Looking Back at the History of Texas Extension
By: Kevin Andrews
On this day, one hundred years ago, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law an act brought forward by Senators Hoke Smith (D-GA) and Asbury Lever (D-SC) which has brought immeasurable benefit to the lives of people, businesses, and communities across the United States. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 provided for the creation of a national system of extension work which focused on bringing practical, research-based information about agriculture, home economics, energy, and many other topics to the people of each state. Not solely a federal program, agricultural extension was set up as a cooperative partnership between federal, state, and local governments in association with another unique American institution – the land-grant university.
Texas was quick to take part in this exciting new program, joining the service in June 1914 and formally adopting the provisions of the Act in January of 1915. Formerly a newspaper owner in Houston and Fort Worth, Clarence Outley became the first director of extension for Texas A&M, serving in the role for three years before going on to serve as United States assistant secretary of agriculture. Thomas Walton then assumed the role, later going on to become president of Texas A&M. At Prairie View, Robert Smith became the first head of the Negro Extension Division after a successful career in business and politics.
Extension work in Texas did not originate after the Smith-Lever Act was passed. In fact, extension work in Texas was a major catalyst for the creation of a national cooperative extension system. What was started as an experiment to solve emerging issues and educate the public was so successful that others began to take notice. In 1903, following the outbreak of the boll weevil across Texas, Seaman Knapp arrived in Terrell to help the local citizens in their efforts to eradicate this pest. Knapp, known as the father of cooperative extension, set up a demonstration farm on the land of Walter Porter to implement effective pest control methods for farmers to see for themselves how these methods worked.
From his Houston office, Knapp organized “lecture trains” to reach out to farmers across the state, and, in the first year alone, convinced 7,000 farmers to set up demonstration farms. Knapp was also responsible for the hiring of the nation’s first single county agent, William Stallings, in Smith County. Stallings then went on to become a district agent, where cotton and corn yields increased over 50 percent.
Just a couple of years after Texas’ first county agents began to appear, so did the state’s youth development efforts. In 1908, Jack County agent Tom Marks established the first corn club in order to engage a young audience who would be more accepting of change than older farmers who were more set in their ways. Later, beef cattle clubs (Coleman County, 1910) and girls’ tomato clubs (Milam County, 1912) followed suit, and led to the creation of the modern 4-H program.
It is in Milam County that the first female county agent, Edna Trigg, began her work in 1912. Her story alone is worthy of an entire article, but it is suffice to say that she was extremely hard working, innovative, and overcame many obstacles. Mrs. Trigg even continued to work when there was no longer funding for her salary and conducted her own research and experiments to improve the quality of her teaching.
As we celebrate a century of service to our state and nation today, let us be sure to reflect on the beginnings of this life-changing program called cooperative extension and the important role Texas played in its early days and how we can continue to lead the way for our nation. Let us also appreciate all we have become and all we have now – especially considering our first headquarters was in a tent on the campus of the A&M College of Texas!
14 in ’14 is a monthly series celebrating the centennial anniversary of the passage of the Smith-Lever Act, the legislation which created the national cooperative extension system. Each month we will feature people, programs, history, and ideas highlighting some of the unique accomplishments of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
14 in ’14 is a joint effort between Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service Organizational Development Unit and graduate students from the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education, and Communications at Texas A&M University, under the direction of Scott Cummings, Jeff Ripley, and Kevin Andrews.