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Sunday Favorites: The Webb Plow

Black History Month is an annual observance celebrating the role African-Americans played in history. It's also a month when teachers love to spring unexpected research assignments on parents. Here's how I incorporated local history into my 4-year-old's project.
It was the eleventh hour and I realized my child had not completed his homework for the week. When I opened the folder I saw it: the dreaded Parent Involvement Project. These types of projects always seem to show up in backpacks at the most inopportune times.

This particular project was appealing, the teacher wanted us to research a black inventor and create a model of their invention as part of a class project for Black History Month.

Now there are a lot of amazing African-American inventors. George Washington Carver invented peanut butter, Lonnie Johnson gave us the Super Soaker water gun and Garrett Augustus Morgan came up with the modern-day traffic light.

But being a local history buff, I thought I might feature someone from Manatee County instead. I remembered Henry C. Webb, who was instrumental in the development of South Florida after he came invented a plow that could cut through saw palmetto roots. Removal of the saw palmetto had baffled early settlers for decades as they were almost impossible dig out. In fact, up until the 1900s, the process of removal was so labor intensive and expensive, most people avoided roads and just traveled by boat.

Between 1915 and 1917, a black inventor from Palmetto designed a plow that would solve the problem. The plow was financed by F.C. Whitaker and built in the blacksmith and wheelwright shop of A. A. Pickard, according a speech entitled ”The Webb Plow and the Velvet Highway,“ by A.K. Whitaker. On May 15, 1917 the Webb Plow was patented.

In order to build a model of the plow, I got online and went to the U.S. Patent Office website. Patents from 1790-1975 are only searchable by date, patent number or classification. I plugged in the date from a historical article and the patent for the Webb Plow popped right up.

I printed out the schematics of the plow and showed them to my son. Together we built a prototype out of Legos. They were the large Legos, not the small ones, so our model was far from scale but my son is four years old so I figured the teachers would give him some leeway.

The real life model was first tested in Osprey, Fla. by Whitaker’s son Klein and his friend Donald Beck. Back then, the terrain in that area was pristine and included some of the thickest undergrowth of saw palmetto. The plant is almost impenetrable, with thick, circular roots that extend upward and produce fan-shaped fronds. The boys were only 17 when their dad dropped them off in wilderness with the Webb Plow, a tractor and some survival equipment including a couple of tents, cots, blankets and cooking utensils. They were each paid $3 per day, according to A.K Whitaker.

There in the middle of the wilderness Klein and Donald began working on what would become the first paved road from Sarasota to Fort Myers. It would later be nicknamed ”The Velvet Highway,“ because it was the smoothest road locals had ever traveled on. Today we know this stretch of road as US41.

My son was a little too young to appreciate all this history. He would have been happier if I had just created a diorama featuring his favorite invention of all time – peanut butter. But when we entered the classroom the next day, we saw peanut butter, traffic lights a super soaker, but no one else had a Webb Plow.

It’s exciting to think of all the history projects we can collaborate on when he begins elementary school next year.


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