Alfred C. True (9/6/2019)

The Director of the USDA Office of Experiment Stations, A. C. True, was able to use the Hatch Act of 1887 to established agricultural education in public schools. Our guest columnist for this week, Dr. Jim Connors from the University of Idaho, will tell us more about this unsung hero of agricultural education.

Alfred C. True
Agricultural Education Historian

Dr. Jim Connors
University of Idaho

Most people in agricultural education will not recognize the name of Alfred C. True.  However, he played a major role in the birth of agricultural education in the United States and should be recognized for his distinguished career and the valuable historical records he left the profession.  Benjamin Franklin once wrote,

“How to Be Remembered – If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.”

This is a fitting quote to attach to Alfred C. True.  Dr. True certainly did things worth writing about and wrote books worth reading.

Alfred C. True, 1853-1929

Alfred C. True was born in 1853.  As a youth he attended the Boston Latin School which was the first public school in the colonies when it was established in 1635.  After graduating from the school, True went on to receive a bachelor of arts degree (with honors) from Wesleyan University in 1873.  He continued his postgraduate education by receiving a masters of arts degree in 1876 and a doctorate of science in 1906. 

True began his work in the education profession by serving as Principal of Essex High School in Essex, NY for two years and teaching at the State Normal School in Westfield, MA for seven years.  From 1882 to 1884, he enrolled in Harvard University for additional graduate work.  While at Harvard he worked with famed chemist, W.O. Atwater.  This association would significantly influence Dr. True’s work for the rest of his career.

In 1888, Professor Atwater accepted the position of Director of the Federal Office of Experiment Stations in the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC.  Atwater recruited Dr. True to follow him to Washington, DC and join the staff of the office.  It is there that Dr. True began the work that brought him noted fame in the annals of agricultural education history.

The stately building that once housed the U. S. Department of Agriculture
in Washington, D. C. circa 1890.

One of his first duties was to prepare a report and display about agricultural colleges and experiment stations for the Exposition Universelle de Paris in 1889.  This 1889 World’s Fair introduced the public to many new innovations in agriculture and also gave the world the Eiffel Tower.

In 1891 True was promoted to Vice Director of the office and became Director two years later in 1893.  During his tenure as Director of the Office of Experiment Stations, he worked closely with educators at the nation’s land grant universities.  As an educator himself, he was often sought out for assistance with curriculum and policy issues.  Dr. True served as the Chairman of the Committee on Instruction in Agriculture, Home Economics, and Mechanical Arts in the Association of American Colleges and Experiment Stations (later NASULGC and APLU).  In 1914 he served as the President of the association.  In 1902, The Ohio State University formed the first summer graduate school of agriculture, Dr. True was asked to serve as its Dean.  He held that position for the 14 years that the school existed (Pollard, 1952)

During his service in the Office of Experiment Stations, True was heavily involved in promoting the establishment of agricultural education programs in secondary schools in America.  From 1893 until the passage of the Smith-Hughes Vocational Education Act in 1917, True conducted research and wrote numerous reports on the importance of secondary agricultural education.  Some of True’s writings in the USDA’s Yearbooks of Agriculture included:

  • Education and Research in Agriculture in the United States (1894)
  • Agricultural Education and Research in Belgium (1896
  • )Popular Education for the Farmer in the United States (1897)
  • Some Types of American Agricultural Colleges (1898)
  • Agricultural Education in the United States (1899)
  • Some Problems of the Rural Common Schools (1901)
  • Progress in Secondary Education in Agriculture (1902)
  • Some Features of Recent Progress in Agricultural Education (1902)
  • Progress in Agricultural Education (1903)
  • Progress in Agricultural Education (1904)

True’s work in promoting secondary agricultural education was noted by Moore (1988) when he wrote, “The Office of Experiment Stations, particularly through the efforts of Director True, was a most significant factor in the widespread teaching of agriculture in public schools prior to 1917” (p. 8).

Dr. True held the position of Director of the Office of Experiment Stations for 22 years until 1915.  At that time, the USDA restructured offices and combined the Office of Experiment Stations with other offices to form the State Relations Service (Fig. 1).  Dr. True was appointed the Director of the new service in USDA.  He continued in that position until his retirement from the USDA in 1923.

