Historical Markers
Pennsylvania State University, [Agriculture] Historical Marker
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Pennsylvania State University, [Agriculture]

Valleys of the Susquehanna


Marker Location:
Business US 322, State College

Dedication Date:
April 30, 1947

Behind the Marker

In 1855, James Irvin's 200 acres in Centre County, Pennsylvania must have felt awfully remote to the small band of young men who made up the first class of the new Farmers' High School of Pennsylvania. Their new school, most of its dorms and classrooms yet to be built, was more than five miles from the nearest town. The meadows that were supposed to become the experimental fields of the nation's third agricultural college were filled with limestone rocks and boulders.

Of the young men who formed the first class of a school founded to advance agrarian values and improve farming, only three were the sons of farmers. Many of the boys had been sent to the remote college, called a "high school" to disarm working farmers' suspicion of higher education-by concerned parents who wanted to remove their sons from the evil influences of their home towns. This was not an auspicious start.
Black and white image of two mules, three students, and the school in the background.
Old Main, The Farmers' High School of Pennsylvania, Centre County, PA, 1859.

The school was the brainchild of gentleman farmers of the markerPhiladelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture (PSPA), and the Pennsylvania State Agricultural Society (formed in 1851), and had the backing of the state agriculture press. All were deeply concerned by agriculture's eroding economic importance and farmers' loss of political clout, and by the plight of farm youth who were fleeing to the city, and there mingling with the men and women of low moral character.

They also feared that the Commonwealth's growing cities and booming manufacturing and a market economy were eroding mythic agrarian traditions of hard work, simplicity, and equality. A state agricultural college would promote the "agrarian values" they saw fast disappearing in the world around them and help bring renewed appeal and dignity to farm life by making it more profitable, interesting, and intellectually stimulating.

Unlike traditional colleges, students at the Farmers' High School would "unite the acquisition of knowledge with daily toil, to impart interest to the one and add dignity to the other." In simpler words, three hours of physical labor each day on the school's farm operations would instill in the boys a strong work ethic. The isolated location of the school was also part of its appeal, for here students would be "entirely out of reach and influence of those temptations of vice and idleness, so common in and close around our large cities and towns." To further protect students the state assembly in 1859 passed a law outlawing the sale of alcohol within two miles of the campus - a law that remained in place until 1965!
One mule and eight student farmers posing for photograph. School is in the background.
Old Main, 1859

Many working farmers in the Commonwealth, however, were not enthusiastic about the proposed school. A speaker at the 1858 Tioga County agricultural exhibition expressed the sentiments of many when he insisted that college graduates were so filled with "vanity and self-conceit, that there is no room left for anything of a practical, useful nature." Nor did they think much of Watts and the other organizers - just a bunch of amateurs who tried to advise real farmers with a lot of impractical theories.

Through the efforts of Judge markerFrederick Watts, an ardent agricultural reformer, member of the PSPA, and president of the Pennsylvania State Agricultural Society, the state legislature chartered the Farmers' High School on February 22, 1855. The arrival, in 1859, of markerEvan Pugh as the school's first president inaugurated significant advances - including the changing of its name to the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania, to make it eligible for federal funding under the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 Pugh created a solid academic and financial foundation for the school but his sudden death in 1864 was followed by a long period of drift at the college.

Few farmers sent their sons to the agricultural college in Centre County - most students came from middle-class urban families. There, they did their best to get around the manual labor, loafing and slacking whenever possible. Believing that it would not be a training ground for future farmers, Pugh's successors introduced a more traditional college curriculum for students who went on to careers in law, business, and other professions that farmers viewed with suspicion. After the admission of women, the school in 1875 dropped the labor rule, replacing it with military training required by the Morrill Act.

This period of drift came to a close in the early 1880s, after an investigation by the state legislature and board of trustees found that the school (renamed the Pennsylvania State College in 1873) was not sufficiently focused on agriculture and engineering. The harsh assessment brought about a change of leadership and a renewed sense of direction and purpose. Even though the State College retained the classical courses, it also began to devote more energy to its engineering and scientific agriculture programs. Beginning in the 1880s, the school worked very closely with Commonwealth officials to inform farmers about the practical applications of scientific agriculture through "farmers' institutes," annual lectures and demonstrations held in most counties which proved to be very popular. At this time too, agricultural chemistry professor Whitman H. Jordan began to issue free bulletins to farmers describing the results of his work on the use of commercial fertilizers and different crops.

In the twentieth century, the agricultural program grew along with the expanding and diversifying college. Pennsylvania State College remained a center for important agricultural research that would have a major impact not only in the state but the nation and the world. The college's added a facility for the study of animal nutrition and faculty engaged in more than 140 different agricultural research projects that ranged from the development of high yielding and disease resistant varieties of grains, vegetables, and tobacco to more effective methods of storing apples and corn.

During World War I, agricultural researchers at the school worked on ways to boost food production in the state. In the 1920s and 1930s, agricultural research at the college led to the creation of new varieties of cabbage, oats, tomatoes, wheat, and new breeds of poultry. The agricultural school at the State College again joined the national war effort during the Second World War. College agricultural extension schools worked with county agents to instruct people in raising "victory gardens," home canning, and to help farmers maximize their production.

The post war period saw continued change and growth for the school and its agricultural programs. In 1953, the school's name changed for a third and final time to "Pennsylvania State University." In the decades that followed the School of Agriculture diversified its approaches to agricultural issues. Responding to the demands of the State Council of Farm Organizations, Penn State created a new Department of Veterinary Science and added a pre-vet curriculum. Rural sociologists addressed issues of rural poverty, while agricultural researchers at the school contended with cutbacks from both the university and government, but continued to do work that had far reaching consequences both here and abroad. They developed better yielding plant strains and improved methods of animal breeding, combated plant diseases and insect pests, studied methods for improving and maintaining soil fertility, and designed an automatic feeder for chickens.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, plant pathologists at a university agricultural experiment station developed fats and protein concentrates that vastly increased the yield of mushrooms. In 1999, agricultural scientists at Penn State began to address a very serious and potentially devastating disease - plum pox virus - that suddenly appeared in orchards in markerAdams County.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Penn State's College of Agriculture continues its founders' vision of improving farming through the practical application of science.

To learn more about the history of Penn State, markerclick here.
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