The Massachusetts Situation – A Profile in Courage (1/11/2019)

Last week we looked at the “public” material (FFA Convention Proceedings and FFA Board Minutes) about the controversy regarding the inclusion of girls in the FFA during the 1930s. My plan was to next reveal the “private” material (primarily letters) to see what was going on behind the scenes. However, since nearly all of the letters were sent to or from Rufus Stimson, it became apparent we first need to introduce the profession to Rufus Stimson of Massachusetts. He was an adamant spokesperson for girls being members of the FFA. We need to know more about him in order to provide context to the letters that will be shared next week.

Rufus Stimson

The primary advocate for including girls in the FFA during the 1930s was Rufus Stimson. He was the state supervisor of agricultural education in Massachusetts from 1911 until his mandatory retirement at the age of 70 in 1938. What do we know about Stimson?

Stimson possessed a Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Philosophy from Harvard (he studied under the noted American philosopher William James). He then went to Yale and earned another Bachelor’s degree – this time in Divinity (theology, religion).

After graduating from Yale, Stimson was a professor of English, ethics, and public speaking at the Connecticut Agricultural College (now the University of Connecticut). He ascended to the position of acting president in 1901 (the Grange ran the previous president off) and was made president shortly thereafter. He served as president of the Connecticut Agricultural College until 1908 when he resigned to accept a position as director of the newly created Smith’s Agricultural School in Northampton, Massachusetts (25 miles from his childhood home).

At Smith’s Agricultural School, he originated the “home project” method which we now know as Supervised Agricultural Experience (SAE). He remained here for three years until he was persuaded to become the state supervisor of agricultural education for Massachusetts.

During his professional career, he was widely respected for his keen intellect, integrity, and principles. He had a long history of being an advocate for the inclusion of women in agriculture. Years before the start of the FFA, Stimson wrote the following in the Vocational Education Magazine (Stimson, 1922, p. 95):

We may feel that a man is better muscled than a woman to meet the physical stresses and strains of farming; and that, for this reason, vocational agriculture is more appropriate for a boy than a girl. And we may feel that mixed classes in some phases of project teaching are not desirable. Nevertheless, now and then a woman owns a farm upon which she is dependent for a living, and now and then a girl has an unmistakable bent for farming. Year after year, girls have demonstrated that they can profit from our vocational agricultural education. Under such circumstances, we must, of course, agree, that there can be no discrimination as to sex in our entrance privileges.

These were not idle words. An examination of Stimson’s book, Vocational Agricultural Education by Home Projects (1919), reveals that he had girls in agriculture at Smith’s Agricultural School. As state supervisor, he required all agriculture departments to have advisory committees, of which at least one member had to be a female (Stimson, 1919, p. 190).

Stimson not only advocated for females, but he was also an advocate for improving education for people of color. In 1916 he and Paul Hanus (Dean of Education at Harvard) spent time at Hampton Institute in Virginia helping to improve the curriculum and teaching methodology. Hampton was established to serve the freed slaves.

In 1935 the superintendent of Haskell Institute in Kansas traveled to Massachusetts to meet with Stimson and came away “deeply impressed with the splendid ideas” he had received (Monahan, 1938). Haskell Institute is an institution that serves American Indians and Alaska Natives (it is known today as Haskell Indian Nations University).

In a 1933 letter to the National FFA President (Vernon Howell) Stimson wrote:

The enrollment in our vocational agriculture schools and departments include racial stocks in the widest variety. Old-time Yankees, Scandinavians, Irish, French, Polish, Portuguese, Negro, and Indian to mention a few. Our enrollment includes Roman Catholics, Protestants, Hebrews; and for aught we know, since we never ask anybody what his religious relationships are, some who may be without denominational religious affiliation. Just as there is no discrimination here as to race, or religion, so there is none with relation to sex in our educational program. 

Stimson’s Typewriter

In addition to advocating for girls in agriculture, embracing all races and religions, and developing the home project method of teaching, Stimson also brought task analysis to agriculture as a way to develop curriculum, supported the use of advisory committees, promoted adult education, was a pioneer in teacher training, and was an outspoken proponent for balanced education – vocational education coupled with a liberal education.

Stimson was a prolific writer and published numerous professional articles. He also wrote a history of agricultural education in the United States (after his retirement while he was in his 70s) and was preparing a book identifying the early leaders in agricultural education at the time of his death. The typewriter Stimson used to write these books is shown.

A retirement banquet was held in February of 1938 to honor Mr. Stimson. At this banquet, he was presented with two leather bound books of congratulatory letters. One bound volume contained letters from national and state leaders. There are 321 letters in this book. In the introduction to this book of letters we find the following created by two professors at the University of Massachusetts:

R ich in your knowledge of Vocational Education in Agriculture
U nswerving in your faith in its value and success
F ather of the Home Project in its teaching
U ndaunted by reverses and obstacles in its program
S teadfast in defense of its principles

S ociable and sane among friends and coworkers
T olerant in discussion
I ndependent in thought and action
M arking good work with unstinted praise
S itting in honor at the councils of leadership
O ffering you best, in word and in deed,
N ationally known and regarded

The second book contained statements from the agricultural education departments in the state of Massachusetts along with the signatures of current and former students. There are thousands of signatures, including those of numerous females. When Stimson visited a school in his role as state supervisor, he would insist on accompanying the teacher to make visits to student projects. Thus, he established personal relationships with the students and was on many of the farms in the state.

