Thanks to Dr. Albert Sims, Director of the Northwest Research and Outreach Center, I have been looking into the past of the Northwest School of Agriculture (NWSA) where historic letters have been stored. Maureen Aubol has also helped as I read correspondence that stretches for thirty years (1895 to 1925). With this NWSA series, I hope to share with my readers what I have learned after reading these important documents out of about 70 boxes.
In the first box of 70 boxes of correspondence I read through, I discovered Supt. Bernie Youngquist’s words written in cursive penned on January 27, 1994. Bernie was a true historian to care about this valuable material left behind in the archives documenting what life was like in the late 19th century. Bernie was making particular note of the history written by Joel Torvi who was a retired foreman after working 30 years at the NWSA station. I will use that data later, for now I am interested in highlighting the efforts made by the first Superintendent of the Northwest Experiment station, Toger A. Hoverstad.
Dr. Youngquist wrote, “Excellent material! The kind which is very difficult to find for historical writing which has room for some of the early historical details.” Before I interviewed Supt. Youngquist in the fall of 2003 in his home for U of M administrators in St. Paul, across from the golf course on Larpenteur Avenue, I had read through his very thorough doctoral thesis. Dr. Youngquist was a very diligent scholar. I felt privileged to meet with Bernie to ask questions about what he remembered of NWSA. I was encouraged to read what he had to written at the beginning of my quest to read through the thirty years (1895-1925) that had been stored in the Research and Outreach Center under Dr. Albert Sims.
The only way I could really find out more about this little known Superintendent T.A. Hoverstad, was to read the volumes of letters written to him. I found comments about Hoverstad in Selvig’s book “A Tale of Two Valleys.” Selvig made it obvious that he admired what Hoverstad had accomplished the first ten years of his leadership of the future NWSA campus. Selvig had written about Hoverstad’s start, “The first superintendent of the newly created Northwest Experiment Farm was Torger A. Hoverstad. His was the task of converting a veritable swamp, north of Crookston, that raised nothing much besides ducks, into an institution that was to benefit Minnesota farming immeasurably.”
Hoverstad’s own reflections on the place he worked that later became the agricultural high school are insightful. The following was under the heading of “The Agricultural Problems of the Red River Valley.” Hoverstad wrote, “I was sent to the Red River Valley without any instructions. My first object was to study Red River Valley agriculture. Traveling in the territory in 1895, I saw only a part of the great ocean of wheat. I never saw a finer crop of grain. The crop was so large the railroads hauled wheat as fast as they could. Elevators were filled and big piles of grain were piled up on the streets. But this was the last bumper grain crop for many years. Correspondence and personal interviews revealed two problems: first, fertility was being reduced; second, weeds were increasing. A study showed that this always follows exclusive grain growing and a further study showed there was no known practical method of keeping up fertility and to keep the weeds in control in an exclusive grain district.
“The first problem suggesting itself was diversification. But there were no experiences that had demonstrated any practical method of diversification. The season of 1896 was so rainy that almost no field work could be done. The seventeenth of June was the first day the land was dry enough for general cultivation.
“I laid out a large number of plots 4 x 4 feet and grew all the field crops I had any hope would be practical in a rotation. At the end of the first year, I knew we had an abundance of crops to make up a practical rotation. On studying these plots I saw I could group them into three classes: viz, grains, grasses and cultivated crops. This gave me a key to the study of rotation. I found as I studied rotations in other states they selected crops belonging in the above groups and in the same order. But on introducing the rotation I was met with the marketing problems. Grain could be sold at the elevators but hay or forage crops could not be disposed of. They could not be shipped to the market because of cost of transportation of such bulky, cheap products. It showed that these products had to be manufactured into condensed high priced products in order to sell them to advantage.
“This showed the necessity of introducing livestock as a starting point in the rotation. But the marketing problem was not solved yet. Fat cattle could not be produced to compete with the ranges of the west or the corn belt of the south. Sheep growing could not compete with range grown flocks. Dairying was the only livestock that it seemed practical to introduce. The population was largely Scandinavian, who are used to dairying. But there was no market for home made dairy products. So the starting point in the improvement of Agriculture in the Red River Valley was not rotation, nor livestock, but the creamery. During the ten years I was in charge of the Experiment Station I worked in season and out of season in organizing creameries and cheese factories and in helping to improve the dairy stock.
“The Farm House – Farming is a business, but is more a life. The farmer should first try to make a comfortable self-supporting home. Three enterprises on the farm contribute greatly to the making of a farm home; dairying, poultry, and gardening. The development of dairying was done in connection with crop rotation.
