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Seaman Asahel Knapp

Seaman Asahel Knapp

S. A. Knapp 100 Year Dedication 2003

"Seventy years of preparation for seven years of work

A descendant of Nicholas Knapp who came over with Winthrop’s Fleet in 1630, Seaman Knapp  was born in 1833 in New York State.   His father was a farmer and a physician which was learned through apprenticeship rather than from formal medical training.  He was a man of good character, fine sense, hard work and culture and his mother was of New England Quaker ancestry.

Seaman grew up working on the family farm.  He went to a backwoods one-room school and learned the 3 R’s.  He later attended the Crown Point Center School and the schoolmaster Bingham gave him the stimulus and encouragement to develop the enthusiasm for learning.  He discovered the existence of the world of books, imagination, ambition, and the unseen horizons of the imagination.  He wanted to go to college but his father and Brother Alonzo discouraged him.  Alonzo wanted him to work in his cabinet making shop.  Seaman’s mother and Sister Mary wanted more for him but the cost of college was as much money as the family earned in one year.  So Mary gave him the money she had saved for her hope chest and he attended a college preparatory school  Troy Conference Academy near West Poultry, Vermont.   Here he met Maria Hotchkiss to whom he  became engaged.  They both graduated and she taught at Princeton while he attended one of the best colleges of the day at Union College. 

It was Dr. Nott who was the headmaster of Union College who influenced Seaman to learn Latin  and arts but also the practical and utilitarian subjects like mathematics, civil engineering.  Dr. Nott was also a proponent of “hands on” learning rather than just by the book. 

After Graduating from Union College in 1856 with Phi Beta Kappa honors, he married Miss Maria Hotchkiss and they taught at a girls' school at Poultney, Vermont. Here he met with an accident that ruined his knee and threatened to leave him a cripple for life. Infection set in the leg and his physicians advised him to go west and follow an outdoor life, thinking he could not live more than a  year.

In 1865 they sold a farm that Maria’s father had given them as a wedding present and bought a flock of the finest Merino sheep and moved to Iowa.   They settled close to Vinton, Iowa but lost all the sheep in the first winter storm.  Destitute, crippled, with wife and two children, he started preaching for a small Methodist Episcopal Church and farming as best as he could on crutches.  

Seaman then became the Superintendent of the Iowa School for the Blind in Vinton.  In his wheel chair he read avidly about agriculture and the modern techniques that we being tried all over America and foreign countries.  During the 8 years there his healthy diet regained his health and after another injury to his leg, he actually regained the near normal use of the knee and walked without the use of crutches. 

The price of wheat fell and most Iowa farmers were in financial trouble.  Seaman started a pig farm with the new techniques he had studied.  He started with pure bred premium stock and raised prize pigs.  He then sold them to other farmers to start their pig farms.  He wrote articles in The Farmer’s Journal and became well known and prosperous.  Seaman continued to teach fellow farmers the best way to raise pigs.  He helped form and became the first President of the Benton County Fine Stock Association.  His speeches were published all over Iowa and continued to convert the farmer to more progressive practices.  He became the editor of The Journal and did not want the farmer to go through the trial and failure type of learning as he did with his frozen sheep and pig farm.  He gave speeches all over Iowa preaching high class stock and good farming.  Seaman wrote many articles in The Journal on more progressive modern farming techniques and later became the editor. 

The federal agency of the Department of Agriculture was barely 10 years old in the 1870s and Seaman Knapp had been frustrated that more research had not been done to help the farmer improve is farming methods.  He called the Washington Dept. a sideshow to quiet people and began campaigning for experimental stations both in agriculture colleges and in free standing stations.

With many of the farmers paying high interest rates for their loans, Knapp bargained a lower rate for them, which helped the farmer invest in better stock.  The farmers made more money and the loans were repaid in full.  It caused an economic boon to the commuity.  In 1873 Knapp organized the Farmer’s Loan and Trust Company of Vinton and became the president. 

