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Agriculture and Educating the Farmer

“[I]t is not agriculture as an art that needs to be taught so much as agriculture as a science; it is to the sciences upon which the art is founded that we must look for all future progress.”
–Norton Strange Townshend, “Agriculture in the United States”

Flier for agricultural lectures given by N. S. Townshend, c. 1880. Norton Strange Townshend Family Papers, Box 22, Folder 26.

Norton Townshend’s lifetime, 1815-1895, encompassed a number of important changes for farmers. At the dawn of the 19th century, 90% of the population was occupied in agricultural pursuits, a proportion that would decline to 43% by 1890. Townshend applauded and made essential contributions to the increasing application of science to agriculture, which allowed a large portion of the population to leave the farm because of higher crop yields. At the same time, he deplored the loss of status of those who remained on the farm, and worked to educate them and help them succeed, as well as legitimize them in society’s eyes.

Townshend’s interest in agriculture apparently began in his youth, when he learned to identify and distinguish numerous breeds of livestock, and to utilize tiles to drain the damp clay fields of the family farm in Ohio. Although passions for medicine and reform politics led him away from agriculture in the 1830s and 1840s, his interest in farm matters apparently never waned. In letters he wrote from Europe while studying medicine, Townshend returns repeatedly to the topic of agricultural improvement and farming techniques, whether discussing novel varieties of cabbage, or, as in this excerpt from an 1841 letter to his parents from England, sweeping social trends:

Agriculture has made very great progress in many parts of this country during the last ten years even–a very general interest appears to be excited among the farmers and many gentlemen give their wealth and talents to the advancement of the science. I shall be able to tell you on my return to what this progress is attributable and I think I could tell how they might advance much more rapidly than they do.1

1854 Flier for Ohio Agriculture College at Oberlin, which N. S. Townshend co-founded. Norton Strange Townshend Family Papers, Box 22, Folder 34.

In terms of agricultural involvement, the year 1854 was a major turning point for Townshend. In January, his wife, Harriet, died of tuberculosis, leaving him the single parent of their two young children. He re-located the family to the farm in Avon, and in May, sold the Elyria home and medical practice he had purchased from Dr. Richard Howard, putting a permanent end to his career as a doctor. Townshend’s political career was also coming to a close after the disappointing loss of his seat in Congress. Although he acted as state senator until 1855, he had already begun transitioning into a life as a farmer and agricultural educator. One sign of this was his publication of one of his most important essays, entitled “The Farmer’s Mission,” in a major agricultural journal, the Ohio Cultivator. At a time when no agricultural schools existed in the United States, Townshend wrote:

“Time was when men supposed any dunce might make a farmer–that boys intended for this calling needed but little education, and certainly not any very particular education. It was thought this business, unlike others, did not require to be learned, but that men grew up to be farmers spontaneously. At present these notions are rapidly changing… And it also begins to be understood that several branches of Natural Science have intimate relations to agriculture, and that without knowledge of these many of the most important operations of the farm are but guess-work.”2

In conjunction with the publication of his essay, Townshend and two Oberlin colleagues embarked on a mission to bring scientific education to Ohio’s farmers. Townshend’s attempts at establishing a scientific school for farmers actually began nearly a decade before this, in 1845, when as a trustee of Oberlin College, he had put forth a resolution to establish an agricultural school at Oberlin. However, his idea would not come to fruition until 1854, when he and James Dascomb and James Fairchild established Ohio Agricultural College, in Oberlin, Ohio.

Although Michigan State University, which admitted its first students in 1857, is widely considered to be the first agricultural college in the United States, the Agricultural College at Oberlin, although not state-sponsored, began offering classes three years earlier. According to Townshend, the College “was modelled [sic] somewhat after the plan of Medical Schools.” In a letter to the State Agricultural Board of Michigan, he explained that its purpose was “not so much to train up the rising generation in the practical details of farming as to give to the farmers already in, or about entering upon active life, an opportunity of learning the rationale of their every day labors and operations.”3Courses were offered in winter, to allow for the attendance of practicing farmers, and utilized the facilities of Oberlin College during the three months of its winter recess in order to lower costs.

