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The Former Kentucky Slave Who Became The ‘Potato King Of The World’

 

Junius G. Groves attributed much of his success to his dedication to agriculture. Born enslaved, he became one of the wealthiest African-Americans of the early 20th Century. Groves made a name for himself as a potato grower and became known as the “Potato King of the World” because he reportedly grew more bushels of potatoes per acre than anyone else in the world.

Thanks to the help he received from his wife and 12 children on the farm and in his other businesses, he continued to prosper while helping to uplift his fellow Blacks as he never forgot his humble beginnings. Born on April 12, 1859, in Green County, Kentucky, Groves was emancipated by the Civil War. At the age of 19, Groves walked from Kentucky to Kansas City, Kansas, alongside other former slaves. This 500-mile walk became known as the Exodus, the first migration of Blacks from the South after the war.

Having only 90 cents, Groves was determined to make it in Kansas, which was attracting a lot of former slaves at the time. Groves started a new life in Kansas first by working at the meatpacking houses in Armourdale before later moving to Edwardsville. There, he purchased 80 acres of land and began to raise white potatoes. Groves did this with the help of his wife whom he married in Kansas City, Missouri.

He did well in his potato business, especially with his wife and 12 children by his side to help. Historians say that Groves sent his sons to Kansas State Agricultural College so that they could help him apply scientific methods to agriculture. By 1902, he was being called the “Potato King of the World”. Groves grew so many potatoes that the Union Pacific Railroad built a rail spur to his farm to enable him to ship them to Canada and Mexico. By 1913, he owned over 500 acres in the Kaw Valley, producing 55,000 bushels of potatoes a year, according to political science professor Peter Joseph Longo.

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Indeed, apart from producing potatoes, Groves bought and shipped potatoes, fruits and vegetables throughout the United States, Mexico, and Canada. He also owned a store in Edwardsville and had several other business interests. Groves “possessed stock in mines in Indian Territory and Mexico, stock in Kansas banks, and majority interest in the Kansas City Casket and Embalming Company,” as stated by BlackPast.

The former slave was also a founding member of the Kansas State Negro Business League, the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church Society, the Kaw Valley Potato Association, and the Sunflower State Agricultural Association. His holdings were estimated to be worth $80,000 in 1904 and $300,000 by 1915.

As he built his fortune, Groves and his wife were able to replace their one-room shanty with a 22-room mansion that had electric lights, two telephones, and hot and cold running water in all of the bedrooms. As already stated, Groves was dedicated to helping his community so, in the early 1900s, he founded the community of Groves Center near Edwardsville and sold small tracts of land to African-American families. He also built a golf course for African Americans, which was believed to be the first in the county.

Groves continued working on his farms until his death in Edwardsville in 1925. Since then, he has always been remembered for leaving behind a great legacy and positively impacting the lives of others. He was recently inducted as the historical honoree to the Kansas Business Hall of Fame for his rise from slavery to wealthy businessman and landowner.

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Written by PH

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