Men of Mark in America/Volume 1/James Wilson



JAMES WILSON, of Traer, Iowa, is (June, 1905) secretary of the United States department of agriculture with his official residence at Washington, District of Columbia, Stoneleigh Court. He has held this position since March 5, 1897, when he was sworn in under appointment by President McKinley. His administration has exceeded by over four years that of any predecessor in the office. His work has won steady commendation from leading farmers and students of agriculture throughout the country, and congress has shown its appreciation by constantly increasing its appropriations which have encouraged a large and well ordered extension of the department activities. The appropriation for agriculture in the fiscal year ending June 30, 1905, is $5,944,540, against $2,448,532 for that ended June 30, 1897, while the number of employees on March 6, 1905, was 5134 against 2444 on July 1, 1897.

Secretary Wilson was born in Ayrshire, West coast of Scotland, on August 16, 1835. In 1851, he came to the United States with his parents who settled on a farm near Norwich, Connecticut. In 1855 he removed to Iowa, where he located on a farm near Traer, Tama county. Here he completed his education in the public schools and at Iowa college. In 1861 he began farming on his own account, and by diligent attention to his chosen calling, made his way by his marked success as a farmer to a larger usefulness. He was elected a member of the Iowa legislature in 1868 and continued to represent the same constituency through the three succeeding assemblies. In the last he was speaker of the House. His services met such approval that he was chosen in 1872 to represent his district in the United States house of representatives, and took his seat with the forty-third Congress in December, 1873. He was reelected in 1874 and served through the forty-fourth Congress. From 1870-74 he was regent of Iowa university. After leaving congress in 1876 he served as a member of the State Railway Commission. In 1883 he was again elected a member of the National house of representatives.

From 1891 to 1897 he was director of the Iowa experiment station,
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and professor of agriculture in the Iowa agricultural college at Ames. The work at Ames rounded out by administration and study an experience admirably calculated to fit him for the work of extending and developing, with the cooperation of congress and the advice and approval of the president, the work of the department of agriculture.

During its eight years under the control of Secretary Wilson, the department of agriculture has made most important advances which bear directly on the prosperity of the country commercially as well as agriculturally. This department requires a breadth of comprehension as wide as the varied climate, and soils and conditions of the continent and the islands over which its administration extends. It is constantly engaged in scientific investigation along old lines and new in all parts of the world; and it is called upon to cope with formidable evils, to advance new systems of propagation, and to use hitherto unused possibilities for increasing harvests. Secretary Wilson has so directed the large body of competent workers in his charge as to meet these demands very completely. Never before has the department of agriculture been so progressive, so beneficial to the whole country, and so evidently productive of money returns to the people by increasing products and preventing waste as at the present time.

In the last four years all bureaus and allied branches have been unified and brought into harmonious working order, and investigations to secure new crops and animals and to discover better methods have been widened and deepened. Small services with comparatively limited fields have expanded into important bureaus whose operations cover the whole country very effectively. Secretary Wilson has labored constantly to bring the department into close touch with the people, especially with practical farmers, and he has succeeded. The advances made under his administration have been epoch-making.

Very notable changes have been made within the department. The naturally allied services of plant disease and plant breeding investigations, botanical investigations, grass and forage plant investigations, pomological investigations, horticultural investigations, and seed testing and distribution, have been brought into a well proportioned unity as the Bureau of Plant Industry, with a very capable administrator in control of all its widespread branches. The Bureau of Forestry has been thoroughly reorganized and put into communication with owners of woodlands, large and small; and has been able directly to advise them how most economically to manage their property, usually with a view to the preservation of the land under forest conditions, a need generally acknowledged by public men but hitherto unmet. The scientific character of the work has been indorsed by the president and by congress by placing in its charge the great Federal forest reserves, comprising nearly one hundred thousand square miles of territory. The Bureau of Chemistry has been organized and put in charge of food investigation and inspection, and has attracted to it the chemical inquiries of the other administrative branches, such as sugar testing for the treasury department and ink testing for the post office department. The Bureau of Soils has been established to take up the examination in detail of the lands of the United States and its possessions, and report upon their character and crop-producing fitnesses. The investigations of tobacco soils and the experimental tobacco growing in Connecticut by this bureau have for several years held public attention. The Bureau of Entomology has been organized and has kept watch over the introduction of harmful insects as well as the introduction of beneficial insects. Its fight against the cotton-boll weevil and its aid to bee-keepers are best known. The Bureau of Biological Survey has been organized and the inspection of wild animal importations, with preservation of game, has been given a prominent place in the work as has the determining the life- and crop-zones of the country, and reporting upon the economic value of birds and other wild animals. The Bureau of Statistics has been organized and its work systematized and brought into closer relations with the people, especially by a series of post office cards announcing simultaneously throughout the United States the condition of the crops. This announcement is made at the same moment that the information reaches the commercial centers.