This book of letters contains 321 letters from national and state leaders.

Reading the letters and statements contained in the books of letters gives one a clear picture of the character of Rufus Stimson. C. H. Lane, the first national advisor of the FFA, wrote (January 28, 1938): “I have recognized you as being one who has been fearless in standing by your theories through the past quarter of a century. Time or personal convenience has apparently meant nothing to you. You have given all in your power to the cause in which you have been devoted.” Lane goes on to state “I have always thought of you as one of the elect few whose personality, alert intelligence, unfailing courage, self-confidence and perfect poise on all occasions were of national consequence.”

Ellery Metcalf, an instructor at the Essex County Agricultural School wrote (February 21, 1938) “your gallant stand on the question of Massachusetts’s participation as an affiliate in the National F.F.A. movement” was inspiring.

A Dairy Science professor at Massachusetts State College (now the University of Massachusetts), H. G. Lindquist, stated (December 23, 1937) “The efforts you have exerted to establish and expand the agricultural education opportunities for boys and girls will be appreciated by generations to come, and will be a living memorial of your untiring efforts.”

Alfred Lombard, an official in the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture, wrote (December 27, 1937) “The great number of boys and girls in Massachusetts who have made a success in agriculture, largely as a result of the foundation which you were so instrumental in laying, are a sufficient testimonial, it seems to me, as to the value and the character of the service which you have rendered.”

It is noteworthy that people outside of agricultural education were aware of and noted that both boys and girls had benefitted from Stimson’s efforts. Numerous other letters talk about the impact of Stimson on BOTH boys and girls. Numerous other letters talk about the impact of Stimson on both boys and girls.

When the national leadership of the FFA went after Massachusetts for having girls in the FFA, they didn’t realize what a formidable opponent they had in Rufus Stimson. Now that we have “met” Rufus Stimson, we are ready to proceed to the next Friday Footnote which will be a behind the scenes look at the battle. The Footnote next week will focus on the “private” letters written to, from, and about Stimson.

In a speech to the North Atlantic Regional Conference in 1939, Stimson identified three qualities he deemed vital for “perpetual professional enhancement.” These were pride, ambition, and courage. His concluding remark was “the greatest of these is COURAGE.” Stimson was indeed a profile in courage. Next week’s Footnote will demonstrate that.  

If you want to learn more about Stimson check out this document – Where Are You When We Need You – Rufus Stimson. For more information about the manuscript on the pioneer leaders in agricultural education that Stimson was working on at the time of his death, check out Identifying the First Generation Leaders in Agricultural Education: The Lost Stimson Manuscript.

A Question to Consider

Stimson was an advocate for inclusion. He strongly believed that both boys and girls belonged in agricultural education and the FFA. He also believed all races and religions should be welcome in the agricultural classroom and FFA. He had the courage to stand up for what he considered to be right.

So what about agriculture teachers today? Do we willingly and enthusiastically accept ALL students into our program regardless of gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, etc.?

In Joe Writes Santa, the Friday Footnote for December 12. 2018, Joe Scatterscrew tells Santa “I sure would appreciate it if you could see that PeeWee, Willie, Adolph, and 8-Ball would quit school.” I have heard similar comments from teachers today. There are certain students they don’t want in their classes or in the FFA chapter. They just want to teach the elite, the smart kids, or people like themselves. I am glad my high school agriculture teacher didn’t have this view.

When I was in high school in the 1960s we had one student whose father owned the local feed store. This student had the grand champion steer two years in a row at two major livestock shows in Texas. Another student lived on a large fancy ranch near town. Another student’s family owned a livestock trucking firm. And then there was me.

My divorced mother had four sons to raise. We were dirt poor and lived in a rundown house on a small worn out farm. There is no telling what Mr. Lacy thought when I entered his agriculture classroom. I was not a part of the ranching elite in our community. The term used to describe folks like me was “poor white trash.” Yet, Mr. Lacy accepted me. And I am glad that he did; otherwise, my life trajectory might have been radically different. Agricultural teachers have the power to make a difference in the lives of students; all students.

What would you think of a medical doctor who complains that the patients coming to see him were sick? Isn’t that the job of the doctor – to treat sick patients? Shouldn’t it be the job of the agriculture teacher to teach all students regardless of the “label” they carry?

Past copies of the Friday Footnote can be found at


Stimson, R. W. (1919). Vocational agricultural education by home projects. New York: Macmillan.

Stimson, R. W. (1922). Vocational agricultural education-gains and tendencies, Vocational Education Magazine, 1 (2), 92-96.

Two bound volumes of letters regarding Rufus Stimson (in the library of the Friday Footnoter).