The Farm Boy Cavaliers of America (2/28/2020)

How would you like to conduct an FFA or 4-H meeting with all the members on horseback? The Farm Boy Cavaliers of America (FBCA) did just that. One early youth organization for agriculture students that has been largely forgotten in the annals of agricultural education history is the Farm Boy Cavaliers of America. In this Friday Footnote, we will learn more about the FBCA.

We all know (or should know) the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 did not magically start the teaching of vocational agriculture. Prior to 1917 twenty-three states were providing funds to agricultural education programs and some schools in 16 other states were teaching agriculture To learn more about early (pre-1917) vocational agriculture I would invite you to read “The Status of Agricultural Education Prior to the Smith-Hughes Act

Just as there were schools in the early 1900s teaching agriculture, there were a variety of local or state level agricultural youth organizations. One could find the Agricola club, Young Farmers Associations or Clubs, Junior Farmers, Future Farmers, the Townsend Agricultural Education Society, and other such groups (Tenney, 1977).

One such early youth agricultural organization was the Farm Boy Cavaliers of America. By the late 1920s this organization was found in 30 states.

In the Beginning

In 1888 a secondary level agricultural school was established on the grounds of the Agricultural Experiment Station near the University of Minnesota. The purpose of the school was to provide practical, hands-on instruction in agriculture to non-college bound students with the idea they would return to the farm. This was a residential boarding school.

The school was very successful. True (1929, p. 327) reports, “This school and the experiment station was so successful that the legislature from time to time appropriated generously for buildings, equipment, and current expenses. For a considerable period the schools of agriculture and dairying overshadowed the collegiate work in agriculture…”

In 1903 D. D. Mayne became principal of the School of Agriculture. Mayne was aware of the fledgling 4-H program and was also familiar with the Boy Scouts of America (who were not focused on rural America).

Dexter D. Mayne

Mayne wanted something above and beyond these groups and came up with the idea of an organization for the agricultural students – the Farm Boy Cavaliers of America. The organization was patterned after King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The organization officially launched in 1916.

The Farm Boy Cavaliers of America

The following information comes from an article in the journal School Education published in October of 1916 (Volume 36, No. 2, pages 3-4). The title of the article is “Farm Boy Cavaliers” and was written by D. D. Mayne. I will let Mr. Mayne use his own words to describe the organization.

The Farm Boy Cavaliers is an organization of farm boys on horseback taking as their ideal the knights of chivalry, and aiming to develop a modern knighthood of skill and manliness. Men of prominence have interested themselves in the new organization. A Board of Directorate of fifteen members is being organized to promote the formation of troops in the state of Minnesota alone. An Advisory Council of one hundred members is being completed. There is constant inquiry in regard to forming individual clubs… Troops have been organized in Minnesota, Iowa, Colorado and Kansas. A conspicuously successful club is that of Burt, Iowa, which testifies of the validity of the idea.

The Farm Boy Cavaliers is a non-military organization. It has for its four chief mottoes: Service, Honor, Thrift, Loyalty. Its work is in achievements on the farm and in community betterment. There are three ranks of the order. The first is that of Page, the second that of Esquire, and third that of Knight.

All Cavaliers enter in the rank of Page and pass on to higher ranks by obtaining achievement badges. An achievement badge may be earned by showing certain definite work done, such as the following: Alfalfa or Clover Growing, Applied Chemistry, Automobile Operation, Barley Growing, Barnyard Sanitation, Bee Culture, Beef calf Feeding, Bird Study, Blacksmithing, Buttermaking, Canning, Carpentry, Cement Work, Civics, Corn Growing, Entomology, Farm Accounts, Forestry, Harness Mending, Harness Oiling, Manure Spreading, Meat Curing, Sausage Making, Meat Cutting, Milk Production, Oats Raising, Painting, Personal Health, Photography, Pig Raising, Pipe Fitting, Plant Diseases, Plowing, Poultry Culture, Rope Work, Rural Health, Sheep Raising, Soils, Soldering, Wheat Raising, and Horsemanship.