The service of the Weather Bureau and of the Bureau of Animal Industry, two great organizations which were in existence when Secretary Wilson came into office, has been further developed, especially along scientific lines. An unmistakable test of the efficiency of one of these was made in the quick suppression of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in New England, in 1903-04, at a cost of half the amount granted by congress for the purpose, while the weather bureau annually reports savings of millions of dollars by its storm, flood and frost warnings. Farmers and business men and transportation lines in the flooded districts of the great waterways are every spring brought to realize the great value of this service, while shipowners and seafaring men generally have it to thank with the passing of every storm of which it warned them.

The work of the Office of Experiment Stations has been greatly extended so that it now includes the direct management of the stations in Alaska, Hawaii and Porto Rico, along with the supervision of the state and territorial stations. It also has its nutrition and irrigation services and its cooperation with farmers’ institute work, the two latter having been added in the past eight years. The Office of Road Inquiry has come to make its chief work the practical building of roads and the examination and testing of road materials so as to give important aid to the work being done by the states. The library has grown from 60,000 volumes to 86,000. It has to its credit several valuable bibliographies, and is cooperating effectively with libraries, especially those which reach agricultural communities both in this country and abroad.

With the great development of the other branches of department work there has been a natural growth in the publication division. There have been many more manuscripts to edit and prepare for the printer, much increase of the details of making and illustrating books, and a growth in distribution of publications from six and a half million to more than twelve million copies. So extensive and varied have the publications become that a system of indexing is necessary in order to find and supply the information called for by the people. The work of the job printing office under this division has trebled in the past eight years.

Secretary Wilson in his first report announced it as the department policy “to encourage the introduction of what will enable our people to diversify their crops, and keep at home money that is now sent abroad to buy what the United States should produce.” To this policy he has consistently adhered. His attention was first turned to the great importations of sugar from regions no better adapted to sugar production than are parts of the United States. He at once imported large quantities of sugar-beet seed, and set the chemist with the aid of a special agent to determine what sections will grow beets of high sugar content. As a result of this work, the beet-sugar production has increased from 37,536 tons by four states in 1897 to 209,722 tons in twelve states in 1904. A large manufacturing industry has thus been developed.

In a like manner durum (or “macaroni”) wheats have been brought into the Northwest, yielding ten million bushels a year; chicory growing in the North, new cottons in the South, and date and fig growing in the Southwest. New fruits, both pomaceous and citrous, have been introduced or developed by plant breeding. Existing animal industries have been encouraged and existing breeds replaced or improved.

Work along all these lines is going forward with increasing success, and there is a prospect that the department will accomplish as much in the four years upon which Secretary Wilson is just entering as it has in the eight already passed.

During his entire public life Secretary Wilson has controlled and directed the management of his own farm of 1200 acres near Traer, and in every public office which he has held he has been selected as a representative farmer. While in congress he was always a member of the committee on Agriculture, and he was very early identified with legislation to make the department of agriculture a leading executive branch of the Government. In the forty-third House he introduced and secured the passage of a bill for that purpose. Later he worked in earnest cooperation with the late W. H. Hatch of Missouri for the legislation for the suppression of contagious diseases of animals under which the Bureau of Animal Industry was established and pleuro-pneumonia of cattle was eradicated from the United States.