IOWA'S LAND GRANT COLLEGE1
'We must educate, we must educate,' ran a sentence in the Fifth McGuffey
Reader, 'or we perish in our own prosperity.'
Morrill Act 1862
Morrill Act 1890
The passion for education that had prevailed in all our successive pioneer settlements was taking a new bent in Iowa when Henry Wallace's children were growing up there, and he was among the strongest champions of the new trend. Every passing year of his life confirmed in him more deeply the opinion that country people should be ministered to and educated in country terms; and every year increased his impatience with the stolidity and stupidity with which agriculture was taught, if it was taught at all.
The Land Grant Colleges were an established fact in our country now, but they did not as yet amount to much. The Morrill Act, first proposed by Senator Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont as early as 1857, made land grants to the states, permitting them by the sale or use of these tracts to establish agricultural and mechanical colleges, under some sort of extremely mild Federal supervision. The bill was passed by Congress in the prewar Buchanan administration, but President Buchanan vetoed it. In Civil War time, with southerners not in Congress, Senator Morrill brought in his bill again. Again it passed, and on July 2, 1862, with the Union forces under McClellan retreating from the slaughter of Marlvern Hill, President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act. Eleven million acres of land twice the area of Senator Morrill's home state, Vermontwere thus turned over to agricultural educators.
In pushing for the passage of this Land Grant College Act, Andrew Dickson White observed that Justin Morrill 'did a service which deserves to be ranked, and which future historians will rank with those of Hamilton in advocating the Constitution, of Jefferson in acquiring Louisiana, and of Clay in giving us a truly American policy.'2
Some few of the states struck oil or mineral deposits under their quota of this eleven million acres of American soil, and this made their little agricultural and mechanical colleges filthy rich for a while. But most of the land was sold as topsoil after the Civil War on a low market. The 'cow colleges,' as academicians called these agricultural and mechanical institutions for many years, were badly housed and miserably endowed. In general, they were cringingly taught and administered during the first quarter-century of their existence. It seemed to make little difference how much money they got for the land that they put on the market in order to rear their buildings and pay their staffs. They were mediocre schools, in the main, at first; and it could hardly have been otherwise. For where were they to turn for good professors and trained agricultural deans or leaders?
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and, for that matter, Lincoln, who signed the Morrill Act offhand with many more pressing matters on his mind, had all paid the customary verbal tribute to agriculture as the most basic and sacred of pursuits; but this was the first actual move toward making American agriculture a learned profession. Initial teaching, research, and administrative staffs had to be recruited from the ranks of professional botanists, veterinarians, chemists, geologists, and the like. Many, indeed most of them, were feeble specimens, inclined to be apologetic because they had strayed from the fields of 'pure' science cringing, toadying, responding with false smiles when their well-established colleagues in purely academic and scientfic lines made sly jokes about cows and manure.
This did not please Henry Wallace, Seaman Knapp, or James Wilson. It made them furious; but they were mature men now, and, in their various ways, subtle politicians. They moved together quietly and between them practically took over the Iowa State College at Ames; but it required a little time.
As far back as 1848, two years after Iowa was made a state, pioneer farmers had petitioned the State Legislature to establish a college of agriculture. In 5, with Land Grant funds and sanctions, this was done. Henry Wallace's brother John, come West to die, spent a year at Ames and was one of the first students in this new school. He was preparing to study medicine, and took no agricultural courses, but his report to the family on the agricultural instruction at Ames made his brother, the Reverend [Uncle Henry], ponder.
Later, when Uncle Henry, Tama Jim and Knapp first became acquainted, they found they all felt the same about that agricultural college. Knapp told a story, humorously scathing, about a professor of agricultural chemistry there who did not know enough to feed his own wife and puny infant properly: 'They have engaged a wet-nurse,' Knapp's story ended.
In other states strong new teachers and deans had somehow been found or had simply arisen from need and native ingenuity and learning. Not only New York and Michigan, but also Illinois, Massachusetts, and Kansas, unquestionably had better agricultural colleges than the State of Iowa where the tall corn grows. Very early in its history Iowa State had a chance to annex and employ, it seems, a Dean of Agriculture of great stature. Isaac Phillips Roberts might almost have sat for a composite physical, mental, and spiritural portrait of Wallace, Wilson, and Knapp. Curiously, his name is never mentioned in Wallace's Reminiscences nor, so far as I have been able to discover, in any of the written works of Knapp and Wilson. Probably this is because Roberts did his work in Iowa from 1870 to 1874,3 some years before Iowa's agricultural Big Three had joined forces and had begun to worry about the Agricultural College.
