Ole Miss once slated to become agriculture, mechanical college

Published 6:00 am Sunday, May 1, 2016

By Jack Mayfield

From time to time when I am researching a column, I come across something that I have read about and I feel that I should pass it along to my readers.

Before the advent of the Mississippi A&M in 1880, our university was slated to become an institution for the study of scientific farming. The organization of the Department of Agriculture did not last long, and Mississippi A&M opened its doors for the admission of students in October 1880 in Starkville.

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There was a growing interest by the farmers in Mississippi and the South prior to the Civil War in scientific farming. The first agricultural schools had originated in Europe as early as 1807. J.M. White, one of the earliest graduates of Mississippi A&M, wrote that the interest in an agriculture and mechanical college grew out of the conception that it was only “proper and altogether rational for boys to learn that which they will want to practice when they are men.”

The diminishing returns in agriculture had been reached, or were near at hand, and the only hope of escape from so perilous a condition was through progressive agriculture. White went on to state, “to make improvements in methods and processes in agriculture commensurate with the ever increasing demands on the soil of ever increasing population, and it will ever be a great problem. One way to eliminate the problem was to teach better methods in the art of farming.”

Prior to the Civil War a bill had been passed in both houses of Congress to encourage the establishment of agriculture and mechanical colleges throughout the United States. President James Buchanan vetoed the bill, but it was destined to be revived. An almost identical bill was passed and signed by President Abraham Lincoln in July 1862. The bill donated 30,000 acres of land for each senator and representative based on the apportionment under the census of 1860. Mississippi would take advantage of this law in 1866 and due to the fact that we had seven members in Congress (two senators and five representatives), we would receive 210,000 acres that could be sold to form an A&M college.

It was later determined, by the legislature, that three-fifths of the proceeds would go to Alcorn University, the first such college for the freed slaves and their children, and two-fifths to the state university at Oxford. Then plans were sent into motion to form an A&M department at the University of Mississippi. It was the third department for professional education set up by the university.

The Chancellor of the university at the time was Dr. John N. Waddell and he was to be one of the instructors along with Professors Claudius W. Sears and L.C. Garland, Dr. George Little, Dr. Eugene W. Hilgard and Dr. J.A. Lyon. Dr. M.W. Phillips was hired at the sum of $1,000 per year to be the college farm manager and a four-year course of study was provided and students were set to be enrolled starting on Oct. 2, 1872. Phillips was a celebrated agriculturist and the editor of a popular agricultural journal published in Memphis.

The Catalogue of the University from 1873 stated, “a farm had been selected on the University property, and 90 acres had been enclosed under a substantial plank fence with cedar posts, and an additional field of about 16 acres was under cultivation in various articles of produce, such as cotton, corn, Hungarian grass, Lucern, sweet and Irish potatoes. A large number of fruit trees had been set out, embracing a general selection of varieties and a very select collection of roses had also been procured, with the view of exhibiting the choicest varieties of flowers as well as of fruits.”

I believe, from my research, that the farm property was in the area near the indoor sports practice field on the southern side of the campus. This would make the farm visible from the Mississippi Central Railroad. The course of study included agriculture, horticulture, stock raising, dairying, mathematics, English, natural history and geology, general and economic chemistry, physics, meteorology, history, political economy, and ethics. This would enable the University to use established classes that would be common with other departments and a small increase in faculty would be needed.

Shortly after the department was started, Dr. Eugene W. Hilgard would write the Chancellor that the lack of funds and prejudice against scientific farming had stymied the program. He felt that there was a misunderstanding by the residents of Mississippi against “book farming.”

Few registered for the coursework in the department and during the six years of its existence no evidence was found that a single student took the entire course schedule or that a single graduate was turned out. Hilgard would leave the University in 1873 and would become the Dean of the School of Agriculture at the University of California where he earned the reputation as “the father of soil science.”

As Dr. David Sansing states in his sesquicentennial history of Ole Miss, “Mississippi farmers and the state’s agriculture press preferred their own agricultural college, separate and independent from the old aristocratic state university at Oxford.”

The students and alumni of Mississippi State University had one more thing to be thankful for from Ole Miss — their own existence.

When I was teaching at Marshall Academy in Holly Springs a number of years ago, I had a student that was graduating and he had decided to attend Mississippi State. I told him that I thought he was not suited for MSU since both his mother and father were graduates of Ole Miss. A few years later I saw him on the Ole Miss campus and he told me he had transferred to Ole Miss.

I asked him why he had changed universities and he stated: “Mr. Mayfield, you were correct in telling me I was not suited for MSU. One day I was walking in front of one of the girl’s dorms on campus and I spotted a very good-looking coed. I thought that I might get acquainted with her and ask her for a date. When I got closer to her, I noticed she had a spit cup and was dipping snuff. I knew then and there I was not suited for State.”

Jack Mayfield is an Oxford resident and historian. Contact him at jlmayfield@dixie-net.com.