December 1999 // Volume 37 // Number 6 // Commentary // 6COM2

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History of Extension Work in Virginia Prior to Smith-Lever

Numerous activities occurred in Virginia Extension associated with Congressional district agriculture schools prior to the passage of the Smith-Lever Act in 1914. Historical research methodology was utilized to find information. The article documents how the 11 schools had courses of study taught on the subjects of agriculture and home economics, and also performed a great deal of Extension work. Typically, the agriculture teacher would conduct demonstration work during the summer. Faculty members at the schools also worked with youth activities and home economics programs. The funding sources helped set precedents with a combination of state funding through the Land-grant university and local support.

Cathy M. Sutphin
Senior Extension Agent/4-H Youth
Pulaski County
Pulaski, Virginia
Internet address:

John Hillison
Agricultural and Extension Education
Virginia Technical Institute and State University
Blacksburg, Virginia
Internet address:

Most historical accounts of Extension work start with the writing and passage of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914. This approach, however, ignores much of the foundational development of Extension as we know it today. The roots of Extension work in Virginia can be found by examining Congressional district agricultural schools, which were established in 1908 and lasted until full implementation of the 1917 Smith-Hughes Act. A historical study was conducted in order to document this important era in the development of Virginia Cooperative Extension.

Congressional district agricultural schools were state and locally-funded schools, which had the primary purpose of teaching secondary students agriculture and home economics. Alabama and Georgia also established such schools. In Virginia, a school was established in each Congressional district and typically had a farm or experiment station attached as well as a dormitory.

There was a strong relationship between the development of the Congressional district schools and the beginning of Extension work in the state. In fact the principal, who also served as an agriculture teacher at the school, carried on a great deal of Extension work. The principal supervised home projects of his students, organized boys' and girls' clubs, organized farmers' institutes, offered responses to farmers and homeowners making agricultural requests, set up farm experiments and farm demonstrations, and traveled to other schools and community meetings to provide educational programming (Lane, 1915).

Each of the 11 Congressional district agricultural schools in Virginia carried on some form of Extension work. The success of the Extension programming efforts at these schools helped lay the groundwork for Extension programming in the traditional areas of agriculture, home economics, and youth development. By doing so, the Congressional district agricultural schools contributed significantly to the ultimate success of the Extension program in Virginia.

Once established, the schools almost immediately began Extension-type work. The school farms were used to establish experimental plots and to provide practical experience for the agriculture students. The schools encouraged a hands-on approach to learning and, therefore, began organizing agricultural clubs.

Youth Development

In 1908, T.O. Sandy, Virginia's first Extension demonstrator, and Joseph Eggleston, Jr., Virginia Tech president and the first elected state superintendent of public instruction, requested funds from the Virginia General Assembly to initiate boys' and girls' club work (Eggleston, 1940). The first corn clubs were organized the next year through the Congressional district agricultural schools at Burkeville and Chester (Epsilon Sigma Phi, 1940). In 1909, the Chester Corn Club enrolled 25 boys and won the state corn championship. Each member of the club conducted a demonstration by growing an acre of corn. The stated purpose of the club was to create interest in practical farming among boys (Chester Agricultural High School Catalogue, 1911).

In 1910, Ella Agnew, state agent, Girls Tomato Clubs, started the first tomato clubs in Nottoway County through the Haytokah Agricultural High School. The purpose of the tomato club was to teach girls better methods of canning for family use and to make it possible for them to earn money from the sale of their product (Epsilon Sigma Phi, 1987). The Haytokah Agricultural High School also organized a poultry club for girls and boys.

Another Virginia Congressional district agricultural high school, New London Academy, had an active corn club from 1909 until it was converted into a 4-H club in the 1920s. The club was selected as the Virginia state champion corn club in 1913. At that time there were 23 members. The school also had poultry and livestock clubs as well as a canning club (Siddons, 1994).

The agricultural clubs offered by the Congressional district agricultural schools were open to any youth. While most of the members were students of the school, several youth in the local community also joined the clubs (Third Annual Catalogue, 1912).

In addition to organizing agricultural clubs, the schools conducted youth work at rural elementary schools within the district in which the school was located. The principal of Manassas Agricultural High School, Professor Button, wrote the following concerning the in-school Extension programming which he was conducting (Agricultural Instruction in High Schools, 1913):

Another successful line of work has been in the rural schools. As 75 per cent of the school children and practically all of the next generation of farmers attend the one-room rural schools, I have endeavored to reach them by such methods as would quickly interest them and were at the same time within reach of my very limited resources. My efforts to improve these schools are along two lines, the schools themselves and the future teachers who are now in the normal training class.

