Where Did Thomas Jefferson Go? (4/3/2020)

Since the founding of the Future Farmers of America (FFA) Thomas Jefferson (and George Washington) have been associated with the organization. For decades a picture of Thomas Jefferson was listed in the FFA Manual as part of the paraphernalia for chapter meetings. The Greenhand initiation ceremony included a paragraph about Thomas Jefferson. But at some point in time the references to Thomas Jefferson disappeared from both the list of paraphernalia and the Greenhand initiation. What gives?

In the Beginning

The 1930 Official FFA Manual stated that the agriculture classroom should have a portrait of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. These prints, based on Stuart Gilbert originals, were provided to each chapter by Swift and Company (but you had to write and request them). Copies of these prints are shown below. I have removed them from their frames to get a better scan.

Washington and Jefferson were celebrated in the early days of the FFA. At the 1932 National FFA Convention Theodore F. Kuper, National Director of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation addressed the convention. He spoke about the accomplishments of Thomas Jefferson. He started his presentation with these words (FFA Convention Proceedings, 1932, p. 37):

Almost one hundred and fifty years ago Thomas Jefferson proclaimed his faith in the farmers when he wrote these thoughts to John Jay : “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interests, by the most lasting bonds.”

Mr. Kuper recognized Jefferson’s accomplishments as a statesman, author, lawyer, musician, inventor, architect, linguist, scholar, naturalist, mathematician, and educator. Then Mr. Kuper stated (p. 38):

But above all, Jefferson was a farmer. Always he yearned to go back to dear old Monticello and his beloved farms in Virginia. If Jefferson were to reappear among us today, I have no hesitancy in saying that no organization would attract his attention so much as the Future Farmers of America. He was the champion of education; he placed his faith in the youth of America, and he pinned his hopes on the cardinal virtues of agricultural life.

Mr. Kuper went on to list many of the achievements and activities engaged in by Jefferson to promote agriculture such as inventing a moldboard plow, promoted terracing and crop rotations, securing new seeds, importing Merino sheep, and experimenting with figs, olives, grapes, broccoli and other crops at Monticello. Mr. Kuper concluded by stating (p. 39):

No student of the life and work of Thomas Jefferson can fail to realize that the remarkable association known as the Future Farmers of America is the realization of Jefferson’s fondest hopes for the American people. Thomas Jefferson belongs to you and you, the Future Farmers of America, belong to Thomas Jefferson.

Mr. Kuper then invited the FFA to visit Monticello where a room was to be dedicated to the FFA. For information about the FFA Pilgrimage to Monticello please refer to the Friday Footnote authored by Dr. Jim Conners. Dr. Connors has also written about George Washington and the FFA.

In addition to having the pictures of Washington and Jefferson displayed in the agriculture classroom, some FFA chapters chose to obtain Plaster of Paris busts of Washington and Jefferson. The Chapter Supply Company of Danville, Illinois sold these busts (along with other FFA and NFA items including a bust of Booker T. Washington and Plaster of Paris ears of corn and cotton bolls).

The photograph below is of the Pine Grove, Pennsylvania FFA chapter in 1946. Please note the officer (the treasurer) on the front row on the left side. He has busts of both Washington and Jefferson on display. I have enlarged that part of the photo so that you can see more clearly the busts. The busts came from the Chapter Supply Company. This photo is courtesy of David Laatsch.

The secretary (far right in the photo) has a Plaster of Paris ear of corn and the advisor (center) has a Plaster of Paris owl. These also came from the Chapter Supply Company. It is possible the Reporter’s station marker came from Chapter Supply also but I am not certain. The vice-president (2nd from the right) has a silver metal plow that was supplied by John Deere.

The company that supplied the busts, the Chapter Supply Company, was owned by Robert (Bob) Romack. He was an ardent supporter of the FFA. The following facts detail the relationship between the FFA and Mr. Romack of the Chapter Supply Company.

  • At the 1939 National FFA Convention Robert Romack was introduced and brought greetings to those attending the convention.
  • In 1940 Robert Romack was recognized along with three others as a special guest at the Tuesday morning session of the National FFA Convention. Later in the convention he was awarded an honorary American Farmer degree for his support of the FFA
  • At the 1945 FFA convention, the rules were suspended so that the FFA Executive Secretary could introduce Robert Romack to the convention. It should be noted that because of wartime travel restrictions there were only 251 registered for the convention.
  • The 1946 FFA convention was called the Victory Convention with over 12,500 FFA members in attendance. The fact that World War II was over was a joyous time. A special banquet was held, and Romack was one of the honored guests along with a virtual list of who-is-who in American agricultural circles.
  • In 1948 Bob served as timekeeper for the National FFA public speaking contest.
  • The National FFA president visited Danville in 1950 and spoke to the Business Men’s Club of Danville and also made a special visit to see Bob Romack. The fact that the national FFA president would seek out Mr. Romack for a visit shows the respect the FFA had for him and the Chapter Supply Company.

The profession owes both Swift and Company and Bob Romack a debt of gratitude for supporting the FFA by providing pictures and busts of Washington and Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson Disappears

Having the Jefferson portrait displayed in the agriculture classroom was listed as part of the official FFA paraphernalia in each Official FFA manual up until 1986. The 1986 FFA Manual lists “1 Picture of Thomas Jefferson” as part of the chapter paraphernalia. Jefferson is missing from the 1987 manual. Why did he disappear?

