The well-dressed stranger stepped out of the crowd and into history as the man who spared Frederick Watts embarrassment.
Between 500 and 1,000 spectators had gathered around the 12-acre field skeptical of the practical value of the newfangled contraption they dubbed “Watt’s Folly.”
Their doubt seemed justified when Watts struggled to keep pace with raking off the grain from the cutter bar as the team of horses pulled the mechanism down the wheat rows.
A pleasant chap, the stranger offered to help the Carlisle native who later became an important figure in agricultural reform not only in Pennsylvania but also the country.
The stranger took the place of Watts and with perfect ease raked off the wheat to the amazement of farmers throughout the Cumberland Valley who had arrived at the site eager to witness failure.
Instead they were introduced to a revolution that really caught on as standard farm equipment after a Civil War manpower shortage pressed the need for greater efficiency.
The mysterious helper was Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the American Reaper. As for Watts, “the folly” was only part of his enduring legacy that includes what became the state agricultural society, Penn State University and the annual Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg.
Roots in farming
Born May 9, 1801 in Carlisle, Frederick Watts was the eldest son of David Watts, a leading Pennsylvania attorney. Frederick entered Dickinson College in 1815, but did not graduate because financial problems forced the temporary closure of the college in 1819.
That same year, Frederick Watts moved to Erie County where he spent the next two years working the farm of his uncle, William Miles. While there, he developed a deep appreciation for farming and the agrarian way of life.
“With regard to our occupation, we should look upon this lovely earth as the beautiful landscape of God’s Creation,” Watts once told a group of Cumberland County farmers. “[It is] imbued with the powers of life ... yielding its elements and products to the delicate nursing operations of your hand.”
In 1821 Watts returned to Carlisle to study law under attorney Andrew Carothers. He was admitted to the Cumberland County bar in 1824 marking the start of a 42-year legal career. Possessed of boundless energy, he once was the President Judge of the Ninth Judicial District and a reporter of state Supreme Court decisions from 1829 to 1845 – a labor of love that required him to review and record over 11,000 pages of legal proceedings at a time before court stenographers.
Watts was driving a carriage from New York to Philadelphia in mid-June 1839 when he was met on the road near Trenton by Lt. William Inman, a former resident of Carlisle Barracks. The officer invited Watts and his wife to stay overnight on his farm.
“The next day he showed a field of beautiful wheat which was rapidly ripening for the harvest,” Watts recalled. “He told me that two years prior ... he had procured three bushels of the seed near Leghorn, Italy and was now raising his second crop. I obtained from him six barrels of the same kind and sowed it on my farm near Carlisle.”
Watts had introduced into Pennsylvania a Mediterranean variety of wheat that matured early enough to escape severe damage from the Hessian fly, a highly destructive insect.
Seeds of Penn State
Eleven years after the “Folly” and his brush with fame, Watts was one of the delegates to a state convention held on Jan. 21, 1851 in Harrisburg. There they formed a state agricultural society whose main objective was to establish a school where farmers could send their sons to learn the practical sciences behind the art of farming.
Under his leadership as its first president, the Pennsylvania State Agricultural Society pushed for legislation to incorporate a state Farmer’s High School. That bill was signed into law in 1854 by Gov. William Bigler, a Cumberland County native.
From 1855 to 1874, Watts was the president of the board of trustees of what would become almost a century later Penn State University. To this day, that institution operates a College of Agricultural Sciences. The formative years were a financial struggle for the Farmer’s High School but Watts kept lobbying for support until the venture became a success. He had this to say at a trustees’ meeting on Sept. 2, 1857:
“We must combine the cultivated intellect and social amenities and mental refinement with a strong practical usefulness and sound virtues of the agriculturist who, giving the sweat of his brow, receives from Providence such bounties as are now stored around us in this building and spread upon these tables, the daily support of life.”
In that year, 1857, Watts purchased 140 acres west of Carlisle where he developed a Model Farm. This property was used as a test platform for different fertilizers, crops, soils, farm implements and breeds of livestock.
In spring 2009, the Penn State Environmental Law Review published an article titled “The Honorable Frederick Watts: Carlisle’s Agricultural Reformer” written by Mark Podvia, an associate law librarian for the Penn State Dickinson School of Law.
“A believer in bringing scientific practices to agriculture, Watts laid out his farm in a compact and efficient manner,” Podvia wrote. “His bank barn – reportedly the largest barn in Pennsylvania at the time it was completed – was constructed in such a way as to allow moist, hot air from the hay to escape in a diffused manner along the walls through open spaces under the eaves, greatly reducing the risk of fire.”
The Watts Model Farm stayed in agriculture until 1986 when the land was purchased by Arkansas Best Freight (ABF). In February 1987, the farmstead was deemed eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places. The property came within a month of final approval during summer 1988 when ABF executives ordered the destruction of all the historic structures on the property to make way for a business park.
Podvia wrote how the state agricultural society began to decline after 1880 and, by 1905, it had ceased to exist. But the annual exhibition the society once organized has continued today in the form of the Pennsylvania Farm Show held every January in Harrisburg.
On Jan. 20, 1852, the state agricultural society adopted resolutions in support of the establishment of a United State Agricultural Society of which Watts was elected as one of its vice-presidents. That same society lobbied Congress for the creation of a federal department of agriculture which Lincoln signed into law on May 15, 1862.
In 1871, Watts became the third U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture under President Grant. In that capacity, Watts promoted the interests of farmers by strengthening the ties between the department, agricultural societies and land grant colleges. His was the only federal department to be free of scandal and corruption under the Grant administration.
Watts retired from federal service in 1877 and returned to his home outside Carlisle. He died in his sleep on Aug. 17, 1889.
“Watts never forgot the two years that he spent on his uncle’s farm as a young man,” Podvia wrote. “Agriculture remained his life-long passion.”