USDA States Relations Service (est. 1915)

·         Office of Experiment Stations

·         Office of Extension Work in the South

·         Office of Extension Work in the North and West

·         Office of Home Economics

·         Division of Farmer’s Institutes

·         Division of Agricultural Instruction

Figure 1: Organization of the USDA States Relations Service

After his retirement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1923, True devoted his time to writing.  He used his educational background and his 35 years of experience in the United States Department of Agriculture to compile three historical books that provide an invaluable history of agricultural education in the United States.

A History of Agricultural Extension Work in the United States 1785-1923

This was True’s first historical text written in 1928.  It looked at the beginnings of extension work in the late 18th century, the establishment of farmer’s institutes, home demonstration work, and the creation of boys and girls agricultural clubs.  The book also documented the passage of the Smith-Lever Act which funded the cooperative extension system across the country. Additional topics include extension work in the post World War I period after 1917.

A History of Agricultural Education in the United States 1785-1925

The second historical volume True wrote was the history of agricultural education in the US.  He begins the book by looking at agricultural education, natural sciences, and agricultural societies in Europe.  He follows that up with the establishment of agricultural societies in the American colonies prior to the revolutionary war.

True also wrote about agricultural fairs, publications, and textbooks.  The largest of True’s three books at 435 pages, the book covers agricultural education both formal and non-formal from elementary school through the establishment of land-grant universities.  He specifically covers undergraduate and graduate education in agriculture and the specialized branches of agricultural curriculum offered within agricultural colleges.

A History of Agricultural Experimentation and Research in the United States 1607-1925

The third and final text covered the history of agricultural experimentation and research in the United States.  Curiously, this book authored by True was published in 1937, eight years after he passed away.  The book mainly covers the establishment of state agricultural experiment stations linked to land-grant universities.

True described the path each state took to create a system of agricultural experiment stations from 1875 to 1888 and the impact of the Hatch Act from its passage in 1887 to 1905.  It ends with the status of agricultural research and state experiment stations in the early years of the 1920s.

​Alfred C. True was a noted educator, administrator, and champion of agriculture.  His service to in the United States Department of Agriculture lasted for 40 years.  He was an unsung hero in helping to create secondary vocational agriculture education in the United States.

True was also a prolific writer.  As Director of the Office of Experiment Stations and later the State Relations Service, he regularly spoke and wrote about the importance of agricultural education, extension, and research.  He authored reports and articles for the annual USDA Yearbook of Agriculture.  Dr. True ended his career by authoring a three volume comprehensive history of agricultural education, research, and extension that covered the period from 1607 to 1925.  In describing Dr. True’s contribution to agricultural education, a colleague wrote:

“In making permanent the records of the history and development of agricultural teaching, research, and extension work in the United States…Doctor True has rendered a high universal service.”

Dr. Alfred C. True not only recorded centuries of agricultural education, research, and extension history, he played a significant role in the growth and development of school-based agricultural education well into the 20th century.

Teaching Ideas:

1.      Check your school, community, or local college library for the United States Department of Agriculture Yearbooks.  Find an article written by Dr. True in the late 1800s to the early 1900s.  Give a brief report to your agriculture class about Dr. True’s writings.

2.      Visit the USDA website at and learn about the educational programs offered through the agency.

3.      Visit a local office of the USDA Farm Services Agency (, Natural Resources Conservation Service (, or US Forest Service ( to interview an official and learn about their programs.

4.      Invite a county or state official from one of the USDA agencies listed above to your agriculture class to discuss their programs and career opportunities with state and federal agricultural agencies.

5.      Watch the video Growing a Nation: The Story of American Agriculture.  Available at:


Hillison, J. (1986). Agricultural teacher education preceding the Smith-Hughes Act. Journal of the American Association of Teacher Educators in Agriculture, 28(2), p. 8-17.

Moore, G. E. (1988). The involvement of experiment stations in secondary agricultural education, 1887-1917. Agricultural History, 62(2), p. 164-176.

Pollard, J. E. (1952). History of The Ohio State University: The story of its first seventy-five years 1873-1948.  Columbus: The Ohio State University Press.

True, A. C. (1928).  A history of agricultural extension work in the United States 1785-1923.  Washington, DC:  United States Government Printing Office

True, A. C. (1929).  A history of agricultural education in the United States 1785-1925.  Washington, DC:  United States Government Printing Office

True, A. C. (1937).  A history of agricultural experimentation and research in the United States 1607-1925.  Washington, DC:  United States Government Printing Office