Mar 18, 2012

Part One – Early Technology in Extension – Grains, Trains, and E.L. Luther’s Motorcycle

Part One – Early Technology in Extension – Grains, Trains, and E.L. Luther’s Motorcycle

I’ve always enjoyed reading history.  Two highlights of my adult life occurred at the University of Minnesota where I first had the chance to meet historian Steven Ambrose, author of "Undaunted Courage"(an exciting and detailed historical account of the Lewis and Clark expedition).  A couple years later, it was David McCollough, author of the stirring account of the American Revolution titled "1776."

But, I’ve never made time to read the historical details connected to any of my workplaces – past or present, until this year’s centennial celebration of UW-Extension’s Cooperative Extension division. This piece and the couple that will follow are based in part on a 2002 book by Jerry Apps titled "The People Came First: a History of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension."

After reading and reviewing some of these accounts, it has made me think about  how the innovation and excitement that moved so many people to action in the early 1900s fits today’s vision for outreach and extension work.  I am particularly interested in how the technology and innovation of the first couple decades of the 1900s compares with where we’re at in 2012.

E.L. Luther of Oneida County - 1912
Many have been fascinated to read the accounts of E.L. Luther, the first Extension Agent or “county agricultural representative” in Wisconsin.  Mr. Luther started his work in 1912 in Oneida County, working out of Rhinelander, the county seat.  Luther was hired to connect the land-grant university in Madison to the people and communities.  Especially intriguing is the fact that Luther was provided with an Indian brand, two-cylinder motorcycle that he used to travel throughout the sandy roads of the county working directly with farmers, conducting educational meetings, and connecting educational resources within the county. 

Ernest Leonard Luther has become our traveling “mascot” in 2012 as we celebrate the Extension Centennial with a life-size cutout display of him and his motorcycle which is traveling throughout the state. The black and white cutout has also become a bit of a meme for us these last couple months representing all of the great attributes of the “Wisconsin Idea.” 

Even before E.L.’s entry onto the scene, big things were happening. It is enlightening to look at the progression of technology from the early/mid 1800’s to Luther’s work a few decades later.  In the mid 1800’s, relatively little had happened in the U.S. from an agricultural science perspective.  Most of what happened on a Midwestern farm in 1850 happened because of knowledge and experience passed down through the generations, and much of that information had moved from Europe to the U.S. over a century.

Lots happened after the 1850s. President Lincoln signed Land Grant Bill (Morrill Act) in 1862 (we are also recognizing the 150th year of the Land Grant act this year).  In 1866, The University of Wisconsin at Madison became the formal recipient of the federal land-grant.  In the 1860s through the 80s much of the new knowledge from the University and the College was conveyed within the walls of traditional classrooms, but also through the mail via letters and in magazines and other print pieces such as the Wisconsin Farmer or the Racine Agriculturist.  Another favorite was Hoards Dairyman which began in 1885.  Researchers and educators in the University of Wisconsin’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and Extension are still regularly cited by these same magazines more than 125 years later.

The College continued its growth and outreach into the communities of Wisconsin in the 1880s.  In 1885 and 86, “Farmers’ Institutes” were held in more than two dozen counties statewide. In the first decade of the 1900s (1904 and 05), the College began to offer railroad “trains” as an important technology-transfer mechanism to reach out and extend the resources of the Madison campus to more in the state.  There were three trains – the Seed Special, Potato Train, and Livestock Special that made their way to areas of the state. The train cars contained teaching demos, animals, and devices used to improve agricultural productivity and efficiency.  There would also be one or more cars for faculty/staff.  Obviously, the livestock train required staff to transport feed and water.  Additional help was required to care for the horses, cattle and other animals that moved from town to town. These trains would be greeted with great enthusiasm.  At most stops,1000 or more people would participate in the educational offerings.

It was an exciting time for those who were beginning to research and teach about important agricultural and food system issues.  Wisconsin was continuing its transformation from being one of the leading wheat and grain producing states to one where dairy and cheese production would ultimately create major shifts in local economies.  These early seeds grew into what is now a $26 billion dairy industry – the largest single part of the state’s overall $60 billion ag sector.

In 1908, Dean Russell of the College reported that there were 12 “stenographers” on staff, helping get 45,000 letters written each year along with more than 20,000 manuscripts and 102,000 “mimeograph sheets” that were sent out to fulfill requests made by the state’s residents.