“Poultry – The poultry department was placed in charge of Mr. C.S.Greene of Cobleskel, New York. A large poultry house was built. A special incubator building was erected. Several brooder houses, having capacity for 1,200 chickens were built. The poultry department became very popular. It may be of special interest to note that the modern methods of culling poultry, known as the Hogan system, had its origin at this Experiment Station.
“Gardening – The experiments in vegetable gardening showed that any farmer could have the best of vegetables from his own garden. Fruit gardening was very much more difficult to develop. A survey of the Red River Valley showed that about in 1900, there were about 3,000 farmers that were successfully growing small fruits. Very few had ever tried to grow tree fruit. What seemed to be needed was to develop new fruit for the Red River Valley. Accordingly, seeds from the most promising apples and plums were selected for several years. Several thousand seedlings were grown and ready for distribution among the farmers. This work was not continued.
“Sugar beets – tests of sugar beet growing was made. The results were very encouraging as far as sugar contents were concerned. A study of the sugar contents of beets of the same variety of beets grown in more than 500 places in the United States showed that year that only 17 places produced beets with higher sugar content than at the “Northwest Experiment Farm.” No campaign was started to grow beets nor to build factories as conditions were not yet ripe.
“Hemp – The last year I was on the station, a very splendid field of hemp was grown demonstrating the adaptability of this crop to Red River Valley soils.
“Educational Work – The Farmers’ Institute system was used for disseminating the results of the experiments. This plan was selected because of its effectiveness in getting practical results. Credit for assisting in this work is due to Mr. O.C. Gregg, Superintendent, Minnesota Farmers’ Institutes and Colonel R.A. Wilkinson, Farmer and General Solicitor, Great Northern Railroad.
“Setbacks to the Work – Poor drainage was instrumental in destroying much work that was attempted. Fire caused by lightening burned the farm barn destroying the farm machinery and several horses. A hailstorm destroyed the crops one year.
“Clover and Alfalfa – in our travels we found only one farmer who had been successful in growing clovers in the Red River Valley. No one reported success with alfalfa. Repeated trials of both clover and alfalfa indicated that both could be made to grow successfully. After ten years – in 1905 – we were able to announce definitely that both clover and alfalfa would be a success.
“People of the Red River Valley interested themselves greatly in the experiment station. The members of the Board of Regents that took special interest in the station were Ex-Governor Barto of St. Cloud and S.M. Owen of Farm, Stock and Home.
“Senator A.D. Stephens of Crookston and Lieut. Bennett of Fosston were the first legislators who put themselves behind the station to make it a success and to help to build a school in connection with the station.”
Thus ended some of Hoverstad’s reflections but there are more insights from this past leader that I’ll share in future articles. In Selvig’s book “A Tale of Two Valleys,” I read what an impact Senator Andrew Stephens also had on the future of the school. The following is what Selvig wrote, “The Legislature voted $15,000.00 for a building in 1905. When this had been voted, I am informed Lieutenant Governor A.E. Rice, later University Regent, informed one of the senators, ‘You would save the state hundreds of thousands of dollars, if you would give “Andy” Stephens the $15,000.00, just voted for the Crookston farm school and then send him back to Sweden.’ Andy Stephens chuckled often when told this story. It, too, would have been true.”
Supt. Selvig wrote in high regard of Hoverstad since Selvig had learned from one of the U of M Board of Regents when he took on the Superintendent position in Aug. 1, 1910 that Crookston’s NWSA was considered a “white elephant.” Selvig wrote, “Supt. Hoverstad’s own published reports present vividly his trials and tribulations during the first ten years of that doleful period. Always, there were messages of hope and idealism backed by a firm faith in ultimate success. We talked about his service as superintendent many, many times. I informed him his patience must have made him kin to the angels.”
I would agree with Selvig that Hoverstad was a saint after reading the correspondence that came to Hoverstad during his first ten years. Interesting to note his first sentence where he summarized his work, he claimed he was sent to the RRV “without any instructions.” After reading all the letters, it seemed the powers in St. Paul made up onerous rules for the Northwest Station as they went along. Hoverstad was a very good man with a strong support system with his wife and family beside him. He was a pioneer in the field of education for the area farmers. This great leader of the former NWSA needs to be better known so that is why I will write more about Hoverstad’s work in the weeks to come.
Kristina Gray is a local author and historian, and a faculty member at the University of Minnesota Crookston.