James "Tama Jim" Wilson

James "Tama Jim" WilsonJames Wilson "Tama Jim" as he was popularly known to distinguish him from James F., or "Jefferson Jim," who had opposed the College bill in the 'fifties, and from James H., or "Prairie Jim," who was a College trustee from 1902 to 1906 was a Scotchman who, with limited educational opportunities, had combined with unusual success agricultural and political leadership. He had been influential in farm organizations, a contributor to agricultural papers, and had served in the General Assembly, on the state railroad commission, and in Congress. Hitherto he had been a vigorous critic of the college program and had been one of the most pronounced advocates of a practical, vocational organization and emphasis. He had the unenviable task of reorganizing the instruction and directing the experimental program in a way to meet the desires of the occupational groups and the approval of educators and scientists. That he would at all times be zealous for the farmers' interests, as he understood them, there could be no doubt.

James Wilson was Secretary of Agriculture for three successive cabinets of Presidents McKinley, Roosevelt and Taft. He was born in Ayrshire, Scotland in 1835, the first of fourteen children, and came to America at age sixteen. His parents first settled in Connecticut but emigrated to Traer in Tama County, Iowa, in 1855. His collegiate education was obtained at Grinnell College, then engaged in farming for himself, marrying Esther Wilbur in 1863 and edited the Traer Star-Clipper. Being a man of broadest sympathies and inspired with the ideals of public duty, he was elected a member of the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth Iowa Assemblies. He was Speaker of the last Assembly, and as such took so prominent an interest in educational matters that he was made Regent of the State University of Iowa during the years 1870 to 1874. In 1873 he was elected to the forty-third Congress, a position he retained during the subsequent session. He served on the Committee on Agriculture and the Rules Committee. While there he acquired the nickname "Tama Jim" to distinguish him from Senator James Falconer Wilson ("Jefferson Jim"), also from Iowa. In 1877 he was made a member of the Iowa State Railway Commission, where he remained for six years until returned to Congress. Unfortunately his right was contested, but with the delays his contestant was not seated until the last hour of Congress. In 1890 he was appointed Director of the Agricultural Experiment Station and Professor of Agriculture (this title was used before 'Dean of Agriculture' came into existence) at the Iowa Agricultural College, a position he retained until called upon March 5, 1897, by President McKinley to take his place as spokesman for agriculture in the newly formed cabinet.

The organized agricultural discontent with the course of study and leadership of Iowa Agricultural College had the cumulative force of a local "green rising." The opposition showed itself unmistakably during the latter part of the college year, 1890. In October the Farmers' Alliance appointed a committee to visit and report on college conditions. The committee made its visit at commencement time and consulted with the Board. Its report on the agricultural work was most unfavorable. The resignations of President Chamberlain and Professor [Thomas] Smith at the November meeting offered the opportunity for a change of policy and a campaign was conducted by the opposition through November and December with the Homestead then under the editorship of Henry Wallace, as the organ. His ally, James Wilson, in addresses at farm gatherings and in his page in weekly papers had long denounced and ridiculed the pretensions to practical agriculture at Ames.

Letters and editorials charged that in the agricultural work the College had been steadily getting away from its true original purpose. The act of 1884 redefining the objective had been taken advantage of, said the protestors, to offer general theoretical courses at the expense of the practical. According to these critics, the work in engineering and veterinary science was highly satisfactory, but there had been no real agricultural course since the Knapp administration. The claim that the course of study in the sciences related to agriculture was in any way professional was ridiculed by a student correspondent, who found the requirement of general and cultural subjects in this curriculum an unfavorable discrimination.

Henry Wallace & James WilsonThe plan of the Board adopted at the November meeting to divide the station fund among half a dozen departments rather than to continue it according to the original plan as a separate and distinct establishment was held to be a scheme for promoting certain personal interests at the expense of the direct interest of the farmers for which the experimental work was undertaken. The meeting of the Stock Breeders' Association in December under the leadership of Henry Wallace and James Wilson adopted resolutions for a "distinctly agricultural and mechanical course in which no place will be found for purely academic and scientific subjects," the establishment of a dairy school, and an experiment station as a "distinct department directly for the benefit of farmers, incidentally of students."

