The May 16, 1973 issue of The Cumberland News (Maryland) printed an article titled “Elsie Roland, Prominent Educator, Dies” The first sentence in the article reads “Mrs. Elsie Hill Roland, the first woman to teach vocational agriculture in the United States, and principal of Flintstone High School for 36 years, died last night. She was 76.”
Is it true that Elsie was the first woman to teach vocational agriculture in the United States? Lillian Lamb, who was featured in a Friday Footnote two weeks ago might Rise to a Point of Order. Would her point be well taken? In this Footnote, we will look at Miss E. M. Hill (Mrs. Elsie Hill Roland) and examine the evidence to support this claim. Is it credible? I will let you be the judge.
The Story Ends (or perhaps begins)
In August of 2015, The Cumberland Times-News (Aug. 17, 2015) contained an article (Larry, 2015) about the closing of the last school-based agricultural education program in Allegany County, Maryland. The economy, the retirement of an agriculture teacher, the challenge of finding a replacement, a less-than-supportive school board, and declining enrollments all contributing to the closing of the last agriculture program in the county. In the article “Ag Science, FFA to be Absent from County Schools after 80 Years” we find this statement “It (referring to Ag Science/FFA) began in the schools here in 1931. Mrs. Elsie Hill Roland ran it from 1931 to 1964.” So, who is Mrs. Elsie Hill Roland, and are the dates correct?
In 1911 or 1912 (depending upon your source) Flintstone High School was created as the first vocational agriculture high school in the state of Maryland. According to Stimson’s (1942, p. 173) History of Agricultural Education in the United States “From 1910 to 1913, 10 to 12 high schools and agricultural high schools offered instruction in agriculture in practically all sections of the state [Maryland].” Flintstone is listed as one of the 10-12 schools. The original Flintstone school building was previously used as a residence, a store, and the Grange Meeting Hall before becoming a school.
Figure 1: The original Flintstone Agricultural School Building as it looked in 1976.
Elsie Marie Hill – the Teacher
Elsie was a graduate of Frostburg State Normal School in 1917 and taught in a one-room schoolhouse at Rush, MD in 1917-18. Here she initiated courses in nature study and practical agriculture. Teaching the courses in practical agriculture was based on her conviction that a school’s curriculum should fit the needs of the community (Breen, 1962). In 1918 she received a cash award in a Victory Garden campaign. I don’t know if it was a personal garden or a school garden.
She was recruited to teach agriculture at Flintstone (4 miles from Rush) in 1918. Breen (1962, p. 11) says, “After a series of male college graduates had taught the agriculture courses, it was concluded that the experiment [teaching agriculture] was on the brink of failure.”
Williams (1974, p. 13) concurs with Breen’s assessment:
The institution (referring to Flintstone High School) began as an agricultural school in 1912. When enrollment fizzled to a mere five students at the end of 1918 a worried Superintendent Edward F. Webb appointed Miss Julia Hileman as Principal and Miss Elsie Hill as assistant with this remark, ‘I’ve tried men agricultural college graduates. Now I’ll send you two to finish the fizzle.’”
The enrollment in agriculture rose from 17 to 32 pupils in the first year. In the summer of 1919, Elsie began studying for her BS and MS degrees in vocational agriculture at the University of Maryland. She was the only woman and became “Sam Hill” to her colleagues (I think Sam Hill is a euphemism for a phrase such as what in tarnation is a female doing studying to be an agriculture teacher).
Breen (1962) states that after Elsie enrolled as a degree candidate she faced an obstacle – a federal statute prohibiting women from being certified to teach vocational agriculture subjects [Curator’s note: I don’t think this is an accurate statement. In my 47+ years in agricultural education I have never heard of such a federal statute. Lillian Lamb in Indiana was certified in 1919]. Breen goes on to state (1962, p. 11) “…it was too late for a minor matter like that to swerve her from a course of action she had already plotted for herself. She simply became “E. M. Hill,” the signature she used on her papers.
Apparently, Elsie continued to teach agriculture at Flintstone and then went to school in the summer months to earn her B.S. degree and vo-ag certification. Elsie Marie Hill (aka E. M. Hill) received a B.S. degree in Education along with a Teacher’s Diploma from the University of Maryland in 1931. She was inducted into Phi Kappa Phi, which is an academic honorary, the same year.
The 1921-22 Directory of School Officials and Teachers for Maryland shows that Elsie was a teacher at Flintstone High School but doesn’t identify what she taught. It is likely she was teaching agriculture. The high school had a principal and two other teachers. The proceedings of the Agriculture Section of the Annual Meeting of the Maryland State Teachers Association for 1922 shows that Elsie Hill of Flintstone High School led a discussion of the need for part-time and short courses in agriculture.
