SD agricultural education and FFA: Student and instructor experience in 1950s

Courtesy photo

Professor Emeritus, Agricultural Education, SDSU

Editor’s note: To commemorate the passage of the Smith Hughes Act of 1917, Clark Hanson has written a historical summary of events that occurred in the South Dakota agricultural education program. Over a two year time frame a series of articles will share how the South Dakota program originated and developed the past 100 years.

The National Future Farmers of America organization continued to grow and emerge during the 1950s. The Congress of the United States passed Public Law 81-740 granting the FFA a federal charter, which stated the National Advisor shall be a U.S. Department of Education staff member. Later on, the 105th Congress amended the law.

The initial issue of “The National Future Farmer” magazine was printed Fall 1952. Jacque Mercer, Miss America in 1949, appeared on the cover. In 1953, FFA national membership consisted of 363,369 members. Dwight Eisenhower was the first United States president to address the FFA members attending the 1953 national convention.

For the second time in the history of the National FFA, a South Dakota FFA member was elected to a national office. Lowell Gisselbeck, a member of the Watertown FFA Chapter, was elected vice-president for the Central Region.

The National FFA Center was dedicated in 1959. The Center was constructed on land that was once part of George Washington’s estate.

This article takes a look at vocational agriculture programs in the 1950s, featuring interviews with three former students and one teacher.

In response to the question, “What was your best memory of a classroom/FFA activity,” Frank Kurtenbach, 1950-1955 member of the Parkston FFA Chapter, immediately said, “Attending the State FFA Convention in Brookings and paying $1.00 for a mattress to sleep on during the State Convention.” That should bring back memories for a number of readers.

Kurtenbach recalls his instructor, Harold Garry, arriving at the Kurtenbach farm, going to a cornfield, locating two rows of corn representative of the field and completing a yield check. Another memory is a field trip to the local golf course equipped with a “level on a nail” and the class laid out contour lines.

Parkston High School’s Vocational Agriculture classroom was always interesting. Mr. Garry was relaxed in the classroom and a good disciplinarian who knew how to keep everyone’s attention. After one year of high school agriculture from Mr. Garry, a person “knew something about ag.” Admittedly, the curriculum was far different than what is taught today.

Kurtenbach mentioned FFA basketball teams competing with schools in Parkston’s conference. At one time the FFA team had won both the conference and tournament FFA championships. Even the trips to the games were an educational experience. Kurtenbach had three brothers enrolled in each of the four agriculture classes. For out of town games, the brothers had a rotation as to which three could go and participate and who had to go home and do chores. As a result of chapter’s competing against each other on the basketball court there was an increased level of social engagement in the close confines of the ”The Barn.” Kurtenbach states, “We knew each other.”

One day Kurtenbach reported to shop and didn’t have a project. Mr. Garry explained to him that a concrete mold for casting a hog pan would be useful and the school just happened to own one.

Kurtenbach did not recall any type of community service project that the local FFA chapter completed. He agreed that community service was more common in a few years.

At that time some schools would conduct competitive judging events for area FFA members.

Kurtenbach’s concluding comment was, “I didn’t realize it at the time but I had learned a lot about life experiences in four years of agriculture.”

Lloyal Saugstad is a retired elementary teacher/administrator currently living in Waybay, S.D. He graduated from Alcester High School in 1956. Mr. Dobberstein was his vocational agriculture instructor for three years. All of the country boys were enrolled in agriculture classes and no girls were enrolled. The vocational agriculture classes were conducted in a building separated from the high school. The classroom and shop facility consisted of a surplus building from an airfield in Sioux Falls. In shop class, he constructed a tool/nail box. Saugstad still has the individual project.

Saugstad’s best classes focused on livestock. He recalls the Morrison Feeds and Feeding textbook, which was the basis for calculating rations. As reported earlier there seemed to be more instruction in livestock than crops. Saugstad stated that parliamentary procedure was a good instructional unit. The classroom consisted of long, narrow tables in a “U” shape with a lectern at one end. There was screen for a slide projector, which was considered modern at that time.

