July 2nd marks 150 years since the creation of the nation’s land-grant education system, of which Utah State University is a part. On that day in 1862, the Morrill Act - named for its creator, U.S. Representative Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont - was signed by President Abraham Lincoln. Passage of the act revolutionized American higher education by making a college education accessible to people who previously were excluded from the nation’s prestigious private schools.
“Let us have such colleges as might rightfully claim the authority … to scatter broadcast the knowledge which will prove useful in building up a great nation,” said Morrill. “Great in its resources of wealth and power, but greatest of all in the aggregate of its intelligence and virtue.”
That visionary goal took its first step toward being realized with the Morrill Act allotting 30,000 acres of public land for each representative and senator in the United States Congress to be sold and the money invested to provide capitol to create a “… college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, … to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts.”
In 1888, Anthon H. Lund introduced a bill in the Utah Territorial Legislature to establish an agricultural college as provided for in the Morrill Act and an experiment station with support from another piece of federal legislation, the Hatch Act. Lund’s vision for an agricultural college and experiment station in Utah sprang from his experiences with similar schools in Denmark. After much debate and political wrangling, it was decided that the college should be built in Cache County.
The Lund bill stated that “The leading objective of the Agricultural College of Utah shall be to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanical arts, and such other scientific and classical studies as shall promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life.”
Jeremiah W. Sanborn accepted the offer to become the first director of the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station and moved to Logan from New Hampshire. He immediately got to work planning the station’s original course of research (although he had to live with the family of John T. Caine, an English instructor and secretary of the college’s board of trustees, until the experiment station’s model farmhouse was completed). Sanborn was hired as director of the experiment station and professor of agriculture but he was also elected president of the faculty. Sanborn’s family joined him when the farmhouse was ready and the spot served as the college presidents’ residence for many years. The building still stands at the top of Old Main Hill, with large letters “E” and “S” on its east façade noting its experiment station origins.
Agricultural experiment station work was already underway as Sanborn and the college’s other eight faculty members began teaching the first class of 22 students which quickly grew to an enrollment of 139. Research was underway on the merits of various plow blades, care of livestock, modes of irrigation and methods for growing different varieties of fruits and vegetables.
The vision that created the Morrill Act lives on in the work of Utah Agricultural Experiment Station researchers and their colleagues at land-grant universities throughout the country, and extends to international research as well, though the primary focus of the UAES remains on issues that affect people in Utah and its unique geography, climate and communities.
Footnote: In the early days of the experiment station and the Agricultural College of Utah, faculty summarized their research in annual reports and later in bulletins and circulars. Much of that collection is available online via the USU Library website (http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/uaes/). While many of the issues confronting Utahns and the tools researchers use have changed over the years, it’s interesting that some topics have only gained importance. One early bulletin includes a paper authored by the first director of the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station, Jeremiah Sanborn, titled “Sub-Irrigation vs. Surface Irrigation” and another, “Water for Irrigation” by Samuel Fortier. Today more than 20 UAES projects are still related to water.
Association of Public and Land-grant Universities Morrill Act Sesquicentennial Anniversary History video