I have consulted the minutes of the FFA Board of Directors and the National FFA Convention Proceedings for 1985 and 1986 and find no mention of deleting Jefferson during this time period.

David Laatsch, a retired agriculture teacher in Wisconsin, served on the 1990 committee that was appointed by the FFA to look at the FFA Creed, ceremonies and manual (See the Friday Footnote for 1/24/2020 and 1/31/2020). During the committee deliberations, it was discovered that Jefferson had been removed from the FFA Manual. David writes, “The question we raised was ‘What happened to Thomas Jefferson in FFA?’ We found that evidently the Supply Service ran out of portraits, and he was dropped from the required Paraphernalia! No vote, no discussion, just dropped!”

Many of us believe the “Official Manual” is what it purports to be – Official. We sort of treat it like the FFA Bible. However, it appears the FFA staff make additions and deletions to the Manual without specific authorization by the FFA Board or delegates.  The following paragraph illustrates this.

The 1995-96 FFA Manual states on page 6 “A consolidation of the New Farmers of America, the organization for black agriculture students with the FFA took place in 1965.” That sentence is all that is said about the NFA. On page 93 there is a list of National NFA presidents. The 1996-97 Manual is exactly the same except that a half-page history of the NFA was added on page 93 after the list of NFA presidents. So how did that happen? An FFA staff member added the NFA history. I know because I was consulted about what it should say.

Jefferson and the Greenhand Initiation Ceremony

For decades there was a paragraph about Thomas Jefferson in the Greenhand initiation ceremony. In the 1972 FFA Manual, the Treasurer, as part of the Greenhand initiation ceremony states:

“May I call your attention to the emblem at my station? Washington was an engineer, a general, a President, and Father of Our Country but he was a farmer first, and last, and all the time. His old home at Mt. Vernon was a model farmstead. He kept farm accounts, practiced rotations, and lived the life of a country gentleman.”

“Another of our former Presidents was Thomas Jefferson. He was the author of the Declaration of Independence, the author of the Statute for Religious Freedom, the founder of a State University, America’s first architect, and a statesman as well as a President. He found time to terrace his Virginia farm. He improved the moldboard plow and worked on a design for grain drill. Like Washington, he spent his last years on the farm.”

“These men, early in our history clearly demonstrated that a real farmer who uses his training and intelligence can reach the top rung of the ladder of success. May you use you talents and training for the betterment of yourselves and your fellowmen.”

The treasurer was to point to the picture of Jefferson when he or she talked about Jefferson. The 1973 FFA manual is different. The Treasurer’s part in the Greenhand ceremony reads:

You have by your enrollment in Agricultural Education taken an important step toward becoming a useful citizen in our democracy. May you, like George Washington, use your talents and training for the betterment of yourselves and your fellow man.

That is all. There is no mention of Jefferson.

It appears the change was voted on by the delegates at the 1972 FFA Convention. Immediately prior to the convention, the FFA Board of Directors discussed proposed changes to the FFA ceremonies but the minutes don’t contain details regarding the proposed changes. The FFA Convention Proceedings from 1972 state (p. 8):

The next item of business was proposed changes in the FFA Ceremonies. After considerable discussion the following proposed ceremonies were approved by the Official Delegates:

  • Officer Installation Ceremony
  • Greenhand Degree Ceremony
  • Chapter Farmer Degree Ceremony
  • State Farmer Degree Ceremony
  • American Farmer Degree Ceremony
  • Receiving Honorary Members Ceremony

There was a note that all changes would appear in the 1973 Official FFA Manual. It does appear that the change was approved by the FFA Board of Directors and delegates but there is no record of what the changes were or the rationale for the changes.

Jefferson went missing from the Greenhand Initiation Ceremony in 1973 but his picture did not disappear from the list of paraphernalia until 1987. It is interesting to note that for four years after Jefferson was deleted from the Greenhand ceremony that the FFA manual, in the listing of chapter paraphernalia, carried this statement (Official FFA Manual, 1977, p. 60), “Attention is called to the fact that the picture of Jefferson is used in the Greenhand initiation ceremony”. Apparently, someone missed the fact that the Greenhand ceremony had changed. This sentence does not disappear until the 1978 manual, five years after Jefferson’s deletion from the Greenhand ceremony.

Concluding Remarks

I am sure there was a valid reason for changing the FFA Greenhand ceremony to exclude Thomas Jefferson. And because of that, there was probably no longer a need for FFA chapters to have a picture (or bust) of Thomas Jefferson. However, it does make me a little sad.

We often complain about the lack of knowledge our students have about the world in general and specifically about agriculture. When we delete information about a former president of the United States who was also a noted agriculturalist, we are aiding and abetting this trend.

Even though the FFA no longer recognizes the agricultural contributions of Thomas Jefferson, we as teachers can address this deficiency. We could have our students study the lives of famous agriculturalists such as George Washington, Cyrus McCormick, George Washington Carver AND Thomas Jefferson plus others and prepare reports and presentations.

A big thank you goes to David Laatsch who helped provide the information for this Footnote.