of History

Historian Benjamin Soskis tells the story of the boll weevil crisis of 1903, and the lessons that the philanthropic community can learn from that event.

One of the most successful and instructive public-philanthropic partnerships (PPPs) in United States history came about because of a pest — the cotton bud-eating boll weevil, thought to be native of Central Mexico. This story, which begins more than 100 years ago, is worth retelling now, at a time when PPPs are increasing in number, scale, and sophistication, as it highlights both the promise and pitfalls of such partnerships.

In 1903, when the boll weevil began to creep north, threatening to devastate the United States cotton crop, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) turned to a septuagenarian professor of agriculture, Seaman Knapp, to set up model farms in the counties affected by the weevil in the US Southwest. Knapp and his team would teach one farmer in each  county methods of crop and soil management that could minimize the damage caused by the weevil. USDA agents might even provide the farmer with the necessary equipment and seeds. When the farmer’s neighbors saw the good results, the USDA hoped they would take up the new agricultural approach as well.

The plan seemed to work; the lessons from Knapp’s demonstration farms spread throughout the region. But officials from Standard Oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller’s General Education Board (GEB) saw potential for even greater impact. They thought that Knapp’s agricultural methods could help boost productivity even in counties that had not yet been subject to the weevil’s onslaught. They pitched this plan to Knapp, who informed them that since Congressional appropriation for the farm demonstration program was specifically allocated to repel the invasion of an interstate menace, the Secretary of Agriculture did not believe he had authorization to extend the program into parts of the South not already threatened by the weevil.

The agricultural experimental station in Chapingo, Mexico, where The Rockefeller Foundation started the major phase of its agricultural program 20 years ago, was frequently visited by foundation officials, 1951.

Seeing an Opportunity in a Crisis

The secretary of the GEB, Wallace Buttrick, saw an opening. He believed the key to improving public education in the South was to boost the local tax base, which could be done by increasing agricultural productivity. In April 1906, he signed a Memorandum of Understanding with United States secretary of agriculture James Wilson, which allowed the farm demonstration program to spread, under the USDA’s direction, but with GEB funding nearly all direct and indirect costs. The USDA would pay a new corps of farm demonstration agents a nominal salary of one dollar a year; the rest of their salaries and equipment would be covered by the GEB. As soon as the weevil showed up in a state, the USDA could begin assuming all expenses.

From 1906 to 1914, the GEB provided US$ 925,750 for farm demonstration work in 15 southern states. They covered the salaries of some 600 special Department of Agriculture agents (many of whom they hand-selected). By 1912, the farm demonstration program had spread to more than half the counties in the South, assisting an estimated 106,621 farmers.

By the GEB’s accounts, the program doubled the average yield in pounds of seed cotton and bushels of corn on participating farms. And just as importantly, GEB officials claimed that participating counties reaped additional benefits in the form of increased expenditures for, and increased percentages of local taxes directed toward, public education.

Putting the Cause Before Self

Rockefeller philanthropic officials considered the partnership an overwhelming success, but when officials at USDA who supported competing farm demonstration programs disclosed the GEB’s role  to the public, the arrangement provoked considerable alarm. Rockefeller was one of the more divisive figures in American society at the time, and many citizens believed a federal partnership with one of his foundations conferred on him a moral legitimacy he did not deserve and granted him illegitimate power over a public agency. Here again Rockefeller officials saw an opportunity, ceding (and seeding) ground to Congress, which soon appropriated funds to continue the work which had previously been funded by the GEB. In fact, in May 1914, Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act, which increased federal funding for farm demonstration work to US$ 4m — much more than the aggregate sums given by the GEB.

Benjamin Soskis

Benjamin Soskis is a Research Associate at the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy at the Urban Institute and the co-editor of HistPhil. A historian and a journalist, he is co-author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song that Marches On” (a finalist for the Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize). Benjamin received his PhD in American history from Columbia University.