|The FFA Sentinel|
By Jacob Davis
Previous FFA Sentinel articles have focused specifically on the early years of FFA. Last month’s article was about the silver anniversary of Alabama FFA which occurred in 1954. Two former state officers were featured in the article about their experiences related to the 25th anniversary. This month’s article features the Southeast Alabama Agricultural School in Abbeville. The school later became Abbeville High School.
As in most of Alabama and the rural South, times were hard for folk in the 1880s. In 1875, cotton sold for 15 cents per pound and by 1883 farmers received ten cents per pound. Making a living was difficult.
Farmers in Abbeville and Henry County knew they needed more workable knowledge and training in agricultural production and admitted so. They joined together to form agricultural societies.
These same farmers, approximately 800, voted and eventually the agricultural societies became politically powerful. One member was State Representative John B. Ward who sponsored the legislation which became Act 579. This act, which was passed on February 28, 1889, created the Southeast Alabama Agricultural School (SEAAS).
As a land owner and agriculturalist, John B. Ward knew the importance of education and the ultimate influence it would have on farming practices. Ward met with an Alabama Polytechnic Institute’s (API) professor by the name of Newman. (API is now Auburn University.) The two men discussed the need for "agricultural education" and the development of branch experiment stations and schools. (These experiment stations are still important in Alabama because of the vast amount of knowledge provided through the experiments conducted at various locations throughout the state.)
The Hatch Act of 1887 is the legislation providing the funding to establish experiment stations. However, that is only partially correct. The Act also said agricultural information was to be made available to the public and this piece of the legislation was partially responsible for the establishment of agricultural education in public schools. Norwood Kerr author of Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station 1883-1983, said, "The trustees of API [Auburn] did not want to share the Hatch funds with the secondary schools. In 1896 Director Alfred True [Office of (Federal) Experiment Stations] ruled the Hatch Act provided for the establishment of one single experiment station in each state. However, if the state wanted to fund substations and have substations governed by the same group that governed the main experiment station, it was permissible. Alabama continued supporting the district schools and accompanying branch experiment stations."
Kerr also reported "the reason the [agricultural] schools and branch experiment stations were combined was in an apparent attempt to finance them out of federal Hatch appropriations. The experiment station work was carried on at each [secondary agricultural] school under the auspices of API."
"Many people erroneously believe agricultural education was started when the Smith-Hughes Act was passed in 1917. The Smith-Hughes Act simply provided federal funds directly to states to continue supporting the teaching of agriculture, established strict guidelines for operation of high school agriculture programs and made the instruction more vocational. The Smith-Hughes Act did not start agricultural education in the secondary schools. It would be more correct to say the Hatch Act started agricultural education of the secondary grade; the Smith-Hughes Act merely extended the work. The ‘diffusion of information’ wording of the Hatch Act was the foundation of secondary agricultural education," said Gary Moore in his article on The Involvement of Experiment Stations in Secondary Agricultural Education,1887-1917.
However, back to the topic. Ward and Newman met with the Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture, Reuben Kolb, and discussion focused on experiment stations and the Abbeville community was chosen as a potential site for such a station. Athens, in North Alabama, was chosen as another site. As stated earlier, Act 579 established the SEAAS.
Act 579 provided an initial appropriation of $3,000 for equipment and $2,500 per year thereafter. (In 1893 the annual appropriation was increased to $3,000 per year.) The citizens of Abbeville decided to raise the necessary funds to purchase land for the school. The land was located about a half-mile from the town square. The 40-acre plot was purchased for $700.
The school was to be administered by a board of directors. Members of the board included the Commissioner of Agriculture, the Director of the API Experiment Station and five farmers. The five farmers had to be appointed by the governor and three of them had to live within 10 miles of the school.
According to Mrs. Margaret Tye Yance, an Abbeville High School alumnus in an article about the SEAAS, "This secondary agricultural school at Abbeville and the other at Athens were, with one exception, the first such institutions receiving state aid established in the United States. Georgia followed the example 17 years later. Alabama farmers were exceptionally proud of the pioneering in agricultural education the state undertook. Within 25 years, there was a secondary agriculture school in each of the nine congressional districts."
Construction of the school generated additional buildings for Abbeville. A new brick courthouse and jail were also constructed during the late 1880s.
The SEAAS facilities were not ready for students in the fall of 1889 and a committee of five asked the trustees of the Abbeville Academy about using its property for the first term. The SEAAS began its first semester on September 16, 1889.
The SEAAS was Alabama’s first school to provide free education on the secondary level. The school emphasized scientific as well as a practical approach to agriculture. The first fall term had students representing five Alabama counties and three states. The school was also the first junior college in the state as its graduates on the secondary level were allowed to enter college without having to take an entrance exam.
More than 100 students enrolled in the SEAAS for its first term in fall 1889. The Abbeville Times stated more students would probably have enrolled if suitable housing were available. Local citizens were encouraged by the newspaper "to construct new cottages that could be rented." Boarders paid $8-$12 per month. There was no tuition at the school. However, tuition was charged at various times over the years. Fees were charged for art and music. Books were available for purchase at local drug stores usually for one dollar or less.
Because of its rigorous academic standards, SEAAS graduates were not required to take entrance exams to be admitted into another college in the state.
The school received part of its annual $2,500 appropriation from the fertilizer tax fund paid by those who purchased fertilizer. The annual appropriation was to operate the school and experiment station for an entire year.
Girls were admitted to SEAAS in 1893. The school’s first brick building was completed in 1898. Because of World War I, girls were the only graduates in 1918. The influenza epidemic of 1919 caused the school to close for a few months. In the fall of 1921, the stock judging team brought home honors from the state competition.
The SEAAS was the forerunner of Abbeville High School. FFA was founded at SEAAS as the Abbeville Chapter in 1929 and was the first chapter chartered in Alabama. Alabama was the 36th state to receive a charter from the National FFA Association.
George Santayana is credited with saying, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
It is inferred that if we do not remember the bad it will be repeated. However, maybe our remembering the past will help us in maintaining the written record of our agricultural beginnings and aid in the historical recollections of where we as agriculturalists came from.
Jacob Davis is the Executive Secretary of the Alabama FFA Association.