Boys of any age, who are able to mount a horse from the ground and to ride at a gallop may join the organization (Curators note: the minimum age was changed to 12 later). If he be twelve years of age it may take him three years to earn five achievement badges and to have $50.00 invested in a farm project or in savings bank that is, to qualify for the rank of Esquire. As an Esquire, he must earn seven additional achievement badges and have $100.00 invested in a farm project or in the savings bank before he can be dubbed a Knight. As a Knight he earns ten additional achievement badges and may also secure achievement certificates for community service.

Those who have previous training may pass rapidly through the first two ranks and become Knights.

Any four farm boys may organize a troop of Farm Boy Cavaliers by taking the pledge and electing a Leader, a Lieutenant Leader, a Secretary and a Treasurer.

Photo from That Inspiring Task: Future Farmers of America in Minnesota, 1930 – 1955 by Agnes Harrigan Mueller.

If a boy wanted to join but did not have a horse, he could be admitted to membership as a “Yoeman”. He would then walk with the troop or ride a bicycle.

The Pledge reads: “I pledge my word of honor that I will do my best to serve my God, my country and all persons who need my service; that I will keep myself clean in body and mind and that I will observe the principles of the Farm Boy Cavaliers.”

The Cavaliers’ twelve principles were service, preparedness, personal honor, obedience, loyalty, kindness and charity, courtesy, courage, industry, thrift, cleanliness, and reverence. There were also some secret rituals.

Meetings were held on horseback with the horses in a circle with their heads pointing in. When votes were held the boys rode to the right of the leader for an affirmative vote and rode on the left side of the leader for a negative vote.

There was even a division for girls under the name “Home Cavaliers” but they were expected to be able to ride a horse. They took the same pledge, subscribed to the same principles, and gave the same salute. They could also participate in drills, pilgrimages, and tournaments. There were three ranks – Novice, Damoiselle, and Lady. In addition to the achievement badges available to the boys, they also had achievement badges for Sewing, Garment Making, and Bread Making.

First-Hand Accounts

We can get a glimpse of the pride and activities of the Farm Boy Cavaliers by reading some of the firsthand accounts from the boys in the organization. The following report was contained in the September 8, 1916 edition of Hoard’s Dairyman. It was written by Leland Peterson who was the elected leader of Troop No. 1 of Iowa:

One of my friends in high school (I am a Senior), saw an article in Wallace’s Farmer, describing the Farm Boy Cavaliers, which he showed to me.  As I have always been interested in the Boy Scouts, in fact tried to organize a patrol, but failed, I sent to Professor Mayne for more detailed information. As soon as it came I called a special meeting at a small cabin of ours on a Friday night. Four boys were present; I read some instructions to them, after which we all gave the Cavalier’s pledge and salute.

The next time that we met the following officers were elected: Leland Peterson, leader; Ward McWhorter, lieut. Leader; Arthur Dittmer, secretary, Harold Dittmer, treasurer. We decided to meet every Friday night on horseback, and Sunday afternoon for drill. We charge 25 cents a month each as dues, which is to go for troop necessities such as bugle, flags, paper, etc.

In order to make more money than our monthly dues we are going to give an ice cream and cake social and perhaps a box social.

We already have a bugle, the secretary and treasurer are going to donate an America flag, and the leader will devote a Farm Boy Cavalier pennant.

Each Cavalier has a certain road about one or two miles long to supervise, the condition of which he reports every Friday night. As we always know the conditions of those roads, we can always give information to others concerning their general condition. We also take pains to know the general direction to all the neighboring towns, so that in this way we may easily direct travelers.

We intend to help exterminate weeds along the roadside, because “what is everybody’s business, is nobody’s business.”

On public occasions, such as neighborhood picnics and field days, we intend to be present on horseback and make ourselves generally useful, parade for the audience, and go through our evolutions for the entertainment of the crowd.

