The Future Jewish Farmers of America ??? (06/19/2020)

No. There was not an organization known as the Future Jewish Farmers of America. However, there was an Agricultural Club at the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School in Woodbine, New Jersey. A probable reason why the club was not called the Future Jewish Farmers of America was because it predated the Future Farmers of America (FFA) by at least three decades. In this Friday Footnote we will learn about the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural  School – which claimed to be the first agricultural high school in America.

Background Information

The story of the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School begins in Odessa, Russia in 1881. A brilliant 20-year-old second-year law student at the University of Odessa, H. L. (Hirsch Loeb) Sabsovich (known to has friends as Grisha) opted to forego a promising career as a lawyer to become an agriculturalist. This was a time of great political unrest in Russia and the revolutionary Sabsovich had been promoting a “Back to the Land” movement and decided he should practice what he was advocating. He believed he could do the most good for the oppressed Jewish people by becoming an agriculturalist.

In 1882 Sabsovich (and his new bride) went to Zurich, Switzerland to study agronomy at the agricultural college. After finishing his studies in 1885 he returned to Russia where he wrote articles for an agricultural magazine and then became manager of a 2,000 acre estate. However, with the worsening political climate in Russia Sabsovich (and wife and two daughters) emigrated to the United States in 1887 where he was employed as a chemist, assistant director of the Agricultural Experiment Station, and Professor of Agricultural Chemistry at what is now Colorado State University.

Three significant events occurred in 1891. Alexander II, the czar of Russia was assassinated, and Jews were wrongly accused of the assassination. This event led to further Anti-Jewish pogroms in the Russian Empire [word of the day: pogrom – an organized massacre of a particular ethnic group, in particular that of Jews in Russia or eastern Europe.] The May Laws of 1882 and subsequent regulations in Russia prohibited Jews from owning land, placed quotas on Jewish enrollments in schools, deported Jews out of Moscow, prohibited Jewish participation in local elections, and imposed criminal punishment on those Jews who tried to “adopt Christian names” and dictated that Jews must use their birth names. Between 1881 and 1914 an estimated 2.5 million Jews left Russia. Many of the Jews immigrated to Argentina and America.

Because of the situation in Russia, Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a financier and industrialist in Germany, in 1891 established the Baron de Hirsch Fund in New York City to help Russian Jews immigrate to the USA. He provided $2,400,000 for agricultural colonies and trades schools in the USA.

One of the projects of the Fund was to create an agricultural colony, known as Woodbine, for Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. Sabsovich was recruited to be the superintendent of the project. In August of 1891 the Fund purchased 5300 acres of barren land in the southeastern part of New Jersey (57 miles south of Philadelphia, 25 miles from Atlantic City and Ocean City). Farming was to be the primary focus, but it was decided at the same time to allocate some of the land as a site for the future village of Woodbine as well as factories for employing members of the farmers’ families. The gravelly soil was not ideal for farming (Sabsovich had tried to get the Fund trustees to purchase land in New England), but the thought was that by applying scientific agricultural knowledge, the soil could be improved.

The land was surveyed and divided into tracts of 30 acres. By December of 1891 sixty Jewish men had arrived at Woodbine. At first, they lived in a big barn and stared the process of clearing the land of the scrub oak and pine and pulling out the stumps. This was arduous work with nothing but hand tools and horses. The Jews who came to Woodbine were mostly tradesmen and were not used to hard physical work. Houses were also being built.

To say the first few years of Woodbine were challenging would be a gross understatement. While the land was being transformed into farms, the settlers made very little money and the work was grueling. There was unrest among the settlers. The Jewish farmers were ignorant of even basic agricultural practices. To Sabsovich, the solution to the problem was clear – an agricultural school was needed to teach the children of the settlers scientific agriculture. By doing this, the colony might survive.

The Agricultural School

After the colony was gaining traction, Professor Sabsovich (as he was known) started holding weekly conferences on Saturday afternoons in the village hall. The farmers and their grown-up sons were invited to receive instruction in agriculture. These lectures were given in the form of discussions using stereopticon projections [note: a stereopticon projected images using candles or oil lamps or other sources of light. One is pictured below].

