June 7, 2007
A sesquicentennial look back
The seed corn evangelist
by Diana Pounds
Perry Holden discusses corn germination tests on the Seed Corn Gospel Train that traversed Iowa in the early 1900s.Photo from University Archives.
If your topic is corn, you might need a little charisma to keep your audience. By all accounts, Iowa State professor Perry Holden had more than his share.
The Iowa State agronomist's 1902 short course for farmers became so popular that he had to add extra sessions that started at 5 a.m. Farmers flocked to campus to hear Holden corn talk.
Soon, Holden hatched the idea of taking his classroom to the farmers. In 1903, he teamed with Sioux County farmers and the county government to set up a demonstration farm in the northwest part of the state. It would mark the beginnings of cooperative extension work.
A year later, Holden, with the help of the railroads, put his classroom on wheels. Several train cars outfitted with speakers' platforms and charts became what Holden would refer to as the "Seed Corn Gospel Train."
Holden traveled the state, teaching farmers how to select and test corn to get the best seed. The novel teaching technique caught on and soon educational trains, offering expertise on all kinds of agricultural topics, were rolling throughout the nation.
Holden became the first director of Iowa Extension in 1906 -- eight years before Congress created the national extension program.
"I follow the principle that all people in the state are, in reality, students of the college," Holden once said. "Therefore, we must go to them and help them where they are, under their own conditions, with their own problems."
"I follow the principle that all people in the state are in reality students of the college. Therefore, we must go to them and help them where they are, under their own conditions, with their own problems."
Inside is running a yearlong series of photos and articles that look back at Iowa State traditions, people and places to celebrate the sesquicentennial.