“He circuit-drove a horse and buggy or a dusty old Ford, loaded to the gunwales. Somehow he tucked in and toted soil augers and soil samples, wire seed corn racks, packets of litmus paper, rag-doll seed germination rolls, dairy barn record sheets, caustic potash and nippers for calf and cow dehorning. And in college bulletins, bundled up with binder twine, the Extension worker carried handy plans for bull pens, milk houses, and split-log road drags.”
That’s how Elwood R. McIntyre describes the life of a county agent in 1912. “These men peddled progress,” he says in his book Fifty years of Cooperative Extension in Wisconsin.
“Small wonder that some skeptical farmers classed them with itinerants – tinware and notion merchants, liniment and extract salesmen, and the ubiquitous specialists in lightning rods.”
But it wasn’t just men peddling progress. While ag agents worked the fields with farmers, women “home”agents helped farm wives keep the family together.
“The best extension workers,” one pioneer woman said, “were regarded as a little bit of heaven sent down to earth in a tin lizzie.”
Cooperative Extension’s history is the history of men, women and families. It is woven into the fabric of American history -- and the pivotal events – that shape our world.
Extension helped jumpstart the engine of American agriculture, firing up the most efficient production system in the world.
Extension shaped rural society with powerful coalitions, cooperatives and associations. Extension played crucial roles in World War I, the Depression and World War II, helping create farm policies, economic structures and institutions that exist to this day.
And as rural and urban families changed and farm numbers fell,
Extension evolved with programs tailored to fit the diverse needs of American families of all backgrounds, races, ages, abilities and income levels.
In short, Cooperative Extension’s history is the history of an organization and its people intimately involved in Wisconsin’s history and everyday public affairs.
Let’s look at how Cooperative Extension helped forge lasting policies, practices, institutions and ways of life in Wisconsin and the country.
In the early 1900s, Extension was a growing force behind farm progress. It was during World War I, World War II and the Depression, however, that Extension blossomed and grew into the organization we know today.
During World War I, campus-based specialists and county agents helped state and federal agencies implement wartime policies,
home demonstration agents showed homemakers how to conserve food and clothing,
and agriculture agents worked night and day helping farmers boost production and clear timber.
During the Depression, Extension took a leading public role, working hand in hand with federal employees to start and run new government agencies such as the agricultural adjustment administration, the farm credit administration, the farm security administration and the soil conservation service.
In so doing, Extension workers transformed American society, helping create federal farm policies and lasting institutions that even today provide structure and economic security for farm families.
In the years leading up to World War II, Extension showed its mettle.
In 1941, when the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture called on Wisconsin farmers to double their dairy production, farmers – and Extension workers – responded almost overnight with superhuman efforts, boosting milk production by 9 percent and growing emergency crops such as flax.
In the 1930s, Extension helped bring electric power to Wisconsin and succeeded in getting rural families to adopt this life-changing technology on a widespread basis. Wisconsin specialists and agents helped the Rural Electrification Administration form rural electric committees, conduct feasibility studies and hand out wiring instructions.
This was Extension at its best. Campus-based specialists and county agents offered crucial technical know-how. But they did much more than serve as impartial educators. As an integral part of Wisconsin communities, they worked with families, farms and individuals, serving as a liaison between power providers and users, helping bring about change – in attitudes, behaviors and ways of life.
At the same time, Extension specialists were helping build Wisconsin’s dairy empire.
They encouraged dairy farmers to adopt artificial insemination – an innovation that revolutionized the industry –
and showed them how to get better control of prices and marketing options by pooling milk in cooperatives.
They worked in the manufacturing end of the industry, too, troubleshooting problems at cheese and milk plants, teaching courses and giving much-needed advice.
Often, Extension workers had to overcome long-held beliefs, assumptions, even superstitions. For example, some thought artificial insemination was unnatural, and therefore, wrong.
And the idea of forming a “cooperative” rubbed against the grain of many a proud dairy farmer. Starting a co-op meant attending regular meetings, working with other fiercely independent operators, and coming to agreement on sensitive business matters.
Such information might have been instantly rejected from “outsiders.” In the end, though, the county Extension agent, because of his or her unique role as a trusted member of the community, was able to deliver practical research-based information and analysis, in a context that enabled people to make their own decisions.
Like the work done with rural electrification, specialists and agents did much more than offer technical expertise. They worked in the trenches, person to person, building solutions –
or products – that gave people more power over their lives.
