South Dakota Agricultural Education and FFA History: The establishment of land-grant colleges

Clark W. Hanson Professor Emeritus, Agricultural Education, South Dakota State University
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.

The Land – Grant Act of 1862

Following the passage of the Land-Grant Act of 1862, various states established higher education institutions to teach agriculture, mechanical arts and military science. Rutgers University, established in 1766 was designated the land-grant institution for the state of New Jersey. Agricultural colleges had been established in the 1850’s, Michigan and Pennsylvania, as a result of funds previously appropriated by Congress and were designated land-grant colleges. Iowa State holds the designation of being the first land-grant college resulting from the Morrill Act.

The 30,000 acres of land for each Congressional seat, based on the 1860 census, was to be sold and invested in stocks at not less than 5 percent interest and treated as an endowment.

It would appear, based on this information, the locations for campus and experiment stations were not located on the initial land granted. Some states in the Northeast, where the federal government did not own much land, were given land “out West” and instructed to sell such property. For example, the land allocated to the University of Massachusetts was located in Nebraska and Kansas.

The University of Minnesota initially opened in 1851, closed during the Civil War, reopened in 1867 and was an official recipient of land-grant assistance. The University of Nebraska opened in 1869; Dakota Agricultural College (later South Dakota State College) started in 1881. The Dakota Territorial Government was to sell the land and establish a college. North Dakota State was started in 1890.

An interesting historical fact is that James Scobey, Dakota Territory legislator from Brookings, was on a mission while attending the 1881 Dakota Territorial Legislature session. His goal was to secure the location of the proposed territorial prison for the City of Brookings. Legislator Scobey returned to the Brookings community with the rights to establish the Dakota Territorial Agricultural College.

The Brookings Community was charged with buying land located northeast of Brookings. Six hundred and two dollars were collected for the purchase.

Admission requirements to the Dakota Agricultural College included: “[A] student must not be less than 12 years of age, be able to intelligently render specimens of the grade of Swinton’s Fifth Reader and must be thoroughly acquainted with the four fundamental operations of arithmetic … applicant must be able to write simple English sentences, to capitalize and punctuate the same and write a fair letter.”

Examples of textbooks utilized during this time period include: “Elements of Scientific Agriculture” by John Norton, 1850; “Lessons in Modern Farming” by John Blake, 1851; “The American Textbook of Practical and Scientific Agriculture” by Charles Fox, 1854; “A Manual of Scientific and Practical Agriculture for the School and the Farm” by J. L. Campbell, 1859.

Agricultural classes offered at Kansas State Agricultural College in 1869 were listed as:

• Freshman – soils, tillage, draining and fertilizers;

• Sophomores – crops, farm machinery, physiology, diseases of animals and horticulture;

• Juniors – Field crops, animal husbandry,

• Seniors – history of agriculture, systems of agriculture.

Professor Emeritus Appleby, Oregon State University, labeled the Land-Grant Act of 1862 as a “Bill of Educational Rights.” The Act was passed at a time when fewer than two percent of the population continued their education beyond high school.

The Hatch Act of 1887

The growth of science was phenomenal during the second half of the 19th Century, and agriculture was certainly a part of such growth. Where did the land-grant college professors locate the scientific principles for the emerging curriculums?

George Washington made the call for research in his 1796 message to Congress. Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, “had an inventive mind and a flare for scientific experimentation.” Early agricultural visionaries were known to conduct experiments of their own and shared results with “interested persons.”

The Hatch Act budgeted funds for land-grant colleges to create “experiment stations.” The Act provided $15,000 to each land-grant college. The purpose for such funding was “to aid in acquiring and diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects connected with agriculture, and to promote scientific investigations and experiments respecting the principles and application of agricultural science.”

The Second Land – Grand Act of 1890

In 1890, Senator Justin Morrill introduced legislation twelve times to establish land-grant colleges for African-American students. Sixteen colleges were established under this act along with Tuskegee University established in 1881 by the Alabama legislature and previously given 25,000 acres by Congress in 1899.

The Smith – Lever Act of 1914

At the close of the 19th Century and the start of the 20th Century, land-grant colleges had started to “teach off campus” by conducting community demonstrations and starting boys and girls clubs focusing on specific topics for agriculture and home making. Two pioneers are credited with molding the Extension Philosophy, Seaman Knapp, later President of Iowa State University and Kenyon Butterfield, President of Massachusetts Agricultural College. The two individuals possessed different philosophies for disseminating the curriculum. The end result was a combination of the two teaching systems. Along with the education programs, 4-H Clubs were established for young men and women.

The “Tripartite “ or “three – legged milk stool” illustration for agricultural academics, research and extension service was installed. The extension service was particularly unique as funding from three sources (federal , state, county) were utilized thus the name the Cooperative Extension Service.

The next article will feature the events leading to and passage of the Smith–Hughes Act of 1917, the beginnings of Vocational Education or as it is known today, Career and Technical Education and a linkage to land-grant colleges.


• “The College on the Hill,” Amy Dunkle and V.J. Smith, South Dakota State University, 2003.

• “A History of Agricultural Education in the United States, 1785-1925,” Alfred Charles True, United States Department of Agriculture, Miscellaneous Publication No. 36, 1929.

• “Milestones in the Legislative History of U.S. Land-Grant Universities,” P. Appleby, Professor Emeritus of Crop Science Oregon State University, Oct. 2007. (Over the years most land-grant colleges were eventually named land-grant universities. State legislators changed South Dakota State College name to South Dakota State University, July 1964.)

• “Morrill Act History”, Dana Hess, A Magazine for South Dakota State University Alumni and Friends, June 29, 2012.