The immediate concern of the protestors was to secure the "right" men for the presidency and the agricultural professorship. There was manifested at this time an extreme occupational and state consciousness. This was expressed in an open letter to the Board published in the December 12 issue of the Homestead. The College, the writer contended, should be strictly an Iowa farmers' institution, "managed by Iowa men--from the president down to the janitor--men whose every interest is in Iowa, and who are thoroughly imbued with the spirit of progress now extant in this state; men who have a greater interest in the institution than simply drawing their salary." Acting on this suggestion, several successful practical farmers with no particular academic training or competence in the basic sciences offered their services for the professorship either through friends or directly to the Board. Meanwhile, leaders in the farmers' organizations were planning for constructive and competent selections.

In 1891, a critical turn was in order at Iowa State Agricultural College. The choice centered on two individuals felt to be unusually well adapted to meet the situation and to command general confidence in the state. The Reverend William M. Beardshear, then superintendent of the West Des Moines school district, was brought forward by his supporters as a man of experience, adaptability, and personal appeal who would meet ideally the executive demands. For the agricultural work overtures were made to Henry Wallace, but he did not wish to leave his work in agricultural journalism and suggested James Wilson for the position. Shortly before the meeting of the Board Wallace and Wilson conferred. The latter agreed to accept the position if he were the unanimous choice. The endorsement of these key men by the leading organizations was then shrewdly arranged. Wallace insured this by cleverly drawing away the force of the opposition in the Alliance by purporting to oppose Wilson's selection.

The day before the Board meeting in Des Moines, January 8, 1891, the Farmers' Alliance, The Dairymen's Association, The Improved Stock Breeders, and The Butter, Cheese, and Egg Association met and endorsed resolutions presented by an Alliance committee. The address emphasized the neglect of agriculture, which had reached the point where it could "no longer be fairly considered an important feature of the course." At the same time they found "the higher mathematics, ancient and modern languages, and other studies, which are at most permissive under the law, occupying the time and attention of the student to the almost entire exclusion of studies that by the same law are made one of the chief objects for which the college received its munificent endowment." They were convinced that "the agricultural interest of the State emphatically demands, in addition to the complete course of graduation, a two years' course and a three months' winter course, to which students shall be eligible without regard to age or education." In addition the dairy interest was demanding a special school.

But "of equal importance with the reconstruction of the course of study" was the selection of an "understanding and sympathetic president." The delegates were alarmed at the suggestion of the selection "of any officer of the college or any alumnus who has not been recognized in the past as thoroughly imbued with the farm spirit, or who has not earnestly protested in time past against the measures that have brought the department of agriculture of the College into its present deplorable condition." No man should be chosen who sympathized with the aim of certain of the alumni to use the funds granted for an industrial college to develop a general university. On the contrary, they believed that "an entirely new man should be chosen, one of well-known executive ability in the management of an educational institution and in entire harmony with the objects sought by the Farmers' Alliance in the appointment of this committee." Beardshear was endorsed as a candidate having these qualifications. If the recommendations of these representative bodies to recognize the curricula "by excluding all scientific and classical studies that are not absolutely necessary to the successful pursuit and highest attainment of a practical agricultural, mechanical, and business education, not only from the course but from all the courses, and make the college distinctly industrial and agricultural" according to the intent of the law, to established a dairy school and to elect a suitable president were heeded, they were prepared further to ask the election of James Wilson as professor of agriculture. "If, however," they concluded ominously, "the present course is to be retained and the present conditions at the College are to continue, we withdraw all recommendations."

The following day these recommendations, in essentials, were enacted. A full agricultural curriculum was re-established with a two-year short course, and a dairy school. Beardshear and Wilson were unanimously elected. On the experiment station organization there was a compromise. The existing system was continued, and by a vote of five to four Director Spear was displaced by Wilson, who thus headed the experimental as well as the teaching work.

While thus recognizing in the main this mandate from the organized farmers, the Board issued a reply to the Alliance communication prepared by a committee representing both alleged factions in which they sought to correct certain misapprehensions. The Board had not known of the change in the agricultural course until too late to alter it before it was embodied in the catalogue. The allegation that the agricultural work had hitherto been a failure was disproved by the number and standing of graduates in the profession. Any alarm over the selection of an alumnus to head the institution was removed by the action now taken.