From the mid 1800s, when Wisconsin Extension activities began in the form of demonstrations,
And agricultural exhibit trains, learning was always a two-way street.
Early Extension workers like Oneida County agent E.L. Luther,
Nellie Kedzie Jones and
Found Wisconsin farm folk hungry for information. But these Wisconsin pioneers had practical knowledge of their own to impart, gleaned from decades of hard-fought experience
As a result, Extension found willing partners -- people eager to give -- and receive -- information that would make their lives better...
…people who would help pave the way for Wisconsin Cooperative Extension to become a leader in forging public policy -- not just for their own state -- but the entire country.
The roots of today’s projects run deep in Extension’s history and share common threads. Those threads usually include an individual looking for a solution to a problem,
a partnership – with other leaders, groups and agencies –
and a series of products – relationships, coalitions, legislation
– that give people power over their lives. Like the warp and weft in a piece of cloth, these threads come together to create a new fabric and a unique design.
As a result, things change: policies, ways of doing business, ways of life. Poor families learn to eat better,
farmers take charge of their future,
lakeshore owners get control of their lakes,
young people feel the power that comes from helping others.
And in time, the product – whether it be a partnership,
or simply a new way of looking at things – becomes self-sustaining and creates lasting products of its own. In a few minutes, you’ll hear about five Extension projects that changed lives. Let’s look at their roots.
Wisconsin’s land-use history started in the 1930s with a few individuals who stuck their necks out. They wanted to see land go to its best use. And they wanted a planned system of growth. They held zoning talks – and got results: In 1931, Oneida County enacted the first rural zoning ordinance in the nation.
Three years later – after a massive educational effort on Extension&apos;s part – 18 Wisconsin counties had zoning ordinances – with the effect of taking almost 5 million acres out of farmland and putting it into forestry, industrial and other uses.
The people of Wisconsin now had a tool for controlling their land, a new public policy that gave people the power to plan.
In her book, “Distinguished Service,” Ayse Somersan picks up the thread with the story of Fred Trenk, Extension forester in 1931.
Trenk’s vision was to rebuild Wisconsin’s forest base lost during the sod-busting of year’s past.
Trenk led the effort to establish 3,000 miles of farm shelterbelts in central Wisconsin. .
He helped develop 350 school forests and 80 community forests.
And he helped design and promote a mechanized tree planter to reforest the state during wartime labor shortages.
Trenk also created institutions. The Christmas Tree Producers Association and the Maple Syrup Producers Association owe their existence in large part to the hard work and vision of Fred Trenk.
He teamed up with industry leaders to make his dreams come true, eventually releasing his projects into other hands, with a life of their own.
Wisconsin’s lakes partnership project has similar roots.
It started with a problem – lakefront property owners needed a way to maintain and control their lakes – and two individuals – Extension’s Steve Born and the DNR’s Thomas Worth. In 1968, the pair teamed up to create the Inland Lakes Demonstration Project.
Born hired another individual – Lowell Klessig – to research lake organizations and experiment with management techniques.
Klessig’s work sparked a solution, a product if you will: legislation that gave lakeshore owners a tool –– inland lake districts –– for controlling their lakes – and a partnership between Extension, the DNR and Wisconsin citizens. That was just the beginning. Other threads spun off the original product, including a statewide association of lake districts, a bill to prevent drunk boating, and low-interest loans for lake districts,
The Wisconsin Association of Lake Districts eventually became the Wisconsin Lakes Partnership, a joint effort involving Extension, the DNR and 800 citizen lake monitors, 400 lake associations and 200 lake districts.
Karen Early’s hunger prevention and nutrition education program has its roots in the work “home demonstration agents” did in the early 1900s.
Home agents taught farm wives how to sew and cook, can food, beautify the home, keep the books and live within a budget.
Homemaker leaders like these showed families how to make do – and do without – during two world wars and the Depression. In what may be the first “train the trainer” effort, they organized homemakers’ clubs and taught volunteers how to run the clubs.
They provided a valuable service. Mary Brady, Wisconsin’s first home agent, said: “I remember one woman walking five miles carrying a baby to attend a meeting.”
In the years to follow, Extension workers built programs centered on child development, family relationships, home management, financial planning and housing.
Later, Extension added urban programs, emphasizing nutrition and family relationships.