 The Iowa College at Ames was in it’s infancy and Seaman was appointed head of the Agriculture Department.  He organized the school and Mrs. Knapp helped with the housing of the staff and students.  Seaman kepted the curriculum as practical and applicable to the everyday farmer.   He wanted to follow the intent of the Morrel Act to teach the farmer useful and pactical ways of farming.  He established experimental hands on farming and animal husbandry experimental farms at the college.  He was appointed president of the college and served one year in 1883. 

He was frustrated with the lack of funds for more research.  He could not get the state to donate more money so he went to congress and wrote several bill’s to try to get more federal funds appropriated.  Finally his efforts were realized in the Hatch Act of 1887. 

In 1884 he went to Louisiana to direct the development of a large area of land in which a number
of his friends in Iowa were interested.  He introduced the cultivation of upland rice, which has
brought prosperity to large areas of Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas.  Many of those attracted to the region became discouraged and left. He, therefore, chose some of the best farmers from Iowa and other states and setup demonstration farms with rice.  The results were immediate. The newcomers decided to settle, and this part of Southwest Louisiana is now one of the most prosperous portions of the state. Dr. Knapp said he again saw the power of agricultural demonstration.

Having established the rice industry on a firm basis, Dr. Knapp was invited by Secretary Wilson
to become special adviser for the South in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In this capacity
he went on trips to the West Indies, the Philippines, Japan, and India to study rice culture and
to ascertain the varieties best suited for this Southern region. He brought back strains of rice that enhanced America’s rice production multiple fold.

Then out in western Texas the Mexican boll weevil had suddenly appeared and was advancing in a steady march eastward across the heart of the great cotton producing area. It destroyed millions of dollars worth of cotton, but the ruin was not confined to the farmers alone. Merchants, bankers, business houses of all sorts, whose lively hood depended on the farmers, saw their profits vanishing. The people were panic-stricken. Prosperous little towns became like deserted mining camps. The Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson turned to his old friend, Dr. Knapp, as the person best qualified to meet this emergency.

Dr. Knapp went to Terrell, Texas, in 1903, just in advance of the boll weevil.  The town’s people and farmers of the area donated an indemnity fund to compensate for any losses resulting from  following Dr. Knapp’s demonstration farm technique.   Mr. Walter Porter agreed to conduct the demonstration farm. Following Dr. Knapp's directions, given on his visits every two weeks, Mr. Porter cleared $700 on his demonstration field inspite of hail storms and insects.  Dr. Knapp soon destroyed the panic, stabilized farming and businesses in the stricken area and laid the foundations for a more prosperous and diversified agriculture. He began with cotton and demonstrated that it could be grown under boll weevil conditions by the selection of early maturing varieties, by better preparation and cultivation of the soil. Then he turned to corn and peas and other crops which he showed could be grown successfully. The farmers conducting these demonstrations, as they were called, found themselves raising food and feed supplies to meet their own needs and still able to raise profitably a small amount of cotton as a cash crop. With this system they were better off than when they had grown cotton alone and bought all of their supplies. Dr. Knapp convinced the Texas farmer that he could grow corn as cheaply as the farmer in Iowa. The way was now clear. Secretary Wilson placed $40,000 of government funds at Dr. Knapp 's disposal and the Farm Demonstration Work was inaugurated throughout the boll weevil area.

Then in 1902, Mr. John D. Rockefeller established and endowed the General Education Board.
While not limited in any way, one of the principal objects in the establishing of this Board was
the assistance of education in the South.  Dr. Seaman Knapp and Dr. Wallace Buttrick, the secretary and executive officer, set out to discover the best way of educating the Southern Farmer.  The average annual earnings of persons engaged in agriculture in some of the Southern states was as low as $150, as compared to $1,000 for Iowa. The people were interested in education, but they did not have the rural wealth to support the schools they desired.  Various schemes of teaching agriculture to the young people in school were proposed and rejected.