On the matter of the experiment station, after an examination of the organization in the various states, the Board was convinced that their plan of combining teaching and research was the most practicable, and they urged that final judgment be withheld until the plan was considered more fully.

Whatever the immediate influences in effecting the change of policy and of leadership, it unquestionably reflected the prevailing sentiment of the state regarding the College's work. The action marked a turning point in the relations internal and external. It came in a period of transition in the land-grant college movement resulting from the research impetus given by the experiment stations, the increased endowment of the second Morrill Act, and the standardizing influence of the Association of Agricultural Colleges and Experiment Stations. The new leadership was worthy of the opportunity of this transitional era. During his six years at Iowa State he established a very close relationship with George Washington Carver, often discussing the possibility of applying the principles of plant genetics to improving livestock.


In 1896 Charles F. Curtiss, whose reputation as a livestock authority was growing steadily and whose organizing capacity was being felt, was promoted to a professorship of animal husbandry and made assistant director of the station. The following year, Wilson became secretary of agriculture, with the understanding that Curtiss would be made his successor as head of the department and station. Wilson was given an indefinite leave of absence and kept a nominal connection with the staff and a real one with college policies throughout his four-term service at Washington.

The awakening of agricultural interests and the establishment of a firm market for farm products, were matters of accomplishment at the turn of the century. The definition of the phases of agriculture as an industry and the attacking of its problems in a thorough and scientific way have been functions of the United States Department of Agriculture. Although the Department's beginning were merely a sop, thrown out by politicians to their rural interests, the strong hand of the Honorable James Wilson, grasping the foundations laid by Secretary Jeremiah McLain Rusk, shaped their development so as to yield firm federal support to the industries of the land. During his years the US Department of Agriculture grew from a very few hundred employees to over 5,000. It was during this period of service that the multitudinous activities of the Bureau of Animal Industry developed. Under his supervision the department extended its activities, established experiment stations in all parts of the U.S., inaugurated farm demonstration work in the South, began cooperative extension work in agriculture and home economics, and sent experts and scientists all over the world to gather information for the promotion of agriculture. Also under his tenure, legislation dealing with plant and animal diseases, insect pests, forestry, irrigation, conservation, road building, and agricultural education was enacted.

Wilson recognized the need for a strong organization to unify and catalyze rural interests. Improved market conditions resulting from the financial prosperity of the country furnished the farmer a degree of independence he had hitherto not known; hence, Secretary Wilson found willing material to support him in his efforts in placing agriculture on the permanent constructive basis it now enjoys. He sponsored particularly legislation and propaganda that would build up the agricultural export trade, and at the same time encouraged the search for new plants and animals suitable to the arid conditions that had to be met in the unorganized land areas of the continent. President Roosevelt's conservation policies received able support under his constructive genius and the national forest policy of America was firmly established. During his supervision the department extended its activities, established experiment stations in all parts of the U.S., inaugurated farm demonstration work in the South, began cooperative extension work in agriculture and home economics, and sent experts and scientists all over the world to gather information for the promotion of agriculture. Also under his tenure, legislation dealing with plant and animal diseases, insect pests, forestry, irrigation, conservation, road building, and agricultural education was enacted. She served Presidents McKinley, Roosevelt and Taft.

Wilson was welcomed home on March 12, 1913, retiring at the change of administration. The event, including a mid-day convocation and an evening banquet, was a fitting recognition of a man who had gone from the College to the position of most distinguished leadership in national agriculture. President Pearson noted Wilson had been kept on the faculty roll through the years of his service in Washington and the administration and staff still felt that he was one of them; Wilson pledged his remaining years to the service of the College.

He retired in 1913 to Traer where he participated in a number of notable movements aimed towards disseminating agricultural knowledge. The governor appointed him to investigate and report on agricultural conditions in Great Britain together with his longtime friend "Uncle' Henry Wallace. So prominent were his services, that numerous institutions conferred honorary degrees upon him. Both the University of Wisconsin and Cornell College, Iowa, gave him an LL.D. in 1904, while McGill University at Montreal, Canada, honored him with a similar title in 1909. He died in 1920.