] Crop Improvement Association Seed Certification and perhaps many of today’s mega seed companies. We all build upon the foundations left by those who have gone before, and Alphabet provided an incredible foundation for improved seed. We are proud to have had Alphabet as a friend, collaborator and role model.”

Opened April 26, “The Call of the Land: Cultivating Bartow’s Agricultural Legacy” will be on display through Sept. 29 at the BHM, 4 E. Church St. in Cartersville.

“Agriculture has played a major role in the development of Bartow County stretching back hundreds and hundreds of years,” Gaines said. “We wanted to create an exhibit that highlighted some of the ways agriculture and farming have touched the lives of so many in this area from our Native American past through today. The exhibit includes tools, equipment and other items used by farmers to work the land, raise livestock and harvest their crops that were then used in a variety of industries, including food and clothing. There are also a number of photographs illustrating farming activities throughout the county. Visitors to the exhibit also have the opportunity to learn about some of the ways local agriculture played a role on the national and international scene through fairs, clubs, and agricultural studies and experiments.

“… Visitors to the exhibit have been surprised to see and learn about the depth and longevity of Bartow County’s agricultural roots. Others have enjoyed reminiscing about their own connections to farming and seeing people they know in some of the photographs. Between now and when the exhibit closes on Sept. 29, the Bartow History Museum will host several programs, lectures and events highlighting local farming, giving visitors opportunities to get a closer look at the ways agriculture continues to play a major role in our lives.”

For more information about “The Call of the Land: Cultivating Bartow’s Agricultural Legacy,” visit www.BartowHistoryMuseum.org or call 770-387-2774.