Dr. Knapp was invited to Washington to take charge of the Farm Demonstration Work in the Department of Agriculture and the General Education Board supplied the funds necessary to carry it on in the Southern states, outside the weevil area. It was begun in Mississppi in 1906, in Alabama and Virginia in 1907, and in 1908 it was extended into every Southern state. State, district, and county agents were appointed as rapidly as suitable persons could be found, and under the inspiration of Dr. Knapp they went about their work with all the zeal and unselfishness of a religious movement.

Dr. Knapp was always eager to help the poor and disadvantaged farmer. He said, "The only
way such farmers can prosper is by remaining in the old rut and improving the rut." Having taken
the first step, he could take the next and end by diversified farming, but he knew the sheer folly
of talking diversification to a man down and out, who had to borrow money on the one cash crop
which the credit system, evil as it was, recognized. Seeing with an understanding eye the
economic and social impediments, he was always quick with human sympathy, never merely critical, but always definite, simple, straightforward. He knew that poor farmers do not
become better by attending lectures or reading bulletins.   He stated his own method as follows:

"The farmer must solve this problem on his own farm and with his own hands.”

His method was the method of the Great Teacher who chose a few men who in turn went out and
touched the lives of the common man.  The emphasis was always on the individual.  At the time of his visit some of the neighbors would be on hand to see how the demonstration was turning out and to get the agent's directions. The man would succeed and his success thrust him forward as a leading man. The seed from his project was in demand at a good price.  The neighbors would be ready to undertake the work, and so better practice would spread.

After the Civil War, Southern agriculture was in a vicious circle. The soil fertility was
seriously depleted; the economic system kept the farmer in debt, and diversification was discouraged.  This resulted in poor schools and highways which added to the difficulty of change.

Dr. Knapp analyzed this situation with great clearness and he addressed himself to the remedy
with so much intelligence, kindness and simplicity that he became the beloved apostle to the
Southern farmers. He had abounding faith in Southern agriculture. "To me the Southern States surpass all of the countries of the earth of equal area in material resources, mainly undeveloped. To me the Southern people are the purest stock of the greatest race the world has produced. It requires but leadership to attain great results."

The credit system caused  “involuntary servitude, ownership by agreement and poverty by contract under fear of the sheriff.  So we have lived under a slavery where the chains are the impoverishment of the masses."

He then set to work to get the farmers to improve the rut they were in, so that they could get
out of it after two or three years.  He persuaded the bankers and merchants that their best
interests lay in getting the farmer out of debt, making of him a depositor and a buyer of the
comforts of life instead of the bare necessities.  The response of the farmers was immediate, particularly among the middle class living on their own farms.  Since most of the population lived on the farm, the more prosperous farmer bought more products which enhanced his way of life, businesses exploded their profits, and everyone’s standard of living improved. Improving the life style, self esteem, and national pride of the farmer resulted in stimulation of the economy, improvement of roads, schools, and business.  This increased the demand of cars, electronic appliances, and other products which increased the factories in the North.  The whole general economy of the South which was depressed after the Civil war became a thriving and prosperous nation.

Farm agents were chosen carefully and sent out all over Texas to teach the farmer better production methonds.  By 1912 there were thousands all over the Southern states and by 1914 there were agents in every county in America.

In 1906 Seaman Knapp met with Washington Carver on developing a system of Black agents to help the black farmers just as was being done for the white farmers.  By 1914 there were over 100 black agents covering eleven states.  Not only did these agents produce results as good as those obtained amoung white farmers, but they aided in interracial cooperation.  Dr. Moton, successor to Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee, wrote: “No other two men have done more for the Negro in the lower South since Emancipation than did Seaman A. Knapp and Booker T. Washington.  If what he contributed to southern agriculture, economic and social progress, including relations between the two races, had never been contributed, conditions would be pitiable to contemplate.”