Letter to Townshend from United States Agricultural Society, referencing the Morrill Land Grant Act, 1862. Norton Strange Townshend Family Papers, Box 1, Folder 32.

At Ohio Agricultural College, Townshend taught classes on a range of topics such as comparative anatomy, veterinary medicine and surgery, entomology, and domestic animal breeds. Unfortunately, the College failed to attract more than a handful of students, due perhaps to its expense ($40.00 for tuition, plus $2.00 per week for room and board) or to farmers’ prejudice against “book-farming.” The College was held only once at Oberlin; the next two years it took place in Cleveland in a similar environment, but never attracted the volume of students that Townshend and his colleagues had hoped. It was thus given up after three years for lack of money to continue.

In 1858, Townshend was elected to the Ohio State Board of Agriculture, an organization founded in 1844 to promote the interests of farmers at a state level. He served on the Board for six consecutive years, 1858-63, twice holding the position of President. From this more prominent platform, Townshend once again advocated for the establishment of an agricultural college in Ohio, and insisted that, unlike his previous attempts at Oberlin and Cleveland, the college must be state-sponsored. He argued that the great importance of food production to Ohio justified the expense of such an endeavor. Once this idea was advanced by Representative Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont, Townshend became an early supporter and publicizer of the Morrill Land Grant Bill, clearing the way for Morrill, Ben Wade, and other politicians to get the bill passed in July 1862.

In addition to advocating for scientific agricultural education, an important function of the Board of Agriculture was to plan and oversee agricultural fairs, especially the annual Ohio State Fair, which it sponsored. The State Fair, begun in 1850, gave oft-isolated farmers an opportunity to share agricultural knowledge and put their innovations–of livestock, crops, and agricultural machinery–on display. Townshend and his wife, Margaret, served as judges in a number of State Fairs, evaluating farm products and livestock. Although Townshend was eventually forced to resign from the Board in order to serve in the Civil War, he was reappointed to the Board later in the decade, from 1868-69.

In 1869, Townshend took a position as Professor of Agriculture at the new Iowa Agricultural College, where he taught classes in botany, physiology, and physical and local geography. He was so popular with students that a number of them signed a petition in an attempt to persuade him to stay at Iowa permanently–however, Townshend came back to Ohio after one school year, as scheduled. Although it seems surprising that Townshend would leave his home and family behind for a temporary appointment in a different state, the philosophy of Iowa Agricultural College aligned almost perfectly with Townshend’s beliefs; it eschewed the teaching of the classics in favor of educating students in the natural sciences and admitted women to every opportunity offered to the College’s men. In addition, it gave him a trial-run at managing a large-scale agricultural department at a time when Ohio was poised to create a similar school with the money from the Morrill Act.

Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College lecture flier, 1877. Norton Strange Townshend Family Papers, Box 22, Folder 23.


In 1870, the Ohio General Assembly chartered Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College with the funds from the sale of the Morrill land. Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes selected Townshend and 18 other men, one from each district across the state, to act as trustees of the new College, whose location and curriculum had not yet been determined. Townshend was elected as a member of the Board’s Executive Committee at the first trustees’ meeting. One of the first acts of the trustees was to select the 320-acre Neil Farm, which was two miles north of Columbus, as the location of the College. Townshend is shown to have voted in favor of this site.

The trustees then began debating the more contentious issue of the form that curriculum should take. Townshend unsuccessfully introduced a resolution “That the course of instruction in the Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College should embrace not only the sciences that especially pertain to agriculture and the mechanic arts but whatever practical instruction will make the labor of every individual class more successful and elevating.” He also attempted to prevent the inclusion of departments of English Language and Literature and Ancient and Modern Languages within the offerings of the College. This was not because he opposed the teaching of classics–indeed, he encouraged his son James to study classical languages and had studied Latin himself–but rather because he wished the College to be an institution for farmers, with a narrow curriculum that would serve their needs as other institutions could not. Townshend’s first attempt at excluding the liberal arts from the College’s curriculum occurred in 1870 and was opposed by every other trustee. However, Townshend was almost successful in abolishing the English and Classics Departments in a second attempt, three years later, in January 1873, when his motion to do so failed by only one vote. Townshend’s vision for the College contrasted sharply with the ideas of another prominent trustee, Joseph Sullivant, who wanted to establish a great state university with a broad curriculum, less tailored to vocational needs. In the end, Sullivant’s vision of the college prevailed.

