Engineering Agriculture at Texas A&M: The First Hundred Years

Engineering Agriculture at Texas A&M: The First Hundred Years

by Henry C. Dethloff, Stephen W. Searcy

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781623493042
Publisher: Texas A&M University Press
Publication date: 02/19/2015
Series: Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Service Series
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 35 MB
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About the Author

Henry C. Dethloff is professor emeritus of history at Texas A&M University. He is the author or co-author of more than twenty books, including several on the history of Texas A&M.

Stephen W. Searcy is professor and head of the biological and agricultural engineering department at Texas A&M University.

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Engineering Agriculture at Texas A&M

The First Hundred Years

By Henry C. Dethloff, Stephen W. Searcy

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2015 Texas A&M University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62349-304-2


Founding the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas

The Agricultural & Mechanical College of Texas, the first public institution of higher learning in the state, began operations on the then treeless black prairie lands of Central Texas on October 2, 1876. Six students and the six faculty members, the governor of Texas, members of the first board of directors of the college, and a small crowd of Bryan, Texas, residents were on hand for the formal opening ceremonies on October 4. By the close of the first term in January 1877, enrollment had risen to forty-six students enrolled in four of the seven courses of study offered, including: agriculture and science, mechanics and engineering, language and literature, and military tactics. Texas A&M and other colleges and universities established under the terms of the Morrill Land-Grant College Act of 1862 became key elements in the transformation of the American economy in general, and agriculture in particular.

In 1862, in the midst of the nation's Civil War, the federal government was actively concerned with enhancing the nation's agricultural industry, especially in the new lands in the western states and territories. That year Congress approved and President Lincoln signed into law the Agricultural Act which established a Department of Agriculture. The purpose of this new department was to "acquire and to diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with agriculture in the most general and comprehensive sense of that word, and to procure, propagate, and distribute among the people new and valuable seeds and plants." Included in the Act was instruction that the word agriculture should be broadly interpreted—a challenge which would be revisited repeatedly over the decades to come. Also signed into law that year, 1862, was the Homestead Act which authorized the homesteading of up to 160 acres of unappropriated public land for the price of $1.25 per acre. These lands were primarily in the territories that were added with the Louisiana Purchase. This act had the dual intent of encouraging population growth in empty territories, and stimulating agricultural production. Because of its former status as an independent nation, Texas had no public lands available for distribution under the terms of the Homestead Act.

On November 1, 1862, Congress passed a related act to grant public land within the States to "provide Colleges for the benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts." Texas interestingly had considered such a program during its years as the Republic of Texas. Texas won independence from Mexico in 1836 following epochal battles at the Alamo, Bexar, Goliad, and finally San Jacinto. As early as 1839, Republic of Texas legislators began talk of a national public university funded by a land grant. And, in 1853, with Texas then a state of the Union, the Texas State Agricultural Society began promoting a state-endowed agricultural college "where the important business principles of Agriculture shall be scientifically taught and practically illustrated." A Texas agricultural college seemed in the offing until secession and Civil War intervened.

During the Reconstruction Era, the twelfth Texas legislature approved legislation organizing an agricultural and mechanical college in compliance with the terms of the Morrill Land-Grant College Act. Inasmuch as there were no federal lands in Texas, Texas received land scrip from the Department of Interior for 180,000 acres of federal land located in the territory of Colorado (30,000 acres for each senator and representative representing a state in Congress). The scrip was sold for $0.87 per acre and invested in 7 percent gold frontier defense bonds of Texas—providing funding for the organization of the Agricultural and Mechanical College. The college was still some years away. Where in Texas should an Agricultural and Mechanical College be located?

That was to be the decision of three commissioners appointed by Governor E. A. Davis. The locating commissioners soon identified four preferred sites: Kellum Springs or Piedmont Springs in Grimes County, Bellville in Austin County, and Bryan in Brazos County. Grimes County, northwest of Houston, boasted substantial cotton and corn production and Texas' first recreational spa established in 1850. Austin County, west of Houston, was also a long-time center for cotton, corn, and cattle production with diverse soils ranging from black prairie lands to sandy loam. Moreover, one of the members of the locating committee, John G. Bell, was from Bellville.

Brazos County with a total population of about 10,000 in 1870 attracted considerable statewide attention by virtue of having incorporated the city of Bryan, organized the Agricultural and Mechanical Association of Bryan, and opened the Bryan Male and Female Seminary—all in 1871. In addition, Brazos County had a thriving cotton and cattle industry and its county seat, Bryan, quickly became a bustling commercial center along the route of the Houston and Texas Central Railroad—a railroad which had been constructed from Houston as far as Millican before the Civil War, and on which construction resumed to and through Bryan in 1867.

The decisive moment in the decision for locating the new State Agricultural and Mechanical College in Bryan came with the offer made by Harvey Mitchell on behalf of the citizens of Bryan of 2,416 acres of land as a donation to the college. To be sure, a statewide storm of protest immediately followed the announcement that Bryan was the chosen site for Texas' first public institution of higher education. Critics argued that the lands in the vicinity of Bryan were among the poorest in the state and unfit for agriculture, and the area was isolated. Rumors also arose that the location had been won by Harvey Mitchell in a poker game. But it was a done deal.

