Oct 21, 2023
Remembering the Former Slave Who Moved to Kansas and Became the Potato King of the World
Everyone loves a rags to riches story. We've got one today that involves a former slave who moved to Kansas and became a multi-millionaire by doing one thing better than anyone else. Commentator Katie
Everyone loves a rags to riches story. We've got one today that involves a former slave who moved to Kansas and became a multi-millionaire by doing one thing better than anyone else. Commentator Katie Keckeisen has the story of an overlooked Kansan you've probably never heard of: Junius Groves, the "Potato King of the World."
Kansan Junius Groves, Potato King of the WorldBy Katie Keckeisen
While the name Topeka is said to derive from a Native American phrase meaning “a good place to dig potatoes”, Junius Groves never got that memo. The formerly enslaved man settled in Edwardsville, Kansas, where he amassed a potato empire that was worth almost $3.5 million dollars in today’s money.
Junius George Groves was born into slavery on April 12, 1859, in Green County, Kentucky. In 1879, Groves came to Kansas along with many other Exodusters looking to find a better life away from the South. When he began his first job in Edwardsville as a farm laborer, he had ninety cents to his name.
In 1880, Groves married Matilda E. Stewart, and the couple rented 9 acres and planted potatoes. That first year, they cleared a profit of $125 from their white and sweet potatoes (That's about $3,600 dollars today.). Junius Groves found that he was particularly good at growing potatoes. Every year, he cleared more than the last and, only four years after their first crop, the Groves family was able to buy their first farm.
Over the next several decades, Junius Groves came to be known as the “Potato King of the World.” With his scientific acumen, Groves was able to produce 396 bushels of potatoes per acre while his neighbors were only able to manage 25 bushels. That's 371 more bushels per acre!
In one year, the Potato King’s farm harvested 72,154 bushels of white potatoes alone. Groves’ crops were shipped all over the United States. Demand was so high that the Union Pacific railroad built a special spur through the Groves’ property so that the potatoes could be loaded onto the train cars directly.
The Groves farm diversified over the years, adding seed potatoes, onions, and apples to its crops. Junius invented a power potato sorter that could screen and sort a railroad car’s-worth of potatoes an hour. He built his family a 22-room mansion that sat on top of the hill overlooking his farm, complete with a ballroom on the top floor. The “finest farmhouse in the state” was valued at $22,000 (or $650,000 today).
Junius Groves used his position as one of the wealthiest African Americans in the country to combat racism. He started his own community – Groves Center – and sold small tracts of land to African American families. He also built a golf course for African Americans, thought to be the first in the country. Among his many accolades, Junius Groves served as the secretary of the Potato Growers Association in 1900 and was a founding member of the Kansas State Negro Business League, the Sunflower State Agricultural Association, and the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church Society.
While Junius Groves’ skin color kept him from achieving a place in the agricultural history books, the “spudotic career” - as one article put it - of the Potato King is certainly one for the ages.
Commentator Katie Keckeisen is a local history librarian for the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library. Keckeisen, a former collections archivist at the Kansas Historical Society, also knows a lot about Kansas history and that's why we like to hear from her on Kansas Public Radio.
Listen to Katie's KAB award-winning remembrance of Black Sunday, one of the darkest days of the "Dirty Thirties."