The 1925-26 Report of the Maryland State Board of Education showed enrollment in vocational agriculture classes at Flintstone to be 28 students in 1923, 21 in 1924, 37 in 1925, and 42 in 1926.
Breen (1962, p. 11) writes that Elsie “…started a Future Farmers of America club in 1926 before it became a national organization. She called it her Wide Awake Gang.”
The Wide Awake Gang served two purposes. The group adopted agricultural projects at home that were allied with their school work. Twice each summer, Mrs. Roland would visit each home to see how the projects were progressing. In this way, an educational purpose was fulfilled, and school spirit was fostered. She was also a 4-H club leader for 43 years (Breen, 1962).
Elsie Becomes the Principal at Flintstone
The 1933-34 School Directory for Maryland lists Elsie M. Hill as teaching agriculture and science at Flintstone High School in addition to serving as Principal. In the early days of agricultural education, the agriculture teacher often served as the principal because he (and it was typically a he) possessed a college degree while many of the teachers didn’t have four-year college degrees.
On July 23, 1936, Elsie Marie Hill married John Stanbert Roland.
In an article by Linda Williams in The Bedford County Press (August 29, 1974) we learn:
Miss Hileman served as principal for eight years and then Miss Hill who later became Mrs. John Stanbert Roland took over as principal . It was during this time that the school began to grow phenomenally.
During Miss Hill’s reign as principal, her name was usually signed as E. M. Hill. And on more than one occasion visitors were surprised to see a lady sitting behind the desk of that signature. It was particularly incredible to have a woman holding this role at an agricultural school at such an early date. In fact the school can boast a record of having the first and only woman principal of a vocational agricultural school in the United States.
Figure 2. Principal Roland sitting at her desk in 1958.
David Miller, a retired agriculture teacher in Maryland, confirms the use of initials. David tells me:
She used her initials because at the time teaching ag was a man’s job. By using initials people, other than locally, would think the person was male. The community of course knew she was female. The story goes that when the state ag supervisor from the MD State Department of Education came to make his first visit with this new teacher he thought he was coming to visit a male. When he arrived and found out the teacher was female he went back to his office in Baltimore and never told anyone in the Department of Ed what he had discovered. Ag teachers were all male in those days. Interesting.
The 1954 Flintstone High School Yearbook lists Elsie H. Roland as “Principal, Vocational Agriculture”. The 1954 Yearbook was dedicated to the FHA and FFA for “contributing to the abundant life of our country” [sidenote: The 1954 yearbook found on Classmates.com has a FFA stamp pasted inside the front cover]. Elsie retired in 1962 after being at Flintstone for 45 years as the agriculture teacher and principal.
Figure 3. Inside the front cover of the 1954 Flintstone High School found on classmates.com
Figure 4. Mrs. J. S Roland (E. M. Hill) lived across the road from the high school where she worked for 45 years, first as the agriculture teacher and then as principal.
Breen (1962, p. 11) writes that “When E. M. Hill became certified to teach vocational agriculture, she was the only woman in the United States to be so certified. As far as it is known, there is only one other woman in the country who was certified to teach vocational agriculture.” Breen, a journalist, wrote this in 1962. I am not sure what materials he had access to when he wrote this.
We don’t know exactly when Elsie was “officially” certified to teach vocational agriculture. We do know that Lillian Lamb in Indiana completed a four-year teacher education program in agriculture education at Purdue in 1919 and was teaching vocational agriculture in the 1919-20 school year. We believe Elsie was teaching agriculture in the 1918-19 school year but was she certified as a Smith-Hughes agriculture teacher? I don’t know enough about teacher certification regulations in Maryland to know. It would take some digging into state records to determine this.
So what do you think? Was E. M. Hill the first female vocational agriculture teacher in the Smith-Hughes era?
Breen, Robert (Dec. 21, 1962). Woman Sets Pace for Future Agriculturists. The Baltimore Sun. https://www.newspapers.com/image/376725645/?terms=woman%20sets%20pace%20for%20future%20agriculturists&match=1
Larry, Greg (August 17, 2015) Ag Science, FFA to be Absent from County Schools after 80 years” Cumberland Time News. https://www.times-news.com/news/ag-science-ffa-to-be-absent-from-county-schools-after-80-years/article_5b9c83f6-4548-11e5-9d66-4f7dd850e9b5.html
Maryland. State Dept. of Education. Directory, school officials and teachers, State of Maryland 1921-22. Baltimore: State Dept. of Education.
Stimson, R. Whittaker., Lathrop, F. Waldo. (1942). History of agricultural education of less than college grade in the United States: a cooperative project of workers in vocational education in agricultural and in related fields. Washington: Federal Security Agency.
Williams, Linda (August 29, 1974). Scuffle Marks Absent at Flintstone. Bedford County Press. https://www.newspapers.com/image/297734488/?terms=flintstone%20school&match=2