Figure 1. A stereopticon

The agricultural lectures proved so successful the decision was made to build a large barn on Farm No. 60 and use the upper story as a lecture room. But while under construction the plan was changed to allow the upper story of the barn to be used as a school. This was the first home of the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School (at times it is referred to as the Woodbine Agricultural School and at other times the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural and Industrial School). It officially launched in 1894.

Figure 2. The original school when it was housed in a barn in 1894. Source: Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum,
Transfer from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Social Museum Collection

Figure 3. The Application Form. Source: Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum,
Transfer from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Social Museum Collection

In 1897 the School moved from the barn to a real campus. With support from the Baron de Hirsch fund a model school was built on Farm No. 62. A large brick school building was erected on the 150-acre campus (some sources say the school had 300 acres). Students of both sexes were admitted to the school. The females studied housekeeping plus horticulture, dairying, and poultry production. There were over 100 students enrolled in the school at its peak and they came from the local area, New York City, and a variety of other places.

Figure 4: The 1897 campus. The dairy is in the center. The large building on the right was the student dormitory. Source: Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Transfer from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Social Museum Collection

Figure 5. The main school building in 1897. Source: Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum,
Transfer from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Social Museum Collection

The faculty in 1901 were (Stainsby, 1901):

  • PROF. H. L. SABSOVICH, M. A., Superintendent and Instructor in Theoretical Agriculture
  • THOMAS E. GRAVATT, B. S., Instructor in Mathematics and English.
  • JACOB KOTINSKY, B. S., Instructor in Natural Sciences.
  • JOSEPH PINCUS, B. A., Farm Superintendent and Instructor in Dairying.
  • FREDERICK SCHMIDT, Instructor in Horticulture and Floriculture.
  • SIMON BRAILOWSKY, Instructor in Wood and Iron Work.
  • ACHILLES JAFFE, Instructor in Religion

The dairy facilities and dairy herd merited national attention and was featured in a lengthy article in a 1902 issue of Hoard’s Dairyman. The dairy instructor, Joseph Pincus, was a graduate of the school. While showing a group around the dairy he identified 18 of the pedigreed cows by name and stated they couldn’t get any more cows because he had exhausted the names of all his sweethearts.

Figure 6. An advertisement for the school from the Jewish Farmer magazine

An exhibit about the School was awarded the Grand Prix medal in 1900 at the Paris Exposition. A gold medal was awarded to the School in 1901 at the Buffalo Pan-American Exposition. The School and Colony was featured at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and was awarded a gold medal. Harvard University requested the 1904 exhibit be on display at Harvard and it was. Parts of it are now in the Harvard Library.

Following is the description of the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School from the United States Department of Agriculture 1907 Annual Report of the Office of Experiment Stations (p. 301-302).

This school is located in the northern part of Cape May County on sandy plains covered with small oak and scrub pine trees is in a region largely taken up by Hebrews many of whom settled as beneficiaries of a Hebrew colonization scheme financed by the Baron de Hirsch fund for the amelioration of the condition of Jewish immigrants. The school is also supported by the Baron de Hirsch fund and is intended for Jewish young men. It is a practical agricultural school of elementary grade intended to train young men to become intelligent farm laborers, managers and eventually to take up farming for themselves.

To be admitted to the school a young man must be able to speak and write the English language and perform the fundamental operations of arithmetic. The course of study extends over two years. The school year begins April 1 and is divided into three terms. The spring and summer term extends from April 1 to October 1, the fall term from October 1 to December 17, and the winter term from December 17 to March 15.

During the spring and summer term the students spend seven hours a day in the practical work of the farm and garden and one hour a day in classes in agriculture, dairying, and horticulture. First-year students are given individual gardens of about one-tenth acre each, to be worked and cared for by them during the entire school year. The produce raised on these gardens is purchased from the students at market prices and paid for in cash. These first-year students spend a part of their time in general farming, for which work during the spring and summer months they are paid at the rate of $8 to $10 a month.

The second-year students also take part in the general farm work, driving teams, operating machinery and performing all of the operations of a well equipped, well-directed farm. Most of the time they are under the direction of instructors, but during examination weeks they are placed almost entirely upon their own responsibility and are marked on the amount and quality of work done.