With such a response among the adult farmers, Dr. Knapp recognized that the need for the
work among the grown-up farmers would disappear, if the work could be carried on among the
boys. Accordingly, in 1908, boys' corn clubs were organized and by 1913 over 90,000 boys were
enrolled.  The results were astonishing.  Two years later, in 1910, a further extension of the Demonstration Work was made in the organization of girls' canning and poultry clubs. This work grew out of some canning clubs organized in Aiken County, South Carolina, by Miss Marie Gromer, and a similar work in Virginia undertaken the same summer by Miss Ella O. Agnew.  Seaman Knapp stimulated the growth of the 4-H Club and started the incentive of a trip to Washington for the winner of contests. 

Dr. Knapp did not live to see his work come to full expansion.  He died in Washington, April 1, 1911, but he lived to see his best hopes realized. The work was already successfully organized for the farmers, for the boys, for the girls and their mothers, and it was rapidly expanding to all parts of the South. There were 700 Extension workers traveling all over the South.  The Demonstration Work had moved the entire South as no other movement had ever done.  The people took on new confidence and hope. The period of the Demonstration Work from 1906 to 1914 was precisely the period of the most rapid development in public education. The Demonstration Work was in effect a spiritual movement. Every man that had been helped by the agent invariably wanted to help his neighbors. He felt a community consciousness, and a new pride in the church, the schoolhouse, public roads. New laws were enacted, obstructive sections of state constitutions were removed by amendments, local taxation for school purposes developed. The old one-teacher schools were being replaced by consolidated schools, and the establishment of rural high schools went on at an amazing pace.  Not only was an enormous amount of rural wealth created, but spiritual forces were also
released and wealth became invested more and more in schools, churches, highways, public
health, and many other public agencies.

With the passage of the Smith-Lever Act in 1914, Demonstration Work was made national in scope
and became a regular part of the extension work of the State Agricultural Colleges with substantial
sums appropriated by the federal government. The Smith-Hughes Act in 1917 carried the plan still
further in providing federal aid for teachers of vocational agriculture and home economics in rural
high schools.

This was a long step towards the realization of Dr. Knapp's own vision, as he expressed 1907. "Let it be the high privilege of this great and free people to establish a republic where rural pride is equal to civic pride, where men of the most refined taste and culture select the rural villa, and where the wealth that comes from the soil finds its greatest return in developing and perfecting that great domain of nature which God has given to us as an everlasting estate."

Dr. Knapp always strove for a self-sustaining system of agriculture. Louisiana was buying corn in 1908, but by 1911 the farmers of that state produced a surplus beyond their own needs. In twenty years, the corn crop of Alabama increased from 35 million bushels to 48. The hay crop increased from 85,000 to 636,000 tons and the value of livestock from $18 million to $90 million.

It is impossible to estimate the importance of this work. In preparing the Southern states for
the crisis of the World War, not only were their own needs supplied, but a large surplus of
foodstuff was produced to meet the demands of Europe. Dr. Knapp had worked out a procedure, which the government promptly extended on a national scale.  It is hard to tell what the outcome of the World Wars would have been had the economy, manufacturing businesses, and food production had not been turned around by Dr. Knapp.

The sober judgment of those who have followed the development of American country life through
all its phases is that Dr. Knapp was our greatest agricultural leader.

Dr. Knapp’s true goal was “to create a better people…. High-minded, stalwart, courageous, and brave.  You are beginning at the bottom to influence the masses of mankind, and ultimately those masses always control the destiny of a country.  If you allow their practices to sink lower and lower the country must ultimately drop to a lower level in moral, political, and religious tone, and we go down to degradation and infamy as a nation; but if we begin at the bottom and plant human action upon the rock of high principles, with right cultivation of the soil, right living for the common people, and comforts everywhere … the people will lend their support and all civilization will arise higher and higher, and we shall become a beacon light to all the nations of the world.”

See the book Seaman A. Knapp School Master of American Agriculture. By Bailey. 
Columbia University Press 1945