As all farmers keep cows and raise corn, I chose milk testing and seed-corn selection as the best topics for my work in the schools. I borrowed a Babcock milk tester from the dairy division of the United States Department of Agriculture, and with a small exhibit of choice seed corn I visit a country school each week. If the lesson is to be on milk testing, the pupils bring samples of milk and with these I instruct both pupils and teacher in the operation of the test. (p 74-76)

It is interesting that the Appomattox Agricultural High Schools' song and the current 4-H pledge both use the words "head, heart, and hands." Following is the school song as remembered by Mary Inge, a graduate of the Appomattox Agricultural High School (Hillison, 1988):

Girded by a circling hill
Stands a high school proud and wide
The pride of every boy and girl
For she's known throughout the land
Highest purposes to stand
For the enlightenment of the head, heart, and hand

In his 1914 annual report of farmers cooperative demonstration and Extension work, Joseph Eggleston made the following statement concerning corn club work (Eggleston, 1914):

"There is not a single reason why an intelligent, patriotic teacher or superintendent of schools should not give this work his enthusiastic support, while there is every reason that he should. The corn clubs should be organized by the teachers, and in most cases the agent should give his instruction through field meetings on the demonstration plots. I believe that in the future the work will have to be done this way." (p. 37)

Home Economics Education

There was also evidence of the expansion of home economics programming at the Congressional district agricultural schools in addition to the gardening, tomato, canning, and sewing clubs. The Haytokah Agricultural High School organized home demonstration clubs, which met at the high school and included both students and adult women (J. F. Fletcher, Eggleston collection, February 19, 1916).

In 1913, the principal of the Manassas Agricultural High School reported that the school had organized groups for women (Agricultural Instruction in High Schools, 1913). These educational groups met on the same day that the farmers' institute met. Men and women would gather for a general session followed by lunch, which was prepared and served by domestic science students. After lunch the men would engage in educational interaction with an agricultural expert while the women did likewise with an expert in domestic science (Agricultural Instruction in High Schools, 1913). Both groups received awards annually. Boys and men received corn awards and the women and girls received awards for sewing and cooking (Round, 1911).

Agricultural Education

The Congressional district agricultural schools conducted a wide variety of agricultural Extension work. Most of the schools organized and conducted farmers' institutes which were typically one or two days in length. Farmers gathered at the Congressional district agricultural school and participated in educational programs conducted by faculty of the state agricultural college and other agricultural experts (Agricultural Instruction in High Schools, 1913). In addition, the farmers' groups often took field trips for on-farm demonstrations and frequently successful farmers shared information during the farmers' institutes (Siddons, 1994). The Manassas Agricultural High School organized the first farmers' institute for their school in 1908 and after three years had an average attendance of 75 farmers (Agricultural Instruction in High Schools, 1913).

The high school agriculture classes attended the institutes and students wrote reports which served as material for both English and agriculture classes. According to the principal of the Manassas Agricultural High School, the reports on the farmers' institutes were the best English papers turned in at the school (Agricultural Instruction in High Schools, 1913).

As valuable as the information given by the speakers was, the social interaction was even more valuable. Rural citizens at that time were isolated by bad roads and by the lack of community spirit, due in part to the rapid turnover in ownership patterns of farmland in the late 1800s (Agricultural Instruction in High Schools, 1913). The Congressional district agricultural school helped alleviate this isolation through the organization of farmers' institutes. Farmers and their wives attended the meetings and time was provided for social interaction.

Another area of agricultural programming conducted through the Congressional district agricultural schools was the winter short course program which was modeled after the short course offered by the agricultural college. Each short course concentrated on an agricultural topic of interest to the local community (Agricultural Instruction in High Schools, 1913). The target audience consisted of the sons of farmers. The youth did not have to attend the Congressional district agricultural school to participate in the short courses (Siddons, 1994).

The principal/agriculture teacher at the Congressional district agricultural schools also responded to requests for agricultural information, tested milk and seeds, carried out experiments on the school farm and with cooperating farmers, figured feed rations, and calculated fertilizer formulas ("Chartered in 1795", 1913). In addition, the agricultural teacher spoke to farmer groups, on road trips, and at other schools. Further, he visited the farms of his students during the summer to assist them in conducting their projects (Davis, 1981).

