South Dakota Ag Education and FFA History: The beginning of land-grant colleges

Clark W. Hanson Professor Emeritus, Agricultural Education, SDSU
Farm Forum

Author’s Note: To commemorate the passage of the Smith Hughes Act of 1917, I have decided to write a historical summary of events that have occurred in the South Dakota Agricultural Education program. Over the next 18 months to two years, I plan to submit a series of articles for the Green Sheet as a means of sharing how the South Dakota program originated and developed over the past 100 years.

Josiah Holbrook, Yale graduate 1810, originated the lyceum movement in 1826. Alfred True in his book, “A History of Agricultural Education in the United States, 1785-1925,” states, “Among the factors which broadened the educational outlook of the people and laid the foundation for vocational education was the lyceum movement.”

While the above was happening, there was considerable effort to incorporate instruction in agriculture within private colleges and parallel efforts occurred in multiple state colleges to develop curriculum for the “common folks.”

As interest increased in science and in particular the agricultural sciences, efforts were put forth to establish colleges with a focus on agriculture. There were colleges teaching agricultural courses in the beginning of the 1800s and continued up to the 1850s.

The State of Massachusetts requested Congress for land to establish a “National Normal Agriculture College” similar to West Point “for the purpose of educating teachers and professors for service to the rest of the country.”

Senator Justin Smith Morrill is generally given the credit for establishing the land-grant colleges in the United States. Senator Morrill certainly sponsored the legislation for such colleges but where did the original idea come from?

Jonathan Baldwin Turner was a professor at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Illinois, founded in 1829. He eventually taught about every subject known to mankind at that time. Professor Turner must have been a character as he had interests in a wide variety of subjects and at times was a bit “unorthodox.” He devoted his efforts in promoting education for those who normally were not included as college students. In the 1830s he labeled those individuals the sons and daughters of what he called “the working class.” In 1850, Professor Turner proposed “A Plan of our State University for the Industrial Class.” The plan included low tuition costs, a curriculum based “in practical and vocational subjects to benefit the working class, and to fund the colleges with “grants of land” for all states in the Union. Professor Turner continued to promote the concept of agricultural colleges and secured the backing of a wide variety of organizations including support from the Convention of Illinois Farmers (1851,1852), the Illinois Industrial League (1851) and the New York House of Representatives (1852).

Individuals pushing the agenda found Justin S. Morrill, U.S. representative from Vermont, willing to sponsor the legislation for the establishment of colleges that would teach agriculture. Representative Morrill introduced such legislation in 1857. President Buchanan vetoed the legislation, but Turner secured the approval of 1860 presidential candidates Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln to sign the proposed legislation.

Representative Morrill, who eventually became a senator, continued to sponsor legislative bills to establish such educational programs. Morrill’s efforts were finally successful during the second year of the Civil War, following the departure of the 13 states which made up the Confederacy. Morrill felt that other industries had benefitted from congressional action and agriculture should have this type of backing. Morrill proposed the use of land, as it had been successful with the railroads. Morrill’s initial proposal was to increase accessibility (affordable) and practical delivery by “one or more national agricultural schools upon the basis of the naval and military academic.”

The purpose of the land-grant colleges was: “…without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactic, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”

The funding basis for the establishment, of what were to be called land-grant colleges, was the allocation of 30,000 acres for each senator and representative serving in Congress at the time the legislation passed or when the state was admitted to the Union. The question is often raised, “Is this the land where the colleges were built or locations for experiment stations farms?”

Where is the ag education connection? That information will be forth coming.

Ag history facts

In 1834, the first practical reaper was invented by Cyrus McCormick.

John Deere patented the steel plow in 1837.

In 1842, Sir John Lawes, of England, constructed the first factory to manufacture superphosphate.


• “Democratizing American Higher education: The Legacy of the Morrill Land Grant Act”, ORIGINS, History Departments at The Ohio State University and Miami University.

• “Milestones in the Legislative History of U.S. Land-Grant Universities,” P. Appleby, Professor Emeritus of Crop Science Oregon State University, Oct. 2007.