The next time you enjoy the freshness of a bag of roasted nuts, it’s thanks to Tom Huston and George Washington Carver, two inventors who formed an unlikely bond in the segregated South. Tired of shelling peanuts on his family’s Texas farm, Huston built a mechanical sheller in the 1910s and moved to Columbus, GA, where the local iron works agreed to manufacture his invention. Huston literally began working for peanuts when farmers couldn’t afford to pay him in cash. He put his excess inventory to good use by inventing a roasting process and airtight glass packaging that would keep his peanuts fresh for months. Tom’s Peanut Company was born. 

All of this caught the attention of an inventor at nearby Tuskegee Institute, George Washington Carver, who had been promoting the peanut as a way to transition black sharecroppers away from boll-weevil-plagued cotton farming. The two men not only became business associates, working on packaging and other food innovations, but close friends.

George Washington Carver (L) and Tom Huston (R)

Sadly for Huston, a frozen-peaches side hustle business led him to financial ruin, and Tom’s was taken over by an investment group in 1933. What followed was an unbelievable succession of corporate takeovers of Tom’s, including General Mills, Towntree-Mackintosh (makers of Kit Kat candies), Frito-Lay, Lance, Snyder’s Pretzels, and now Campbell’s Soup Company. Campbell’s recently announced that Tom’s Columbus, GA plant would close next spring and 326 employees would lose their jobs, ending a 100-year reign in the Company’s hometown.

Tom’s snacks were loved by everybody and will be sorely missed.

At its peak, Tom’s was sold in 300,000 stores in 47 states. The company sponsored baseball and bowling leagues, a magazine (“The Toaster”), and held employee retreats at Huston’s lake house. They weren’t just selling peanuts, they were also building a brand that had a rich history entwined with the American spirit of invention and entrepreneurship. Although the only remnant of its founder is found in a name on top of a snack bag, I’m still going to eat some salt peanuts in honor of Tom Huston and George Washington Carver — and mourn the end of a manufacturing icon in my home state.​