Did the Smith-Hughes Act REALLY Start the Teaching of Agricultural Education? (8/30/2019)

At this time of the year many agriculture teachers across the country are teaching something that goes like this:

“The Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 started the teaching of agriculture in the public schools.”

The problem is — this is not true. According to a report from the Commissioner of Education for 1914-1915, two years before the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act, agriculture was taught in 4,390 secondary schools to 85,573 secondary students (Report of the United States Commissioner of Education, 1916). How could this be since the Smith-Hughes Act did not exist at that point in time? Is it possible that some other federal legislation or entity was responsible for starting the teaching of agriculture in the public schools prior to the passage of Smith-Hughes? The answer is “YES”!

We know the Morrill Act of 1862 established land grant colleges (see the Friday Footnote for 4/19/2019). But the Morrill Act does not mention agricultural research. It soon became obvious that research was needed so the colleges could teach scientific agriculture. Accordingly, the Hatch Act of 1887 was passed to establish agricultural experiment stations authorizing and providing funds for agricultural colleges to conduct agricultural research. However, the Hatch Act did more than just that.

The first sentence of the Hatch Act reads, “Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That in order to aid in acquiring and diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects connected with agriculture, (underline mine) AND (large type mine) to promote scientific investigation and experiment respecting the principles and application of agricultural science, there shall be established under the direction of the college or colleges or agricultural departments of colleges in each State and Territory an agricultural experiment station.” The wording of this legislation indicated that experiment stations had two functions—disseminate practical agricultural information and conduct scientific investigations in agriculture.

The dissemination of practical agricultural information provision of the Act led to the establishment of agricultural education in public schools. Let’s look at the evidence.

The Office of Experiment Stations (OES) was established in October of 1888 as a special branch of the Department of Agriculture with an appointed Director as its head to coordinate the work of the Experiment Stations and to facilitate communication between the stations. Alfred C. True became director of the Office in 1893. True’s appointment started efforts that Fuller (1986, p, 160) described as “other good works. One of these was the promotion of the study of nature and agriculture in the country schools.” During True’s tenure as Director of the Office of the Experiment stations the “diffusion of practical information regarding agriculture” wording of the Hatch Act, for all practical purposes, was interpreted to mean school reform in rural areas – including the establishment of agricultural education.

Alfred. C. True

In True’s 1893 report as Director of the OES he cited what France, Belgium and other countries were doing regarding agricultural education. He concluded that in America “the farm boy or girl in the rural high school should be taught…the theory and practices of agriculture.” This would result in “more contented and prosperous rural communities.”

Most of True’s writings about agricultural education prior to 1897 were for government and college officials. They were not reaching the farmer. Starting in 1897 True started reaching out to the farmer. In an article in the Yearbook of Agriculture for 1897 True advocated the establishment of courses in agriculture in schools near the farmers’ home. True urged the farmers to take an active role in the schools and let the school leaders know what the “real” needs of the farmers were. Nearly every issue of the Yearbook of Agriculture from 1897 until the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act contained an article about the need for, development of, or progress in agricultural education in the public schools.

Starting in 1901 True and the Office of Experiment Stations proceeded to back up their words with action. True wrote (1901, p. 192) “The time is favorable . . . for the Department to take a more active part in encouraging the introduction of nature study and elementary agriculture into the curricula of rural schools.” The ammunition for the campaign consisted of publications, addresses at educational and farmers’ meetings, and correspondence and conferences with educators and others interested in this matter.

In 1901, Dick Crosby, was added to the staff of the Office of Experiment Stations as a special assistant to the Director in work related to agricultural education. With the addition of Crosby to the staff and the awakening demands for a more relevant education from progressives, agricultural education in the public schools started to become a reality.

Dick Crosby

In Commissioner True’s 1905 report, four pages were devoted to elementary and secondary agriculture. True started this section of his report by writing, “This past year has been one of great progress in agricultural education.” After describing many of the developments in agricultural education, True observed that “the office is now generally and favorably recognized as the agency of this Department for the promotion of agricultural education.” True then detailed how overburdened and underfunded his office was regarding the advancement of secondary agricultural education, detailed what could be done with additional resources, and made a plea for additional funds.

A division of agricultural education was established in the Office of Experiment Stations in 1906. Dick Crosby was put in charge of the work. The division had several employees and was very active in promoting and supporting agricultural education through consultations, research, curriculum guides, and instructional materials. Crosby’s assistant, C. H. Hansen, prepared a complete lantern-slide series dealing with the teaching of agriculture in public schools.

In Two Hundred Years of Agricultural Education in Georgia, Wheeler reported that Dick Crosby of the Office of Experiment stations was “largely responsible for the curriculum development” in the eleven congressional district agricultural schools established in 1907 in Georgia.