In the late sixties, the USDA created the expanded food and nutrition education program. The goal? Develop nutrition programs for poor urban families.
Today, nutrition programs form a central part of county Extension.
Faculty and staff team up with human services agencies to bring “walk-by” nutrition education to the people – at food pantries, day-care centers, community centers, immunization clinics and senior meal sites. But Nutrition educators aren’t the only ones working to beat hunger.
In community gardens throughout the state, Extension horticulturists show volunteers how to grow food for needy families through projects like
Waukesha County’s “Plant a Row for the Hungry,”
and Kenosha County’s Field of Dreams.
What we now think of as 4-H began in the early 1900s, with young people taking part in agricultural clubs, corn-growing contests, state fair exhibits and institutes like this one.
Thomas L. Bewick, Wisconsin’s first state 4-H leader, often said that youth club work should encourage service to community, country and humanity.
During its first 80 years, 4-H evolved from an emphasis on agricultural production – for boys – and food preservation – for girls – to youth education and development.
Today, community service tops the list of 4-H projects. Highway cleanup, collecting food for needy families, and working with nursing home residents are all popular projects.
Such projects foster self-esteem,
In the process, 4-H members learn teamwork and leadership skills, and gain a sense of community pride.
As one volunteer leader said, “Community service creates a foundation of good citizens for the future in our neighborhoods.”
Nowhere is Extension’s impact on public policy more direct than in family impact seminars. The two-hour seminars have a simple goal: encourage policy-makers to think about how their policies will affect Wisconsin families, a tradition that has deep roots in Cooperative Extension.
Extension organizes the seminars, bringing legislators, researchers, lawyers, judges, social workers, community leaders and Extension workers together -- in one room -- to explore solutions to such topics as: Welfare reform, Juvenile crime, and Teen pregnancy.
Wisconsin’s family impact seminars started six years ago on the state level. Inspired by the their success, several counties began holding seminars on a local basis.
Not only do the seminars perform a valuable service -- in working toward family-friendly solutions to society’s problems -- they show Extension’s role in research and education. “It’s public policy education, pure and simple,” says an Extension educator. “It’s our way of showing legislators the solutions or programs -- on a state and national level -- that could work to address these issues.”
Now, we’ve seen how Cooperative Extension shaped public policy throughout the history of Wisconsin and the country. Let’s see how the threads of our past continue into the present.
Extension's Role in Public Affairs
Elwood R. McIntyre and his book, “Fifty Years of
Cooperative Extension in Wisconsin, 1912-1962,” the
best source of historic information on Extension in
Wisconsin; the beautiful line drawings by Annin that
illustrate this book; and the historic photos, none of
which are credited, in the center of the book.
Ayse Somersan, Emeritus Professor and Dean, UW-
Madison, Cooperative Extension, and her book
“Distinguised Service,” and the University of
Wisconsin Extension and New Past Press, Inc. for the
“roots” of current Extension success stories.
Sheila Mulcahy, Distinguished Institutional Planner, UW-
Extension, for graciously providing photos to illustrate
Shirley Johnson, Extension historian, for advice,
information and historic newspaper clippings on
Bernie Schermetzler, Archivist, UW-Madison Archives,
for historic photos.
Gary Schulz: photo of boys and girls in front of 4-H flags.
G.W. Ackerman: 1944 photo of the county agent signing
up the farm couple for the reconstruction planning
service offered by Extension.
H.J. Perkins: 1895 photo of virgin forest in northern
State Historical Society of Wisconsin for historic photos.
Cooperative Extension in Wisconsin: 1962-1982 by Grace
Witter White, Cooperative Extension Service,
University of Wisconsin, published by Kendall/Hunt in
4-H: An American Idea 1900-1980 by Thomas Wessel
and Marilyn Wessel, published by the National 4-H
Heritage Horizons: Extension’s Commitment to People,
Editors C. Austin Vines and Marvin A. Anderson,
Published by Journal of Extension in Madison.
Marcia L. Jante & Jan Skell, Waukesha County UW-
Extension & Tedi Winnett, Director, Kenosha County
UW-Extension, for photos and information.
Karen Bogenschneider, Family Policy Specialist, UW-
JoAnn Hinz, Assistant to the Dean & Director,
Terry Gibson, Program Leader, Program Development &
Gerry Campbell, Ag Economist, narration.
Molly Immendorf, Wisplan Computer Services, Power
Marla Maeder, Maeder Design, script and photo