Before the start of the first term, Townshend was asked to resign from the Board of Trustees so that he could be appointed Professor and Chair of Agriculture. The College held its first classes on September 17, 1873, and Townshend’s three children with Margaret–Arthur, Harriet, and Alice–were among the first group of 17 students to enroll, making the College co-educational from its first day of operation.

In “Theoretical Farming vs. Practical Stupidity,” Townshend argues against the idea that education corrupts the farmer. Norton Strange Townshend Family Papers, Box 15, Folder 10.


In Townshend’s first year at the College, he taught classes on soils and fertilizer, drainage and irrigation, horticulture, and livestock varieties and their diseases. He was also appointed superintendent of the College Farm, which was used to grow food for students living on campus, as well as to conduct experiments involving crops and livestock. He would teach classes on a variety of subjects every term for the next 18 years.

Within several years, Townshend apparently changed his view of the broad curriculum adopted by the College. In an 1876 manuscript he wrote, entitled “Agricultural Education in the United States,” he actually praised the variety of classes offered, writing, “if a student begins the day with mathematical studies, and after a good lesson is somewhat wearied, than [sic] botany, zoology, or chemistry will be pursued for a time in the laboratory with absolute freshness; then after a few hours spent in good, healthy, vigorous labor, the study of some ancient or modern language will add little to the fatigue, and much to the scholarship.” 4

Although Townshend’s ideas about the ideal form of the agricultural College may have changed, his concerns about the reluctance of farmers to embrace a liberal arts and agricultural college turned out to be well-founded. Farmers were slow to enroll; only a handful signed up for classes the first year. Part of the problem may have been the duration of the program, which could last up to six years for rural students without much pre-college preparation. However, when Townshend began offering shorter “Farmers’ Institute” classes as well, they received an equally tepid reception. The first degree in agriculture was not awarded until 1885, twelve years after the establishment of the college.

Townshend’s passion for agriculture led him to collect items such as this advertisement. Norton Strange Townshend Family Papers, Box 21, Folder 12.

Townshend looked for ways to make the college more appealing to farmers. He had long advocated the idea of a state-sponsored experimental station, and formally proposed the idea and circulated a petition in 1879, shortly after the College was renamed Ohio State University, in hopes that this would win over farmers. He advocated a Station that engaged in both laboratory and field experiments, and which would be supervised by the University’s Board of Trustees. He attempted to curry support for the plan by touring the state and promoting his vision of the station through lectures. In March of 1880, a bill was introduced in the Ohio House of Representatives to establish the station, but it did not pass, due to the resistance of the agricultural community, which viewed the University with suspicion and wanted more control over the station than Townshend’s plan allowed. The idea was revived and significantly modified in 1882 by Townshend’s colleague and the school’s other Professor of Agriculture, William Lazenby. According to Lazenby’s proposal for the station, an independent board rather than the Ohio State University Board of Trustees would govern all aspects of the new station. This arrangement was more to the liking of farmers, and passed the General Assembly in April 1882. A very small budget of $3000 per year was provided by the state for its operation.

Townshend was put in charge of the station’s farm experiments, while Lazenby would determine and conduct the garden experiments. In 1886, Townshend was made Director of the Station and Lazenby appointed Vice Director. Townshend continued to teach and advocate for Ohio’s farmers until his retirment in 1891, at the age of 75, at which point he became Ohio State University’s first professor emeritus. In 1898, the University would honor him by naming its agricultural building Townshend Hall. Townshend made a mark on many fields, but his influence on agricultural education was the most significant. He attempted to make agriculture more scientific, while at the same time preserving its tradition as a wholesome, family pursuit. In accordance with his reform bent, he brought to the field a dedication to discovering the ways in which both the farm and the life of the farmer could be improved.


1 Norton Townshend letter, January 1, 1841.

2 “The Farmer’s Mission”

3 “Transactions of the State Agricultural Board of Michigan”

4 “Agricultural Education in the United States”