Isaac Phillips Roberts had never gone to college. He held no degrees. Born near Ithaca, New York, on a farm, he worked as a farmer and carpenter and went West to the vicinity of Ames, Iowa, to farm there and grow up with the country. By 1869, when the Iowa State College had been for a year established, Isaac Roberts was esteemed locally as one of the best and wisest farmers in those parts. The campus and grounds of this raw, new college were at first badly tended. Their appearance became a laughingstock among the farmers and a reproach to the professoriat. The college asked Roberts to be its Superintendent of Grounds. He soon had the college farm and campus looking fitter, richer, and clean. This was his entrance into the field of agricultural education and agricultural extension. Students followed him afield and he started teaching.
Meantime, back at Ithaca, Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White were having all sorts of trouble trying to build an agricultural faculty for their new Land Grant College, a recently added arm of Cornell University. They tried agricultural lyceum speakers who turned out to have 'political ambitions,' Dr. White reports in his memoirs. They tried a good native farmer; he was inarticulate. They imported an English agriculturist, one who emerged from his suite around ten in the morning and walked around languidly, tapping at plants with an elegant rattan cane. He 'did not inspire confidence.' "He don't know nothing' about corn and he don't believe in punkins," a plain farmer commented. The difficulties,' Dr. White concludes, 'were extremely vexatious.' Then someone brought up the name of Isaac Phillips Roberts. White and Cornell jumped at the suggestion, brought Roberts back to his home country in 1874, and made him Dean of the College of Agriculture there.
White ends his sketch of this period of early trial and error with 'Vivid remembrance of the strong feeling of hope and of courage which arose as the first work of Professor Roberts began, evidently, to be a success. . . . He was admirably competent to . . . arouse attention and to excite ambition. Soon strong helpers appeared about him, men like L. H. Bailey and others who were brought into various professorships as the Agricultural College grew.'
'For several years prior to 1890,' says Uncle Henry Wallace in his memoirs, 'there had been a great deal of dissatisfaction among farmers with reference to the Iowa Agricultural College. Mr. Chamberlain, of Ohio, was president of Ames, following Welch, who was forced to resign after 12 years. The college was nominally an agricultural college, but very little agriculture was taught. There were a few agricultural students. . . . Horticulture, under Professor Budd, was quite strong. The engineering department was fairly strong. But the college as a whole was scientific rather than agricultural, and the science was not well applied.'
Even so, affairs were looking up, there on the agricultural campus at Ames. There were a number of new men on the staff who came up to the somewhat exacting requirements of Knapp, Wallace, and Wilson; and the first of these new men was Knapp himself. His appointment came in 1880, a year after he, Wilson, and Wallace first had met. Applying pressure quietly, Tama Jim, who was in his third term of service as a congressman in Washington, and Uncle Henry, there on the ground in Iowa, drew upon the support of the three leading farm organizations of Iowathe Farmers' Alliance, the Dairymen's Association, and the Improved Stock Breeders' Associationand prevailed upon a politically minded board of trustees to employ Seaman Knapp, bring him in from his herds and groves and peaceful mediations, and, under the somewhat spacious title of Professor of Agriculture, put the college on its feet. Knapp went to work and in three years they made him President of the college. In that same year Seaman Knapp took a hand in the making of history. In January of 1883 he wrote the first draft of the Hatch Act, the second leg of the triad under which all federal-state instruction, research, and extension in agriculture is administered today. The Morrill Act took care of resident instruction. The Hatch Act, passed finally in 1887, provided for co-ordinated state and federal research; and the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 authorized and arranged for co-operative extension teaching. But it was Knapp, drafting the Hatch Act, who put on the law books the most spacious authorization for the dispensation of public funds: The purpose of this Act is 'to aid in acquiring and diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects connected with agriculture, and to promote scientific applications of agricultural science.'
In 1885, to the astonishment of everyone, Seaman Knapp resigned as President of the college and removed his family to Louisiana, where he took a business position as promoter of a large land company there. He had lived for thirty-two years in the East and for twenty years in Iowa. He went South to make money, but he could not keep his mind on it; and a few years later, a man in his early sixties, he became the great advocate and founder of agricultural teaching afield to the striving mass of farmers in the South. It is extraordinary, but no one of this Iowa trio of agriculturists hit his real stride or found the position on earth he really wanted until he had passed the age of sixty.
SOURCES1The Wallaces of Iowa, by Russell Lord. 1947. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. p. 93-98.©2000, Department of Animal Science, Iowa State University. All rights reserved.
2Andrew D. White's tribute to Morrill is quoted from p. 259, The Life and Public Services of Justin Smith Morrill, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1924.
3Roberts at Ames. Autobiography of a Farm Boy, by Isaac Phillips Roberts. Cornell University Press, 1946, pp. 91-105.
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