Seaman Asahel Knapp

Seaman Asahel Knapp

Knapp, Seaman Asahel, 1833-1911, agriculturist and teacher, b. Schroon Lake, N.Y., grad. Union College, Schenectady, 1856. He went to Iowa in 1866 and began publication in 1872 at Cedar Rapids of the Western Stock Journal and Farmer. In 1879 he became professor of agriculture and manager of the Iowa State College (now Iowa State Univ.) farm, and from 1884 to 1886 he was president of the college. He resigned to conduct in Louisiana farm demonstration work, an innovative method of instruction which he introduced, consisting of practical demonstrations on individual farms. Later, under James Wilson as secretary of agriculture, Knapp was employed by the department as a special agent to promote better farming methods in the South—particularly in the growing and handling of rice, for which he was sent to East Asia to study techniques there. His greatest work was the demonstration of methods of fighting the boll weevil. This led to the development in the Dept. of Agriculture of the Farmers Cooperative Demonstration Work division, which he headed.

He was succeeded by his son, Bradford Knapp, 1870-1938, b. Vinton, Iowa, grad. Vanderbilt Univ., 1892, who after his father's death was director of the Farmers Cooperative Demonstration Work division until the department was reorganized in 1914; until 1920 he headed the extension work in the South. He served as president at Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College (1923-28), at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (1928-32), and at Texas Technological College (from 1932). He wrote Safe Farming (1919).

See biography of S. A. Knapp by J. C. Bailey (1945).

Seaman Asahel Knapp (1831-1911) was a Union College graduate, Phi Beta Kappa member, physician, college instructor, and, later, administrator, who took up farming late in life, moving to Iowa to raise general crops and livestock.

The first seeds of what would later become an abiding interest in farm demonstration were planted after he became active in an organization called “The Teachers of Agriculture,” attending their meetings at the Michigan Agricultural College in 1881 and the Iowa Agricultural College in 1882. Knapp was so impressed with this teaching method that he drafted a bill for the establishment of experimental research stations, which later was introduced to the 47th Congress, laying the foundation for a nationwide network of agricultural experiment stations.

Knapp later served as president of Iowa Agricultural College, but his interest in agricultural demonstration work did not occur until 1886, when he moved to Louisiana and began developing a large tract of agricultural land in the western part of this state.

Knapp neither could persuade local farmers to adopt the techniques he had perfected on his farm, nor could he enlist farmers from the North to move to the region to serve collectively as a sort of educational catalyst. What he could do, he reasoned, was to provide incentives for farmers to settle in each township with the proviso that each, in turn, would demonstrate to other farmers what could be done by adopting his improved farming methods.

The concept worked. Northern farmers began moving into the region, and native farmers began buying in to Knapp’s methods.

By 1902, Knapp was employed by the government to promote good agricultural practices in the South.

Based on his own experience, Knapp was convinced that demonstrations carried out by farmers themselves were the most effective way to disseminate good farming methods. His efforts were aided by the onslaught of the boll weevil, a voracious cotton pest whose presence was felt not only in Louisiana but also throughout much of the South. Damage associated with this pest instilled fear among many merchants and growers that the cotton economy disintegrating around them.

In the view of many, a farm demonstration at the Walter G. Porter farm, now a National Historic Landmark in Terrell, Texas, set up by the Department of Agriculture at the urging of concerned merchants and growers, was the first in a series of steps that eventually lead to passage of the legislation that formalize Cooperative Extension work.

USDA officials were so impressed with the success of this demonstration that they appropriated $250,000 to combat the weevil — a measure that also involved the hiring of farm demonstration agents. By 1904, some 20 agents were employed in Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas. The movement also appeared to be spreading to neighboring Mississippi and Alabama.

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