The following quote provides insight as to the similarities between the daily work of the Congressional district school principal and that of an agricultural Extension agent of today (Agricultural Instruction in High Schools, 1913, p. 76):

In the village I am constantly called upon to prescribe for the ailments of flowers, trees, shrubs, and to destroy scales, plant lice, caterpillars, and miscellaneous bugs. Outside the village I am more and more frequently called on for expert advice on alfalfa, drainage, locations for orchards, sick cows, sick trees, and the like.

In the same article Professor Button, Principal of the Manassas Agricultural High School, explained that he wrote an article for the two newspapers each week. Button kept abreast of the latest research at the land-grant college and read current scientific publications in order to provide information to farmers.


The development of Extension work at the Congressional district agricultural high schools led to the initiation of shared funding sources for Extension programming. Several Congressional school principals simultaneously served as the county demonstrator. This was true of at least two of the Congressional district agricultural schools: Turbeville Agricultural High School ("Coming home," 1978), and New London Academy ("Chartered in 1795", 1913). During the 1914-15 school session, W. G. Wysor was teaching at the Lebanon agricultural high school two days a week and as the county demonstrator four days a week. Wysor was being paid $750 from federal and state funds and $750 from the county government (J. D. Eggleston, Jr., Eggleston collection, June 17, 1915). Several principals were employed for twelve months, nine months at the school and three months as a county demonstrator (W. S. Green, Eggleston collection, August 18, 1917).

Later the schools had a more formalized relationship as evidenced by school letterhead, which included Extension farm and home demonstrators as faculty members (B. K. Watson, Eggleston collection, March 13, 1917). Another example was found at the Elk Creek Training School. In a letter to Dr. Eggleston, dated August 24, 1916, Principal Charles Graham requested $300 for the school's part of the county demonstrator's salary and an additional $250 for organizing girls' clubs.


It appears that the school principal led a very hectic, fast-paced lifestyle as is the case with Extension agents today. Professor Button, Principal at the Manassas Agricultural High School, made the following recommendation to those seeking to conduct Extension work (Agricultural Instruction in High Schools, 1913).

"Let no one who values comfort undertake this type of Extension work, for there are long rides through deep mud, hurried starts, late returns, and cold returns as the usual accompaniments of the trips." (p. 76)

The Congressional district agricultural schools led Virginia in the development of Extension work and thus secured an interest among localities in such work. The schools proved that a shared funding scheme could be beneficial to everyone involved. The schools in cooperation with the land-grant college developed the traditional Extension programming areas of youth development, home economics, and agriculture. In developing such areas Virginia was prepared for the passage of the 1914 Smith-Lever Act.


Agricultural instruction in high schools. (1913). U.S. Bureau of Education, Bulletin Number 6. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

Chartered in 1795: A brief history of New London Academy. (1913, July 6). The Lynchburg News, pp. 1, 4.

Chester Agricultural High School catalogue, 1911-1912. (1911). Chester, VA: Chester Agricultural High School.

Coming home: Old grads return for reunion. (1978, July 10). The Gazette Virginian, pp. 1, 10.

Davis, I. H. (1981). Long glances back: A little history of Middletown Agriculture High School. Stephens City, VA: Commercial Press.

Eggleston, J. D., Jr. (1914). Annual report, farmers cooperative demonstration and Extension work 1914, Extension bulletin, No. 2. Blacksburg: Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

Eggleston, J. D., Jr. (1940). An appraisal of Extension work in Virginia. In Extension work in Virginia: A Brief history 1907-1940. Blacksburg, VA: Epsilon Sigma Phi, Alpha Gamma Chapter.

Epsilon Sigma Phi (1940). Extension work in Virginia: A brief history 1907-1940. Blacksburg, VA: Epsilon Sigma Phi, Alpha Gamma Chapter.

Epsilon Sigma Phi. (1987). College of the fields. Blacksburg: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia Cooperative Extension.

Hillison, J. (1988). Interview with Mary Inge, graduate of Appomattox Congressional Agriculture School. Blacksburg: Division of Vocational Technical Education, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Lane, C. H. (1915). High school Extension in agriculture. In Journal of proceedings and addresses of the fifty-third annual meeting of the National Educational Association of the United States, pp. 1132-1136. Ann Arbor, MI: National Educational Association.

Round, G. C. (December, 1911). The agricultural high school legislation needed. The Southern Planter, 74, (2), pp. 150-151, 172.

Siddons, J. (1994). The spirit of New London Academy: The two-hundred year history of a Virginia educational landmark. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books.

Third annual catalogue of the tenth Congressional district agricultural high school. (1912). Appomattox, VA: Appomattox Agricultural High School.