Steam and the Agriculture Classroom

| January 2005

" … every child intended for the farm should be taught to know and love nature, should be led to form habits of observation, and should be required to begin a study of those great laws upon which agriculture is based."

So wrote Charles William Burkett, Frank Lincoln Stevens and Daniel Harvey Hill Jr., in 1903. To educate farm children, the three had authored Agriculture for Beginners, which became a popular textbook. Burkett was editor of the American Agriculturist and had directed the agricultural experiment station at the Kansas State Agricultural College. Stevens was a professor of biology at the North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts. His wife, also in biology, became the first female faculty member at North Carolina State University. Hill was a professor of English and bookkeeping at North Carolina, and, from 1908 through 1916, he served as the college's third president. The university's main library was named after him.

Burkett, Stevens and Hill saw "no difference between teaching the child the fundamental principles of farming, and teaching the same child the fundamental truths of arithmetic, geography or grammar." When Burkett, Stevens and Hill's book appeared, public schools were just beginning to offer agriculture courses. In the 1850s, a few specialized agricultural high schools had formed, and, in 1862, the Morrill Land-Grant Act had enabled states to fund colleges of agriculture and mechanical arts, but four more decades passed before agriculture entered the common school curriculum. The proliferation of agriculture courses after 1900 coincided with the increasing demand for steam power on America's farms; consequently, agriculture textbooks featured illustrations of steam engines.


Pictured in the first edition of Agriculture for Beginners was a bobtail Case pumping water for an irrigation system. Teachers around the country asked the authors to provide supplements with information important to their regions. Accordingly, in 1912, Henry Jackson Waters, president of the Kansas State Agricultural College, supplied a lengthy section on wheat, corn, silos and alfalfa. In Waters' supplement were photographs of a Reeves steam engine pulling a disc and an Avery steam engine threshing wheat.


In 1907, Andrew M. Soule and Edna Henry Lee Turpin published Agriculture: Its Fundamental Principles. By that year, agriculture had become required in public schools in most states. Soule and Turpin explained why: "The purpose of teaching agriculture is not to make a farmer of each child, any more than the purpose of teaching literature is to make an author of each one. The study is, however, especially useful to children who will some day be men and women with good farms to maintain or poor ones to improve." At a time when over half the population of the United States was rural, Soule and Turpin's point was well taken.

From 1903 through 1906, Soule was dean of agriculture at the Georgia State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts; when he and Turpin brought out their book, he had just been appointed president of the college.