Historical Markers
Frederick Watts Historical Marker
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Frederick Watts

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
US 11 at entrance to Watts Business Park W. of Carlisle

Dedication Date:
June 11, 1994

Behind the Marker

The whole idea was silly. Some "new fangled" machine to cut wheat? When folks around Carlisle, Pennsylvania learned that attorney Frederick Watts was going to demonstrate a mechanical reaper on his farm to harvest a field of wheat - some new variety of winter wheat imported from southern Europe that he insisted would ripen a full week before their own - they were astonished. Surely nothing could replace a team of hard-working men with grain cradles! "Watts' Folly," they called it. Watts didn't mind the robust skepticism - he was out to improve agriculture and show farmers that farm work could be faster and easier. 
Formal Portrait of Watts and his grandchild
Frederick Watts and grandchild, circa 1875.

So on a warm, sunny summer day in 1840, a crowd of between 500 and 1,000 people gathered at his farm, saw that, indeed, the grain was ripe, and examined the machinery as they prepared to witness the spectacle. A horse and rider drew the equipment into the field followed by a man who was to rake up the wheat as it was cut. The contraption clattered and rattled as it began to cut the wheat, and the rake man had some trouble keeping up, which began to cause difficulties with the machine. The people hooted, jeered, and laughed. They knew it wouldn't work!

Watts was beginning to get embarrassed, when a man stepped forward from the group and showed everyone the proper way to work with the harvester. He was Cyrus McCormick, the inventor of the machine called "McCormick's Reaper." The fool thing worked after all! The dubious Scots-Irish farmers were suitably impressed. Gentleman farmer Watts had successfully demonstrated that farm work could be made less burdensome and more efficient, two major objectives of the new way of farming that Watts and others sought to encourage. 
Catalog page
Catalog inside cover, "McCormick's Reaper and Mower," circa 1860....

Born on May 9, 1801 in Carlisle, Frederick Watts received a basic education in local schools and then enrolled in markerDickinson College. After completing his studies in 1819, he spent two years on an uncle's farm in Erie County. The experience proved to be a life-changing event for the young man. Born and raised in a town, Watts discovered that he loved agriculture. Returning to Carlisle, he studied the law and after his admittance to the bar in 1825, became court reporter for Pennsylvania's Supreme Court, a position he held for more than twenty years.

In 1849, he was appointed President Judge of the Ninth Judicial District and at the end of his three-year term he returned to private practice for another twenty years. Watts was also active in business affairs. After he was elected president of the markerCumberland Valley Railroad, Watts transformed the nearly bankrupt concern into a financial success. In 1854, he formed the Carlisle Gas and Water Company, which brought economic growth and prosperity to the community. 
Frederick Watts Farm. View of  Barn
Barn at Frederick Watts' experimental farm, Cumberland County, PA, circa...

Watts was also determined to improve farm productivity and farmers' lives through promoting agricultural reform; that is, the use of machinery and science. Watts introduced Pennsylvania farmers to McCormick's Reaper and to a Mediterranean winter wheat that avoided the dreaded Hessian fly by maturing earlier than other varieties.

In 1851, he was one of the founding members and first president of the Pennsylvania Agricultural Society, an organization dedicated to promoting scientific agriculture and holding fairs to demonstrate the benefits of improved farming. Three years later, he led the effort to establish an agricultural college in the state - a school "where a farmer's son may be educated to be a farmer."

In 1855, Watts drew up the charter for "the Farmers' High School" (today's markerPenn State University) and became president of the board of trustees, a position he held for nearly two decades. While president he designed the layout of the school and its barn, contributed generously to the institution, and successfully lobbied the Pennsylvania Assembly to provide additional financial support for the school.
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.

In 1857, Watts developed a model farm on a 116-acre tract near Carlisle. There, he built a house and large multi-functional barn, both designed for maximum efficiency. During the Civil War, he lobbied the United States Congress and President Lincoln for the passage of the Morrill Act, which would provide federal funds for agricultural schools. After the bill became law in 1862, Watts again worked with the state legislature, this time to accept the provisions of the Morrill Act and also change the name of the Farmers' High School to the Pennsylvania Agricultural College.

At the request of President Ulysses S. Grant, in 1871, he joined his cabinet as United States Agricultural Commissioner and began an official investigation of the condition of the nation's forests. This inquiry led to the creation of the forestry division of the United States Department of Agriculture, which was established a few years later. In 1877, he retired to Carlisle, where he died on August 17, 1889.

Judge Watts' vision of applying science and technology to farming is a reality today and has had a major impact not only in the Commonwealth but all across America, thanks to the institution he founded - Penn State University.
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