The fall and winter months are devoted largely to classwork. First-year students in the fall have English, arithmetic, United States history, geography, plant life, and laboratory work daily; in the winter English, arithmetic, physiology, elementary and general physics, elementary and general chemistry, plant life, road-making, and laboratory work. Second-year students in the fall term have classroom and laboratory work in stock judging, forage crops, soil physics, plant life, fruit judging, civics, poultry husbandry, feeds and feeding, dairying, and veterinary science; in the winter term the principles of animal breeding, principles of plant breeding, soil fertility, general horticulture, feeds and feeding, veterinary science, bookkeeping, and farm machinery.

The school has fairly good equipment throughout. The farm consists of 150 acres, several acres of which are gardens, 30 acres to orchards and smaller areas to vineyards and strawberries. There are several good teams of horses, a dairy herd housed in an up to date $4,000 dairy barn, a poultry department equipped with incubators, brooders and other modern appliances, a dairy laboratory, chemical laboratory farm mechanics laboratory, and an apiary of 60 hives. The buildings include a brick school building containing laboratories and classrooms, a dormitory, a dining hall, a residence for the superintendent, horse barn, dairy barn, poultry houses, and other minor structures.

Many of the graduates of the School went on to study agriculture in various colleges and became nationally prominent scientists. One of the graduates, Jacob Lipman, became director of the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station in 1911.  Some graduates became farm managers, and many returned to the home farm.

Figure 7. The 1898 students posing with the school band. Source: Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum,
Transfer from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Social Museum Collection

Professor Sabsovich left the school and Woodbine Colony in 1905 to become the Director of the Baron de Hirsch Fund which was headquartered in New York City. In 1914 he became seriously ill and remained in poor health until his death in 1915. He was buried in Woodbine.

Many of the students left the school during World War I to enlist in the military. The school trustees made a decision to move the school to Peekskill, NY so that it would be closer to New York City which supplied many of the students. However, the War disrupted those plans. The school was never moved and closed its doors in 1917. It is possible the implementation of the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 (which provided federal funds to teach agriculture in high schools) entered into that decision. Since 1921 the site has been the home to the Woodbine Development Center, a specialized facility for men with various developmental disabilities.

Concluding Remarks

The Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School was a premier agricultural high school and may well be the first agricultural high school in America. It certainly deserves a place in the history of agricultural and extension education.

In preparing this Footnote I encountered a vexing mystery. Typically, I start my search for information by consulting what I consider to be the most authoritative book in America on agriculture education history – Stimson’s History of Agricultural Education of Less Than College Grade in the United States. This book, published in 1942, is basically a collection of state histories compiled by leading agricultural educators in the early 1940s. Two individuals were involved in compiling the New Jersey Ag Ed history. But, there is no mention of the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School in the New Jersey chapter. So, I am scratching my head.

Next, I pulled out my copy of A History of Agricultural Education in the United States 1785-1925 which was published in 1929. This book was written by A. C. True who was Director of the Office of Experiment Stations in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Again, there is no mention of the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School. I found this to be very strange given that the Office of Experiment Stations Annual Report for 1907 (which he oversaw) had two pages of information on the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural High School.

Why was the Baron de Hirsch Agricultural School not included in either historical compilation?

I have barely scratched the surface in this Footnote regarding the School and Professor Sabsovich. If you would like to learn more, I highly recommend the following which were used in preparing this Footnote:

  • Adventures in Idealism. This biography of Professor Sabsovich which was written six years after his death by his wife, Katharine. The book is online. It is the source of much of the information in this Footnote.
  • The Jewish Colonies of South Jersey: Historical Sketch of their Establishment and Growth. Stainsby, William. This 29-page booklet, published in 1901, is online and was prepared by the New Jersey Bureau of Statistics. It is online
  • The Harvard University Library has 200+ photos of the school, student work and forms used at the school. It was the source of most of the images used in this Footnote. Very interesting.
  • Hirsch School Journal + more. This collection of documents contains a detailed breakdown of the course of study plus several years of the school newspaper. There is an eclectic mix of articles written by the students. Even students who were dismissed from the school are identified.