The “Potato King of the World” hailed from the Sunflower State.
Historical records credited the king, Junius Groves, with growing more bushels of potatoes per acre than anyone else in the world. He amassed a fortune by growing his spuds in Kansas in the late 19th century.
“He became the first African-American millionaire west of the Mississippi,” his great-granddaughter, Joyce Groves Holland, said this week in Kansas City.
Groves was born into slavery on April 12, 1859. He grew up in Louisville, Ky., but decided at age 19 he wanted a change.
“He decided he wanted more out of life than just working in a meat factory or working for other people,” Groves Holland said. “He was always a dreamer. He always dreamed about having a big house.”
One of the Exodusters, a term for African-Americans who migrated to Kansas from states along the Mississippi River in the late 1870s, Groves was freed by the Emancipation Proclamation and made the journey to Edwardsville. He set out on foot, Groves Holland said, walking more than 500 miles to his new home.
In Kansas, he farmed and quickly accumulated land and profits. Meanwhile, he married Matilda Stewart, and the couple had children.
Junius died in 1925 in Edwardsville.
The town is still steeped in memories of Groves’ life. Many of his descendants, including Groves Holland, grew up in Kansas City and would visit the town on weekends to see family.
Most grew up and moved away, but about a dozen family members came back this weekend to reminisce and swap stories about Groves’ legacy and memories of growing up in Edwardsville.
On Friday, they walked the perimeter of a small house near the edge of town, which belonged to Groves’ son, Walter Groves. Groves Holland remembered climbing walnut and blackberry trees on the property as a kid and hearing stories her “Grandpa Walt” would tell about the Potato King.
“All I remember them saying is that he grew potatoes,” she said. “I didn’t understand all of his accomplishments until I was older.”
Junius Groves built a 22-room mansion near his son’s house. It was the first with electricity and running water in the area. Groves Holland, who has done extensive research on her family’s history, remembered reading about a white man who said the mansion was too grand for an African-American.
“He offered to buy it for $100,000. My great-grandfather paid $20,000 to build it,” she said. “My great-grandfather said no.”
The Union Pacific Railroad built a spur, a special railroad track used for loading and unloading railcars, so they could easily access Junius Groves’ crops. He grew white potatoes and an abundance of other produce.
His family spoke of Junius Groves’ generosity. He founded the nearby Baptist church and gave money to the local hospital. Groves encouraged other African-Americans to settle in Kansas.
Now Walter Groves’ property is more run down. The windows are boarded up and the weeds are overgrown, but the memories remain strong.
Pam Hill-Goggins, a relative of Walter Groves’ wife, Alice, remembered that the house would teem with activity when she was younger.
“They always had food going,” she said. “And in the kitchen, they were always cooking.”
She called over her cousin, Yadie Jackson, and said, “You were part of my memories, because we always came out here together,” Hill-Goggins said.
“It seemed like this house was so much bigger, though.”
Groves Holland said she doesn’t want to forget her childhood memories and the story of her great-grandfather. She helped assemble her relatives, who live all over the country, for the weekend reunion.
“We have so much history,” she said. “I think it’s meant for me to tell the story.”