Saugstad was a member of the meats judging team and recalls sleeping on surplus, military mattresses in the “Old Barn” and being introduced to water balloons.

When describing the impart of vocational agriculture and serving as a State FFA officer, Saugstad pictured himself as shy prior to becoming an officer. He acquired skills in working with people, improved adaptability, being persistent at times and more accepting of people.

Dairy cattle were an interest of Saugstad’s. As a high school sophomore he subscribed to the Hoard’s Dairyman and continues to this day.

Saugstad remembers a two-year FFA chapter project involved “gleaning” ears of corn to help raise money for new athletic uniforms. The Alcester FFA Chapter also sponsored a donkey basketball game with FFA members volunteering to “guide” the donkeys.

Saugstad was employed at elementary schools for 43 years and recalls utilizing agricultural related material entitled “Ag in the Classroom.” In June 1975, Saugstad became the 491st individual to join the National FFA Alumni Association.

Ron Thaden was enrolled in the Milbank High School vocational agriculture program as a freshman in 1955 and graduated in 1959. Thaden remarked that there were no females enrolled in agriculture classes. This was to change not too far in the future. His instructor was Mr. Harold White. Thaden described his Mr. White as very thorough and possessed knowledgeable content in all classes.

Classroom instruction included many aspects of agriculture at that time. Much of the curriculum contained animal science from a textbook and observation of live animals, especially in the spring as they prepared for state judging contests. Plant Science was a part of the curriculum. Thaden recalls having shop classes each quarter, which included mechanics, welding, wood projects, and other areas of instruction which carried over to one’s life. Farm management was integrated into various subjects. He indicated that the program had at least two student teachers a year.

Thaden indicated that he benefited more from FFA than others, as he had two brothers who coached him. He was not as involved at home doing chores, which allowed him time for more participation in various FFA activities. Thaden participated in land judging contests at Webster and dairy products, dairy cattle and agriculture mechanics, elected chapter sentinel and obtained the State Farmer Degree. Thaden mentioned that community service projects sponsored by the FFA were not all that common with the exception of cleaning the city park.

The Milbank community has proven to be a fairly solid community for teaching agriculture. There has only been three instructors from 1945 to the present day: Harold White, Bob Jaskulka, and Jerry Janisch. Is this some type of a record? Thaden was asked what might be contributing to this fact and his response included: the support by the administration, program as being important and sense of making the instructors feel that Milbank was where they belonged.

Loren Kasten started his vocational agriculture teaching career fall 1950 at Wessington Springs High School before he was called into the service. Upon discharge, he was employed at three years at Marian and thirteen years at Scotland.

Mr. Kasten stated that the curriculum was organized around Agriculture I, II, III, and IV an instructional format that was very common from school to school during the 1950’s. At one time he had 33 freshmen enrolled, resulting in two sections.

He indicated his best lessons focused on livestock production. He admitted to finding instruction in crops challenging as “not as much was happening.” An instructional unit in welding was common along with the construction of hog pans. Kasten recalls the FFA basketball teams, teacher in-service from South Dakota State College, utilized textbooks and relied heavily on extension bulletins. He never really experienced extensive discipline problems and sensed he had the parents’ backing.

The Scotland FFA Chapter started selling FFA fruit during the mid sixties. The chapter was responsible for concessions at basketball games and Kasten sold tickets at home football games as teacher “duty.”

Mr. Kasten’s FFA judging teams were successful. During his teaching tenure his teams won twenty-seven first place titles including five titles in one year when only eight contests existed.

Following his high school teaching experience in Scotland, Mr. Kasten was called upon to create the post-secondary agricultural program at Mitchell Technical Institute.

Larry Nelson was a high school senior during Mr. Kasten’s first year of teaching at Scotland. Mr. Nelson started the agribusiness program at Lake Area Technical Institute. Nelson went on to serve as state supervisor of agricultural education, assistant and state director of career and technical education. Nothing like a former student coming back to supervise a teacher.

The upcoming article will focus on federal legislation that changed agricultural education forever.