Growing a College of Agriculture (An 1890s Alum Story)


Dean Skinner on a horse-drawn mower.

J.H. Skinner on a horse-drawn mower. (Photo courtesy of Libraries, Archives and Special Collections.)

Fifteen-year-old John Harrison Skinner attended some of Purdue’s first Farmers’ Institutes without knowing that one day, he would be the agricultural scientist leading the meetings. The Farmers’ Institutes and Purdue Agriculture’s Winter Short Course showed the farm kid from Romney, Indiana, how closely science, education and agriculture are tied.

He enrolled as an undergraduate.

After graduating from Purdue with a bachelor’s degree in 1897, Skinner began his 40-year tenure at the university, where he served as the School of Agriculture’s first dean. It was under Skinner, as Dean from 1907 to 1939, that the School of Agriculture made its first great strides.

During those first 32 years, the school grew:

  • From 1 course of study to 11 different majors
  • From 0 to 10 departments
  • From 11 to 112 faculty members
  • From 8 to 132 graduates a year
  • From 108 to 238 students enrolled in Winter Course

According to Fred Whitford’s For the Good of the Farmer, “The key role that farming plays in the economy of Indiana today owes much to the work of John Harrison Skinner (1874–1942). … From humble origins, occupying one building and 150 acres at the start of his career, the agriculture program grew to spread over 10 buildings and 1,000 acres by the end of his tenure as its first dean.”

Throughout his time at Purdue, Skinner was vocal about the value of education. His words still ring true today.

“Take an agricultural course; get out of the old rut; making farming a pleasure as well as a profit by becoming a student of your business,” he wrote in a 1903 issue of The Farmer’s Guide. “The world is looking for men who know the how and why of things. Will you be one?”

 — by Hannah Tucker (Purdue ’18)


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