The legislature approved the organization of the A&M College on April 17, 1871, and on May 16, 1872, the board of administrators of the University of Texas (the administrative board of the A&M College established by the Act of 1871) visited Bryan, approved the site, and advertised for bids for the construction of the college's main building, and in August 1873 approved a contract for its construction. Meanwhile, statewide elections resulted in the ouster of Governor E. A. Davis and the reconstruction government and the election of Richard Coke. Governor Coke inspected the building in October 1874 and reported that the building (later identified as "Old Main"):

is exceedingly well built, of the best material, and is a solid and most imposing and handsome structure, modeled with fine taste, and with the interior arrangements and divisions admirably suiting it for the purposes for which it is built. It is a four story building, made of brick on a foundation of hard limestone, and covered with slate, is seventy-eight feet wide by one hundred and fifty long. It is beautifully located in sight of the Central Railroad, and about four miles from Bryan ... it furnishes the means of supplying immediately in Texas the great want of an institution of learning of the highest grade. (See Governor's Messages, Coke to Ross, 1874–91, 138).

The business of opening the new college began with legislation organizing a board of directors, including the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the House of Representatives, and six elected directors, one from each of the existing congressional districts. The board was authorized to select a college president, faculty, and other personnel, and to establish the necessary rules and regulations for operation. Theboard of directors held its first meeting in Bryan on June 1, 1875. There was much to do before the college could begin operations.

The directors organized the academic program into seven courses or departments and selected a single professor to head each department (but for the Commercial Department which was initially unfilled), and teach the relevant courses. One of those department heads, Thomas S. Gathright, who headed a private school for boys in Mississippi, was selected to also serve as president of the college. The departments or courses included:

Department of Mental and Moral Philosophy:

President and Professor Thomas S. Gathright Ancient and modern history, rhetoric, logic, and mental and moral philosophy

Department of Modern Languages and English Literature:

Professor William A. Banks
English, German, French, and Spanish

Department of Ancient Languages and Belles Lettres:

Professor John T. Hand
Latin and Greek

Department of Applied Mathematics:

Professor Robert P. W. Morris
Surveying, descriptive geometry, mechanics, and drawing

Department of Pure Mathematics:

Professor Alexander Hogg
Arithmetic, algebra, trigonometry, geometry, and calculus

Agricultural and Scientific Course:

Professor Carlisle P. B. Martin

Natural history and botany, physical geography, natural philosophy and mineralogy, chemistry and geology, and agricultural science (including chemistry, farm tillage, horticulture, arboriculture, care of stock)

Dr. (of Divinity) Carlisle P. B. Martin was about as close to being a trained and educated agriculturist as was available. College-educated farmers and agriculturists were essentially nonexistent. The agricultural education that did exist was largely rooted in the classic literature of Greek and Roman antiquity such as M. Porcius Cato's (De Agricultura) and M. Terentius Varro, who argued that agricultural production could be improved by enticing hired labor or tenant farmers (coloni) with the prospect of rewards rather than punishment. Professor Martin, the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, and Morrill Land-Grant Colleges in all states were effectually pioneering in agricultural education. Although the Morrill Act was intended to provide educational programs that would aid the industrial and economic expansion of the nation, the new land-grant colleges had a hard time transitioning away from the classical approach, in no small part because that is what the qualified instructors knew.

The agricultural and scientific course offered instruction in natural history and botany to first-year students; physical geography and a basic course in natural philosophy and mineralogy to second-year students; chemistry and geology to third-year students; and agricultural science (chemistry, farm tillage, horticulture, arboriculture, and the care of livestock) to fourth-year students. Students enrolled at the A&M College had the option of pursuing a field of study in agriculture, mechanics and engineering, language and literature, or military tactics. All students were required to attend three classes a day and upon satisfactory completion of a three-year course of study received a proficiency certificate. Upon completion of a fourth year of study they earned the degree of SA (Scientific Agriculture), or CE (if enrolled in civil and mining engineering), or AB (Arts Bachelor) if enrolled in language and literature.

Admission to the college was only open to boys fifteen years of age or older. All students, whatever their course of study, were required to wear the prescribed uniform and learn military tactics and drills. Professor P. W. Morris, the professor of applied mathematics and the youngest faculty member at the age of twenty-two, who had formerly taught at the Texas Military Institute in Austin, was given additional duties to serve as the first commandant of cadets.

Life was hard on those open prairies and wolves literally howled at the door of Old Main. That was, to be sure, simply a reflection of life anywhere in Texas in the 1870s. The faculty soon found that most students applying for admission to the college were painfully deficient in basic studies such as reading, writing, and arithmetic. The stereotype of land-grant college students everywhere (as opposed to those admitted to private classical and religiously oriented colleges) soon emerged as being "ungraded, unlettered, and unwashed."

