Steam and the Agriculture Classroom

| January 2005

  • AgricultureforBeginners.jpg
    Above: A bobtail Case pumping water was shown in the 1904 edition of Agriculture for Beginners.
  • KansasStateAgriculturalCollege.jpg
    Top: Kansas State Agricultural College, early 1900s. (From the author’s collection.)
  • FieldCrops.jpg
    Above: A Holt harvester-thresher unit shown in Field Crops.
  • ElementaryAgriculture.jpg
    Right: A fanciful scene depicted in the 1923 edition of Elementary Agriculture.
  • PracticalAgriculture.jpg
    From top: The shape of the canopy suggests this engine is a Reeves, shown in Agriculture for Beginners; what must be an early Best, shown in the 1909 edition of Practical Agriculture; a threshing scene from Practical Agriculture; a Case 110 shown in the 1912 edition of Field Crops.
  • EssentialsofAgriculture_2.jpg
    Bottom: A Reeves pulling a thresher, also from Essentials of Agriculture.
  • EssentialsofAgriculture_1.jpg
    Below: A sketch in the 1915 edition of Essentials of Agriculture shows a Reeves plowing.

  • AgricultureforBeginners.jpg
  • KansasStateAgriculturalCollege.jpg
  • FieldCrops.jpg
  • ElementaryAgriculture.jpg
  • PracticalAgriculture.jpg
  • EssentialsofAgriculture_2.jpg
  • EssentialsofAgriculture_1.jpg

" … 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.

In 1918, arguing that the war demanded women trained in nutrition and extension work, Soule persuaded the board of trustees to admit women to the college. Given Soule's respect for the educational attainments of women, it comes as no surprise that he co-authored his agriculture text with Turpin, a recognized editor and author who had written for young readers. Soule and Turpin's book depicted a James Leffel portable steam engine involved in a corn-shredding operation.


John W. Wilkinson, assistant state superintendent of education for Oklahoma and formerly a professor of agriculture at the Northwestern Normal School in Alva, Okla., published Practical Agriculture in 1909. Citing President Theodore Roosevelt's National Commission on Country Life, Wilkinson attested that the "whole nation is beginning to realize the need of better rural schools and more practical instruction." Wilkinson added, "Likewise it is no less important that pupils in our city schools should receive some instruction in agriculture so that they may have a proper conception of the country and the opportunities they might enjoy there which would be denied them in the city." Wilkinson warned, "The solid and substantial wealth of our nation comes from the country and not from the city, but this hard-earned wealth produced on the farms is being nearly all diverted to the improvement of cities and city institutions, instead of being used for the improvement of the country and its institutions."

Practical Agriculture carried a photograph of a Best steamer pulling a plow. Wilkinson included a steam "thrashing" scene and a view of steam-powered logging in the state of Washington.


From 1910 until 1920, A.D. Wilson held the post of first extension director for the University of Minnesota. In 1912, Wilson teamed with C.W. Warburton, a leading agronomist with the United States Department of Agriculture, to produce Field Crops. In a preface, they wrote, "The development of agricultural high schools and of agricultural courses in the regular high schools has been so rapid in the past few years that the demand for suitable textbooks is as yet largely unfilled. The instructors in these schools have been compelled to adapt to their uses college texts on the leading agricultural subjects, to supply the necessary matter in the form of lectures, or to supplement the necessarily brief treatment which is given these subjects within the limits of a single volume covering the whole field of elementary agriculture." Field Crops contained pictures of a 110 HP Case and a Holt combined harvester-thresher.


A prolific author of agriculture texts for several decades, Henry Jackson Waters (who provided the supplement for Burkett, Stevens and Hill's book) had edited the St. Louis Journal of Agriculture and had been a leader in mounting the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. In 1915, he published Essentials of Agriculture, which became a favorite of public schools. Waters relied upon 23 professors and scientists who contributed chapters on their specialties. Honored by the Georgia Agricultural Hall of Fame, Soule served as a consultant on the manuscript. Waters' opening chapter is graced by an artist's sketch of a Reeves steam engine. A Reeves also appears in a threshing photograph.

In 1923, Waters produced Elementary Agriculture, with a colored frontispiece of children amid pumpkins and shocks of corn. In the distance is what appears to be a Case steam-threshing rig. Waters concluded: "Agriculture is the richest of school subjects in fact and tradition, and when it is properly taught no other subject compares with it in human interest." Readers of Steam Traction agree.

I thank Donald C. Thoma for lending me his copy of Field Crops.

Steam historian and regular contributor Robert T. Rhode may be reached at: 990 W. Lower Springboro Road, Springboro, OH 45066;


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