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Recent Acquisition of Historical Photos of Extension Work by the WVU School of Agriculture

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
June 18th, 2015

Blog post by Michael Ridderbusch, Associate Curator, WVRHC.


The West Virginia and Regional History Center recently acquired many photographs documenting the beginnings of agricultural and other extension work in the state from around 1910 to 1920.  The University’s extension service grew out of its inception under the Morrill Act of 1862. 


Founded in 1867 as a land-grant school under the Morrill Act, West Virginia University’s mission thus included the charge to teach practical agriculture in addition to military science and classical studies.  The scope of the agricultural mission was expanded in 1909, through the College of Agriculture, to include not only the University’s students, but also any citizen of West Virginia engaged in agricultural work.  This instruction, or extension service, was to occur at appropriate centralized locations, and to be conducted through lectures, correspondence school, and reading courses.


Although the University’s extension service was initially supported by only the state, the passage of the Smith-Lever Act in 1914 established a national system of cooperative extension services connected to land-grant universities, thus leveraging the financial resources of the federal government to the purpose of informing citizens regarding current developments in agricultural practices, home economics, 4-H, and related topics.


The photographs featured in this blog, a small part of a larger body of WVU Extension Service photographs recently acquired, show the beginnings of this work in West Virginia at this moment in time, when Extension transitioned from a regional effort to a national one.


Early in the 20th century, rural communities supported boys “corn clubs” and girls “canning clubs” in order to teach practical skills, a movement in which WVU Extension involved itself.  In 1911, for example, it organized contests among these clubs in 15 counties comprising 2000 members.  The following photograph shows the winners of such a contest:


Posed outdoor portrait of two young boys, holding corncob and potato?

Photo from the West Virginia and Regional History Center.


Posed outdoor portrait of girls from canning club

Girls canning club, in West Virginia, start work in canning, ca. 1910-1915.
Photo from the West Virginia and Regional History Center.


With the passage of the Smith-Lever Act in 1914, the U.S. Department of Agriculture also became involved in supporting these rural clubs.  The first circular issued by WVU Extension in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, was in connection with canning clubs in West Virginia, as demonstrated by the following facsimile:


Title page of "Girls' Garden and Canning Clubs" from February 1914

Facsimile of title page of a circular from the West Virginia and Regional History Center.


In addition to its efforts in supporting boys and girls clubs, WVU Extension reached out to farmers in the state as well.  To this end, Extension hired four county agricultural agents in 1912-1913, including B.B. Ezell who worked out of the Chamber of Commerce office in Kanawha County, and who often rode by horseback to access rural communities.  Mabel Sutherland, a teacher, became his assistant in her work with girls canning clubs.  The collection includes photographs documenting this early activity of the Extension Office, as shown by the following three images related to the work of Ezell.


Group of farmers observing a demonstration

County agent B.B. Ezell conducting first spraying demonstration in Kanawha County, ca. 1913.  The farmers had never seen a sprayer before.  The carriage in which the agent traveled is on the left.
Photo from the West Virginia and Regional History Center.


Field of strawberries

Under supervision of agent B.B. Ezell, this “demonstration” strawberry field in Davis Creek, Kanawha County, was tended by W.A. Lawson in ca. 1913.  The ripened berries were delivered to Marshall Grocery.
Photo from the West Virginia and Regional History Center.


Man with horse and plow in field

Farmer W.A. Lawson tending a field in Kanawha County in 1913.
Photo from the West Virginia and Regional History Center.


Although less is known about other photographs, they still suggest the interest of WVU Extension in knowing of and improving the agricultural and domestic practices of the time.  Inadvertently, perhaps, they also documented through their photography a pioneer way of life still extant a century ago in rural West Virginia, as evidenced by these two photographs of butter churning from ca. 1910-1915:


Woman standing, churning butter

Butter churning, ca. 1910-1915.
Photo from the West Virginia and Regional History Center.


Woman sitting at a butter churner

Butter churning, ca. 1910-1915.
Photo from the West Virginia and Regional History Center.


The collection also includes extensive photographic documentation of early 4-H activity in West Virginia, including Jackson’s Mill.  The following photograph, for example, shows an auto repair class at a boys camp; it also shows that mechanical skills, in addition to agrarian and domestic ones, were part of the Extension curriculum:


Group of men working to repair and old car

Auto repair class, Jackson’s Mill, ca. 1925.
The vehicle under repair is likely a 1920 Ford Touring Car, Model T.
Photo from the West Virginia and Regional History Center.


For additional information, see West Virginia Agriculture and Rural Life, From the Close of the Civil War to the End of World War I by Nat Frame.  This book proved useful when conducting research for this blog.


For an overview of one century of West Virginia Extension history, and for related research material at the West Virginia and Regional History Center, see:


To see excerpts from a 1925 scrapbook of Jackson’s Mill, see:


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