I publish a small troop paper, “Cavalier News” each week which contains accounts of our meeting and general news of our troop…

Peterson wraps up his report by providing the minutes from the previous meeting and encouraging other Hoard’s Dairyman Junior readers to establish Farm Boy Cavalier troops.

Minutes from July 21, 1916 – We all met at McWhorter’s crossroad and, with all horses’ heads toward the center, the meeting began. The leader called attention and all gave salute. Secretary Dittmer gave the minutes of the last meeting which were approved by all. The committee on roads reported all in fine condition except one…Merle Schwitert, Willie and Louie Bisgard were suggested as new members. All the members rode by the leader’s right side, thus showing them admitted as members of Troop No. 1 of Iowa.

The first troop in Kansas was a Yeomen troop because they didn’t have horses. A report from this troop appeared in the Kansas Farmer in December 16, 1916. In this report, we learn the county agent served as the examiner for the achievement badge work.

Riding into the Sunset

During its existence the FBCA was found in approximately thirty states. The FBCA troops were found primarily in the Midwest with considerable numbers in Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas and Ohio (Riney-Kehrberg, 2011). There were also troops in Texas, Virginia, Missouri, Montana, Colorado, Tennessee and in other states.

The Biennial Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in Illinois for 1916-1918 contained the following statement (p. 247):

It is the opinion of the Illinois State Supervisor of Agricultural Education that the Farm Boy Cavalier is an organization fitting in well with the supervised farm practice under the Smith-Hughes law. The projects and work of the supervised farm practice satisfy in part the achievement requirements of the Farm Cavalier. If the agriculture teacher would lead in making the other achievements, and bring up as many of his students as possible to the rank of Cavalier, it would greatly reinforce the practical farm work.

In the late 1920s the Farm Boy Cavaliers, like the ending of so many western movies, faded into the sunset. There were several reasons for its demise. The leadership of the Boy Scouts of America called D. D. Mayne to New York to inform him of a plan being developed to enable rural boys to become more involved in Scouting. Mayne was supportive of this effort. Additionally, financing the program was becoming a problem since the entire movement was headquartered in his office and with changing University leadership, funding was variable. Additionally, the preliminary discussion and plans for an organization to be known as the Future Farmers of America probably contributed to the demise of the Farm Boy Cavaliers.

D. D. Mayne became ill and died in 1929. Since he was the heart and soul of the organization, his death left the organization without leadership. At the time of his death, there were 26 FBCA troops. Some of these continued to operate for several years before disbanding.

Concluding Remarks

I found bits and pieces about the Farm Boy Cavaliers in various farm and education publications of that era. However, the most comprehensive information was in an article by Pamela Riney-Kehrberg titled “Farm Youth and Progressive Agricultural Reform: Dexter D. Mayne and the Farm Boy Cavaliers of America” published in Agricultural History, Vol. 85, No. 4 (Fall, 2011). I highly recommend it.

At the end of the 1967 movie Camelot, which was about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Richard Harris sings about the glory of Camelot. The lyrics state

Think back on all the tales that you remember
Of Camelot.
Ask ev’ry person if he’s heard the story,
And tell it strong and clear if he has not,
That once there was a fleeting wisp of glory
Called Camelot.
Camelot! Camelot!

May we also remember the wisp of glory of the Farm Boy Cavaliers of America.

There are also two Home Cavaliers in this photo.

Teaching Ideas

  1. Share the story of the Farm Boy Cavaliers of America with your students and get their reaction to the organization. How does it compare to the FFA? What are the similarities and differences?
  2. Since Knights had shields have your students design a shield that embodies the spirit of the Farm Boy Cavaliers. How would it differ from an FFA shield (if there was such a thing)? Perhaps your students could design an FFA Shield.


Tenney, A. W. (1977). The FFA at 50. National FFA Supply Service.

True, A. C. (1929). History of Agricultural Education in the United States, 1785 – 1925. U.S. Government Printing Office. Washington.