Driving down the highways and byways of Dougherty County, Georgia, you’re bound to pass row upon neat, uniform row of pecan trees – the state’s most successful tree-grown nut.  Americans love and know the pecan well, and they use it in everything from Thanksgiving pies and stuffing to tasty road trip snacks. After all it was here in central Georgia, in the town of Eastman to be exact, that a pecan buyer turned salesman would build a little lean-to shack and start selling pecans by the sackful to tourists traveling to and from Florida on their family road trips.  One fateful day, however, he coerced his wife, Ethel, into making a few sweets out of those same pecans and she would go on to create a pecan log roll that would launch an empire. Of course, that man was W.S. Stuckey and the empire he and his wife created is the now iconic roadside stop we all know and love as Stuckey’s.

However, all of those Stuckey’s pecan log rolls we devoured as a kid (and, admittedly, still devour as an adult) may not have been possible without the work of one man – a 19th century gardener slave from Louisiana named Antoine.

Back in the 1800s pecans weren’t really something new to the American diet. After all, Native Americans up and down the Mississippi River from Illinois to the shores Gulf of Mexico were eating them for hundreds of years before Europeans first step foot on the continent. When the Europeans did come, fur traders carried pecans to help sustain them on their journeys from the wild frontier to the East Coast. In the 18th century, founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson planted pecans at Mount Vernon and Monticello, respectively and it’s even said that George Washington always kept a plentiful amount of pecans as a snack in his coat pocket. 

The pecan tree that used to sit outside of Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. The tree was removed in 2014 out of fear that, as it aged, it would one day fall onto the mansion and cause irreparable damage.

However, even for a guy like George Washington, getting a pocketful of pecans was difficult, though you can’t blame it on a lack of trying. Early pioneers tried to domesticate them by planting the nuts they took from there favorite trees and found that pecans take a very long time to go from seed to nut. Another hindrance was that no two pecan trees were the same, so you never knew if you were going to get a tree that produced a proficient amount of pecans or a tree which grew no pecans at all.  As you can imagine, this led to a lot of farmers being disappointed. 

A French explorer and botanist by the name of Andre Michaux thought he had the solution when he experimented with the idea of grafting twigs onto black walnut trees. It was an idea that could be traced all the way back to the Ancient Romans who were successful in grafting fruit trees that would provide quality, quantity and consistency.  However, Michaux’s experiment with grafting a pecan twig onto a black walnut tree proved to be a failure.

Even though by the 1800s grafting was being used to produce apples and peaches, nobody ever tried it on trees that produce nuts. Enter Dr. Abner Landrum, who, in 1822, actually did successfully graft small patches of pecan buds to young hickory trees in Edgefield, South Carolina. However, since there was no market in South Carolina for pecans, Dr. Landrum’s experiments went largely ignored.

Over in Louisiana, however, there was a market for pecans and seeing this opportunity was plantation owner Dr. A.E. Columb who attempted to graft twigs from his luxuriant pecan tree that produced large, thin-shelled nuts in copious amounts onto other pecan trees. Again, like those who tried in the past, Dr. Columb’s efforts were unsuccessful. Growing frustrated, he heard that there was a talented gardener right across the way from him at the Oak Alley Plantation and went to pay Jacques Telesphore Roman, the owner of the plantation, a visit. Roman guided the doctor to his talented gardener, an enslaved man named Antoine.  After meeting with Antoine and discussing the doctor’s ordeal, Dr. Calumb gave Mr. Roman a twig off of his best pecan tree, and, in turn, Mr. Roman gave the graftwood to Antoine.

Oak Alley Plantation where Antoine perfected the art of growing pecans.

Unfortunately, because not very many plantation owners kept detailed accounts of their slaves, not much is known about Antoine other than he was a slave and a gardener and a very adept gardener at that. We know this because Antoine was the first person in history who learned how to propagate pecan trees. That is, Antoine knew how to make near exact copies of successfully producing pecan trees, thereby turning the pecan into a cash crop – again, as we’ve stated not an easy task at the time. Then the American Civil War came along and nearly changed everything.

Nothing more is mentioned about Antoine after the Civil War started, but at its end, the Oak Alley plantation went through many owners,  one right after the other. And since sugar brought in more money than pecans did, many of Antoine’s pecan trees were chopped down to make room for the sweet cash crop.

Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition

Fortunately, not all of Antoine’s pecan trees were chopped down, however, and the newest plantation owner, Hubert Bonzano, felt that these pecans were good enough to be exhibited at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition in 1876 alongside some of the other displays that included no less than Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, the Remington typewriter, Heinz ketchup, and the right arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty. In fact, the Chair of Agriculture at Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School, Professor William H. Brewer, lauded Mr., Bonzano’s pecan for its “remarkably large size, tenderness of shell, and very special excellence.” and awarded him a certificate for it. As a result, Antoine’s pecan trees became the world’s first certified pecan variety leading to Bonzano naming this particular variety “Centennial”.

One of the actual trees on Oak alley Plantation that was grafted and grown by Antoine.

Throughout the rest of the 19th century and into the early 20th century other farmers copied Antoine’s technique and by 1936, pecans were becoming more profitable than King Cotton in Georgia with over 20 million pounds being harvested annually. 

Today, the pecan is praised the world over with global demand and is touted for its being healthy treat that’s good for your heart and for keeping your bad cholesterol in check.

Unfortunately, the only information that was ever revealed about Antoine was written by Jacques Telesphore Roman who noted that he was “a Creole Negro gardener and expert grafter of pecan trees.”  However, Antoine, like so many enslaved people of his time, was much, much more than these few words written on a faded piece of paper over 150 years ago. Because of his skills, there are now over 1,000 different kinds of pecans that are grown all over the world.

So the next time you’re sitting down to a pecan pie for Thanksgiving dessert or out on that ultimate family road trip munching on a Stuckey’s pecan log roll. remember Antoine and his contribution to American tradition.

Stuckey’s – We’re Making Road Trips Fun Again!