Texas A&M began offering a first year of basic studies in order to better prepare students for their chosen course of study. The mission of the college was to make life better. To assist in that mission, the board created the post of college surgeon and filled it with the selection of Bryan resident physician D. Port Smythe, whose salary was paid by a $5 fee charged to each student. Directors also authorized the development of an experimental farm not to exceed thirty acres, and selected Gen. Hamilton P. Bee as the steward and superintendent of the farm. The superintendent was to receive instructions for cultivation of the farm from the professor of agriculture "for the purpose of illustrating the science of chemistry as applied to agriculture." The board also specified that an orchard be planted, and that shade and ornamental trees be placed on the campus, and appropriated funds ($1,000) for the purchase of a pair of mules, a wagon, harness, and necessary farm implements. That marked the beginning of the practical education specified by the Morrill Land-Grant College Act.

It was an inauspicious beginning, but good things soon began to happen. Enrollment rose from forty-eight students in January 1877 to 106 by the close of the term. Two hundred students enrolled for the second academic year starting in October 1877 and by December, 253 students were on campus, but housing, bath, and dining facilities were sorely lacking. The board authorized the construction of temporary wooden barracks to house students, approved the construction of five homes for professors, and hired two new adjunct professors, James E. Binkley, and Louis L. McInnis. The directors also secured the appointment of a regular Army officer, Captain George T. Olmstead, as professor of military science and assigned James E. Binkley as his assistant, enabling Professor Robert Morris to focus on mathematics. While there was progress, there was also constant conflict and tension within the faculty and among the general public regarding the Agricultural & Mechanical College's role and mission.

Among the tensions was the belief among many that education necessarily had to do with the classical studies such as languages and literature (prominently Latin and Greek), ancient and modern history, philosophy, higher math, physics and science. A practical education as envisioned by the Morrill Land-Grant College Act was believed by many (including President Thomas S. Gathright) to involve learning by doing—involving mostly manual labor—and that agriculture and mechanics were more of a craft or skill. Gathright, for example, opposed diverting money from the classical studies (literature and the sciences) to build up agricultural and mechanical programs, and he supported the requirement that students enrolled in agricultural studies must engage in practical farm training, including field work.

The Alta Vista Agricultural College for colored youths, located in Waller County and operated under the administrative direction of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas President Thomas Gathright, experienced tensions similar to those being experienced at Texas A&M. Black youths, like the white youths, did not desire to go to college to learn to be dirt farmers or sharecroppers. Enrollments struggled under the mantle of classical studies traditions. But as time passed the attractions of mechanization, scientific agriculture, and modernization became a positive stimulant to enrollment.

In the fall of 1879, the board of directors responded vigorously to the protests of legislators and their rural agricultural constituents (who represented the great majority of Texans), removing the president and all of the faculty except Louis L. McInnis. In 1880, John Garland James, then president of the Texas Military Institute, replaced Gathright in the president's office. The students' option to elect their own course of study was abolished and a new four-year prescribed curriculum for all students resulted in a degree. Greater emphasis was to be placed on practical applications but it was to be understood that prescribed shop work for engineers or field work for agricultural students was to be considered as theoretical and practical training. The single common degree lasted only a year. The 1881–82 academic program included two courses of study, one in agriculture and one in mechanics. All students attended the same classes for their first year and then elected either the agriculture or mechanics program for their second and third year of study. Students completing the three-year program in agriculture or engineering received diplomas but no degrees. The new regimen lasted about three years when an additional post graduate fourth year of study was added resulting in the award of the bachelor of science degree in agriculture, engineering, or mechanical engineering.

In 1976 Charles W. Crawford (and others including Fred R. Jones and Edward A. Hiler from the Department of Agricultural Engineering) wrote and published One Hundred Years of Engineering at Texas A&M, 1876–1976 which traces in considerable detail the changes in faculty and academic programs during the formative years, as well as in the twentieth century. Crawford, Jones, and Hiler not only wrote about one hundred years of engineering at Texas A&M, they were major contributors to the body of engineering accomplishments. The emergence of agricultural engineering in 1915 represents a fusion of agriculture and engineering studies and the advent of mechanized agriculture. The developments that brought the Department of Agricultural Engineering into being at Texas A&M can best be understood in the context of the changing structures of the surrounding Texas and American economy, changes greatly facilitated by engineering and agriculture.


Excerpted from Engineering Agriculture at Texas A&M by Henry C. Dethloff, Stephen W. Searcy. Copyright © 2015 Texas A&M University Press. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Founding the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas,
Chapter 2. The Emergence of Agricultural Engineering,
Chapter 3. Texas and the Mechanization of Agriculture, 1920–1940,
Chapter 4. Rural Electrification in Texas,
Chapter 5. Agricultural Engineering and the Growth of Texas Agribusiness,
Chapter 6. King Cotton Sustained: New Dimensions of Agriculture,
Chapter 7. The Total Environment: Soil, Water, and Air,
Chapter 8. Food and Fiber Engineering,
Chapter 9. Achieving Oneness,
Chapter 10. Engineering the Total Environment,
Chapter 11. Education, Research, and Outreach in Biological and Agricultural Engineering,
Afterword: The Second Century,

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