Dick Crosby attended the National Education Association (NEA) convention in Los Angeles in July of 1907. In addition to making a speech titled “The Work of the National Government in Extending Agricultural Education Through the Public Schools” to a special agricultural education conference held in conjunction with the NEA convention, Crosby presented a petition to the NEA Board of Trustees signed by 28 prominent educators and active NEA members asking for the establishment of a Department of Rural and Agricultural Education in the NEA. Permission was granted to start the new department. This provided a platform within the NEA for Crosby, True and others to advance the cause of educational reform (i.e. – agricultural education).

Director True was serious about the role of his office in developing agricultural education. In one single year, people in True’s office traveled 38,000 miles and visited schools and attended educational gatherings in 28 different state in their quest to develop agricultural education.

The efforts of the Office of Experiment Stations started to bear fruit between 1906 and 1917. Agricultural education programs were being established in Georgia, Virginia, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arkansas, Nebraska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, North and South Dakota, Washington and in other states.

The Office of Experiment Stations issued numerous publications related to the teaching of agriculture. Many of the publications pertained to the teaching of technical subject matter and were based on the work of the experiment stations. The findings of experiment station research quickly found its way to the public through the bulletins and circulars designed for the teachers of public school agriculture.

This bulletin was published by the Office of Experiment Stations for use by teachers. Note the author – C. H. Lane and date (1914). After the Smith-Hughes Act was passed Lane moved to the Federal Bureau for Vocational Education and was the Southern Region supervisor (1917-1920), then chief of Ag Ed from 1920-1934. He was national FFA Advisor from 1928-1934. He started in the USDA Office of Experiment Stations.

In 1913 the agricultural education division of the Office of Experiment Stations initiated the plan of calling annual conferences of states supervisors and teacher educators in agricultural education in the North Atlantic, Southern, and Central Regions.

In 1915 the Office of Experiment Stations was reorganized into the States Relations Service (SRS) of the USDA. Dr. True became the director of the SRS. One of the newly created divisions in the SRS was the Division of Agricultural Instruction. The support for agricultural education continued.

By 1916 agricultural education in public schools in the United States was past the experimental stage. Agriculture was being taught in over 4,000 high schools to 90,000 students. The passage of the Smith-Hughes Act in 1917 culminated the work of the Office of Experiment Stations in establishing agricultural education in public schools. The Smith-Hughes Act provided federal funds to states to support the teaching of vocational agriculture, heme economics, and trade and industrial education. The effort involved in establishing secondary agricultural education had not been easy. Not only had many educators been resistant to the movement, so had many farmers. However, the persistent efforts of True, Crosby and others won out.

Concluding Remarks

Dick Crosby wrote an article, “Agriculture in Public High Schools” in the 1912 Yearbook of Agriculture. The opening sentence was bold and to the point, “More than 2,000 public high schools in the United States are now teaching agriculture; 16 years ago there was not one.” After describing the types and numbers of schools in which agriculture was taught, the status of state support, the curriculum, and the facilities, Crosby told why agricultural education was important:

Whenever the teaching of agriculture in high schools has been taken seriously, whenever suitable equipment and capable teachers have been provided, the schools and everyone connected with them have been benefited; the attendance has increased; the schoolwork has assumed a more businesslike air; as if it dealt with the realities of life, with real problems instead of imaginary ones; and the relationships between teachers, pupils, and parents have become closer and more sympathetic.

High schools in which agriculture is something more than a new textbook subject, in which it reaches out to the surrounding homes and farms for its problems and illustrative materials, soon acquire a hold and exert an influence upon the community such as other schools have never been able to get. The people come to know their school better and are loyal to it. They see it as educating their sons—not for some allurement in the distant future, but for life in the world to-day, in the home neighborhood, in another state, or wherever they go. Moreover, they feel that school is a school for everybody—of educational, social, and pecuniary benefit to all. . . Instead of trying to educate a select few for high professional positions, it is endeavoring to make a better people and a better land.


After the Smith-Hughes Act was passed some of the employees of the USDA State Relations Service, Division of Agricultural Education were transferred to work for the Federal Board for Vocational Education. This insured that the work started by the Office of Experiment Stations under the Hatch Act of 1887 would continue. But the most interesting fact was that the Division of Agricultural Instruction within the USDA continued to operate and create instructional materials for agriculture teachers until 1929 when the George-Reed Act was passed which provided additional resources for agricultural education. The USDA Division of Agricultural Instruction did not disband until they were confident that agricultural education would continue.

If I were to compile a list of the 10 most important individuals in the history of agricultural education A. C. True and Dick Crosby would be on that list. Next week our guest columnist, Dr. Jim Connors of Idaho, will tell us more about A. C. True.

There was another Hatch Act passed in 1939. That Hatch Act prevents most government employees from political campaigning. Sometimes these two acts create confusion.


Because of the multitude of references used to write this Footnote I have attached a paper I presented in 1987 in New York to the History of Education Society. It contains much more information on this topic plus all the references used in this Footnote plus many more. Hatch Act USDA Ag Ed Paper