Echoes: ND's Department of Agriculture, 1917-1932

Author: Thomas J. Schlereth ’63

Notre Dame’s West Quad has taken on the look of a modern garden city over the last 15 years, but its landscape could be quite different given the University’s early 20th century experiment with agricultural education.

From 1917 to 1932, Notre Dame staffed a Department of Agriculture within its College of Science. Where now stand a nine-hole golf course, 10 dormitories, a bookstore and a visitors’ center, there once grew wheat and rye. Paralleling Niles Avenue (now S.R. 933), the Michigan Central Railroad and an interurban rail line to St. Joseph, Michigan, were pastures of timothy hay and red clover. Along Notre Dame Avenue a large vegetable garden flourished; farther south stretched oat fields to Howard Street.

Closer to campus, a dozen farm buildings and two large farmhouses formed an L-shaped yard known as Notre Dame’s General Farm. A staff of Holy Cross brothers and hired hands lived in the houses and worked the University’s 1,600 acres of agricultural fields.

The main barn and stables housed farm implements, passenger carriages and 40 livery and Percheron draft horses. The main barn dominated the farmstead and became a hands-on classroom for agriculture students. Previously, the Old College, ND’s oldest building, had served as the farmhouse for the University’s first campus farm. That was begun in 1843 by Brother Lawrence Menage, CSC, one of Father Edward Sorin’s companions on his first trip to the United States in 1841.

Leo Donovan, a farmer from nearby Lakeville, Indiana, who joined the Holy Cross Brothers in 1897, oversaw the relocation of the first farm to the General Farm site and directed all its operations until retiring in 1940. He also played an important role in the development of ND’s Department of Agriculture.

At Donovan’s request, Father John Zahm, CSC, a Notre Dame vice president and Holy Cross provincial, had allowed him to take courses at the universities of Illinois and Iowa in order to expand his expertise in soils chemistry and crop rotation. At ND, Donovan also was acquiring a reputation as a breeder of champion livestock.

He began exhibiting in 1912 and over the next 30 years continually brought back first prizes for his prime Hereford beef, Hampshire swine and Percheron horses from state fairs and international stock shows. By 1937, when he was named Indiana State Champion Feeder, he was also contributing to agriculture science journals.

In announcing the new Department of Agriculture in the 1917-18 general catalog, Notre Dame’s administration gave, with some hyperbole, three reasons for the new curriculum: first, it “regarded Agriculture as the greatest national asset to which the United States lays claim”; second, it had “received frequent demands of applicants for a study of this nature”; and last, the University boasted “rather exceptional facilities . . . for carrying out the subject.” While the third was accurate, the first two would prove questionable.

At its beginning, however, the new department seemed full of promise. The catalog description promised a twofold curriculum: a four-year course leading to a bachelor of science in agriculture (BSA) and a two-year program leading to a certificate of proficiency in agriculture.

In the four-year major, special concentrations were possible in animal and poultry husbandry, farm mechanics, horticulture, dairying and general agriculture. In addition to classroom course work and outdoor fieldwork, the department maintained several agricultural laboratories for experimental demonstrations and student research. A written thesis completed the BSA.

The department’s proposed courses included Soil Fertility, Animal Nutrition and Elements of Dairying, all taught by the department head, Professor James Hayward. Brother Donovan’s education had paid off, and he taught Field Crops, Animal Husbandry and Breeds of Live Stock, while Edward Heffner taught Farm Equipment Maintenance, Shop and Forge Work, and Barn/Farm Architecture.

Agriculture majors also were required to take general courses in zoology, botany, plant pathology and bacteriology. Further afield, they also took courses in economics, sociology and business. While the history class “Europe Since 1915” was required, surprisingly there was no required course in American history.

The department’s demise

The department’s extensive course offerings never got full use, and the number of its graduates never reached the high expectations of its early years. In 1921, the first year for which graduation statistics are available, only five majors received baccalaureate degrees. Between 1922 and ’27, the yearly average was three to four graduates, but with only one in 1926 and none in ’27. Only two additional bachelor degrees were awarded thereafter, the last one in 1932, the year the University terminated the department. No records survive for the two-year program.

While the continual decline in graduates accounts for Notre Dame’s decision to terminate its brief venture into agricultural education, particularly as the country’s Depression deepened, other factors may have prompted its demise.

Given the 50-year head start that all the Big Ten land-grant universities had in the agricultural sciences, not to mention their inexpensive in-state student tuition, extensive faculties and laboratory and research facilities, Notre Dame could never compete in either their undergraduate or graduate student league.

Moreover, the hour was late. The endeavor got started just before the 1920 U.S. Census would reveal that, statistically, factory workers were for the first time eclipsing agricultural laborers in number, and that urban residents now outnumbered rural ones.

Campus construction also encroached upon the General Farm site and the agriculture department. The 1920 Master Campus Plan for the entire South Quadrangle had already prompted the erection of three new dormitories — Howard in 1924, Morrissey and Lyons in 1925 — plus a new dining hall in 1927, which ultimately forced the General Farm to a third, smaller, northeastern site along Bulla Road.

A Notre Dame and Holy Cross agrarian presence in Saint Joseph County continued eight miles northeast of the campus in Granger. Here, in 1867, Father Sorin had bought 1,670 acres for a site he named Saint Joseph’s Farm in honor of the patron of the Holy Cross Brothers. The brothers worked the Indiana earth and cultivated its foodstuffs for 14 decades until that farm was sold in 2007.

Thomas Schlereth is a professor emeritus of American studies and of history at Notre Dame, and the author of The University of Notre Dame: A Portrait of Its History and Campus.