In his work out in Oneida County, nearly 200 miles from Madison, E.L. Luther saw similar needs and demands. In the months that followed his establishment as the state’s first Agent, Luther and another colleague reported having 27 educational meetings with almost 3,000 people in attendance.  They also wrote and mailed out 400 letters, and more than 300 people stopped by to see Luther for informal consultation and advice.

Compare all of these facts and conditions in 1912 from Jerry App’s book to those we face today.  How do they compare?  Was life really a lot more easy and simple back in the “old days?”  How did the daily worklife of an early Extension Agent in 1912 compare with our work in 2012?  What about the work of the writers and editors at places like Hoard’s Dairyman? How about the farmers and rural residents that Luther served?

I think about the number of people who I connect with in a day.  Like most people involved in Extension or other agricultural communication or outreach work, I will receive 125 or more emails in a day.  I’ll probably respond to the 30 or 40 that require a direct response and quickly review the rest.  In a given day, I might meet with three or four groups or individuals.  On a night like last night, I might give a talk to 50 or 60 people and speak about the latest challenges and solutions to issues we face in agriculture.  

Many of us now keep connected to some of the key agricultural leaders and media contacts around the state using social media like Twitter where a single message can be seen by four or five hundred people and magnified one-hundredfold if you say something profound.  I am not suggesting that this is all “good.”  There are times that I look at my bloated inbox and wonder what historians will write about the work of our generation 100 years from now! 

Are our daily “interactions” as deep and meaningful as those of Mr. Luther?  I have a sneaking suspicion that the answer is “no.”  But, we do live in a different world today with shorter attention spans.  The volume of new information and knowledge that gets created in a single month today exceeds that of ALL information and knowledge that existed on earth in 1912. I have more computing power in my little smart phone than existed in all of NASA in the late 1960s as they were working to get the first astronautsto and from the moon. We live in a world of sound bites and data bytes.  I do believe that the work of Extension and the University as well as others charged with communicating about things like agriculture and positive change in 2012 is still firmly grounded on personal relationships, trust, and a strong sense of confidence in the organization.  But, I also believe we need to work hard to maintain the same degree of relevance in an ever changing and complex world.

The issues that required solutions are not all that different.  E.L. Luther reported on Oneida County’s needs in 1912 connected to things like healthy livestock, correcting acidic soils, methods to increase nitrogen for crops and forages, and silos to provide winter feed storage for dairy cattle. 

Today, we have some of these same challenges and are also focused on growing an industry and developing the human potential of the families and youth who live in our local communities.  The work that we do in support of the economy must also have a clear focus on sustaining the environment and natural resources and considering the impact of growth on the state’s infrastructure and on local communities.

Points to consider….
  • Was the work of E.L. Luther any easier (or more difficult) than your work today?  What about those who worked on campus? (What about the participants in Luther’s programs or the students in those early years of the University of Wisconsin-Madison?) 
  •   How did the technology of 1912 compare to today’s technology and infrastructure?  Besides Luther’s motorcycle, what other technologies helped him do his work in 1912?  What would E.L. Luther think if he was transported to 2012? 
  •   Are we making the best use of the technology that we have at our fingertips today?  Why or why not?  Are there barriers that hold us back?
  •   The “trains” that were referenced above made more than 100 stops from 1911 to 1912 and drew more than 32,000 people.  Why?  Are there things today that we do (or don’t do) that generate similar levels of interest and enthusiasm?
  • How did Luther’s presence in Oneida County influence the “presence” and spirit of the Land Grant concept in local communities?  What examples of this enduring spirit do we see today?
  •  How did Luther’s work and the work of the College of Agriculture in the late 1800s and early 1900s help set us up for 100 years of success?
  •  What is today’s agricultural “train” or Indian motorcycle?  Is it something we’ve not yet thought about?  What do we need to do to push the envelope to think in the same way that Extension’s original leaders did in 1912?

Part Two – Dear Mr. Francour, Thanks for a Dynamite Presentation! 
Part Three – Learn by Mail and the Evolution Toward that Internet Thingie
Part Four – To Tweet or not to Tweet…That is the Question (for all you Tweeps):  Or, What do We Need to be Doing Today to Keep up With Our Partners, Stakeholders, and Competitors?

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