Sunday, March 9, 2008

Bussey Institute - Part I

This is the first of a two-part look at the Bussey Instutite. Benjamin Bussey died in 1835, leaving both money and land for an agricultural school that was to be associated with Harvard university. It wasn't until the early 1870s that his heir had left the land and Harvard was able to build the planned institution. Thirty years later, this article described the program in terms only a public relations weasel could love. Agriculture had already moved west, made possible by the railroads and by wondrously fertile soils found in the Midwest. Farming was already a dying business in Massachusetts, and the era of the gentleman's estate was passing as well. Land grant colleges had already been established throughout the country, and agricultural experiment stations created to work with them. By the time this article was written with such enthusiasm, the need for an agricultural school at Harvard was long past. Very soon, the program would be shut down, and replaced with a new biological research center, more in tune with the science of the time, and no longer tied to the agricultural history of New England or the wishes of Benjamin Bussey.

In a side note, I remeber the handsome old stone building, and a few sheep or goats that were kept on the property into the mid-late 1960s. And I remember when the state built the concrete monstrosity for the State Laboratory - that's where they did your Wasserman test to determine whether you were fit to get married. That bare concrete box, sitting above the green of the arboretum, is something that every architect - and government bureaucrat - in the country should get a slap for before they design or approve their first building.

This is a long article, and more college catalog than newspaper article in its details, but I figured than someone more interested in the institution itself than in Jamaica Plain history might get something out of reading through to the end.

Boston Daily Globe September 17, 1899

Harvard Making Farmers.

Remarkable Picturesque School Known as Bussey Institution and Its Interesting Work in Turning Out Practical Farmers, Landscape Gardeners and Architects, and in Instructing the Heirs to Great Estates How to Manage and Improve Their Beautiful Property - Notable Men Who Have Been Students and Workers on This Unusual Farm.

On ground adjoining the Arnold arboretum in Jamaica Plain, within a stone's throw of Forest Hills station of the railroad that runs beside the line of street cars, is an unusually picturesque building, of Victorian Gothic architecture that suggests nothing so much as a convent or a monastery. It breathes an atmosphere of cloistral calm and isolation, and thousands of persons who have ridden, or wheeled, or walked by this mysterious-looking pile have peopled its inner corridors and chambers with persons who have sought this remoteness and seclusion for purposes of meditation and prayer.

As a matter of fact even those who have learned that it is only the Bussey Institution imperfectly apprehend the character of the place and of those who visit it. It is simply the school building of that department of Harvard university which teaches young men how to be accomplished and expert farmers.

The Bussey institution, in other words, is the "Harvard university school of agriculture and horticulture," and it is named after the man who left a large estate to endow this department.

Few people who think of the great Cambridge place of learning ever associate with it the kind of work that is here carried out. The sort of scholar that Harvard turns out is pictured by the imagination as a man more intimately acquainted with book than earth worms and as a great authority on syntax than soils. But from this institution have gone forth in the nearly 30 years of its existence scholars who knew more about crops than cryptograms and could speak more confidently about plowing than about Plutarch. The students in this department of Harvard, unlike those in other departments, have been only anxious to be, and to be known, as genuine farmers.

It has been very successful, however, in securing students from among city bred men, many of them well-born and wealthy, who intend either to establish themselves on farms or to occupy country seats, or to become landscape gardeners. Some of its students even in the short period that the department has been in existence have achieved great distinction as practical farmers,horticulturists and landscape gardeners. It was in this school that Charles Eliot, son of Pres Eliot of the university, acquired the foundation of that learning and skill that made him one of the most successful and distinguished landscape architects in the country. Here, too, have studied the sons of Fredrick Law Olmsted, who have been able to continue the great business left by their father and Mr Eliot.

At least one professor in the university has been a student at the Bussey Institution, Robert T. Jackson, professor of paleontology.

Two men of wealth, sons of distinguished families, who have achieved much distinction in agriculture and horticulture are Gen Francis H. Appleton and Nathaniel Thayer Kidder. Gen Appleton, a Somerset club man, has been a successful practical farmer and has been president of the Massachusetts horticultural society and has added under his own direction to the beauty of the great Kidder estate in Milton. Both of these gentlemen were students of Harvard university school of agriculture.

Dr William H. Ruddick of South Boston is one of the well-known graduates of the institution. Like many other men, intending to enter a professional career, he chose a course in the agricultural school as a valuable adjunct to his other training.

Scattered throughout the commonwealth are prosperous farmers, some of them selectmen of their towns, who can say that they learned to be farmers at Harvard university.

The school has had students from Spain, Japan, Costa Rica, and other remote places. The Japanese and Costa Rican students took more than ordinary interest in the subjects that they studied. The Japanese students were able to satisfy their tremendous curiosity concerning American methods fo farming, so different in some ways from their own. The Costa Ricans were intensely interested because they were learning things about farming that would make their coffee and banana plantations, already extremely profitable, infinitely more valuable if conducted on the greatly improved plans which they had opportunity to study.

All these farmers - rich, poor, foreign and native - worked cheerfully side by side in that particularly democratic atmosphere that farming produces.

The degree that the school confers is not, of course, so valuable, financially, as some degrees that Harvard confers, but its value is increasing all the time. The students do not strive so earnestly for the mere degree, and many of them apparently care little for it. But they all thirst and hunger after knowledge, and that they acquire in abundance. While the school has been in active operation not much more than 25 years, it has turned out some scholars who, if they are not very famous now, are certain to be by and by. At least one former student is in the forestry department at Washington, another is close to the head of one of the greatest agricultural journals in the country, several are prosperous landscape gardeners and architects, and many are well-to-do teachers and professors, while the school has on its list of alumni several members of the richest and most conspicuous families in New England.

Gen Francis H.Appleton, by the way,enjoys the distinction of being the first regular student the school had.

It has been said before that this is a school for farmers and gardeners. It is exactly that, and the course of instruction with the methods of study are such as only persons who have a genuine farmer's love for the earth would care to undertake.

The theory and practice of farming is taught by an experienced practical farmer, who conducts a big farm of his own at Hingham, Mr Edmund Hersey. He is the superintendent of the Bussey farm of 200 acres, connected with the school, where practical demonstration is afforded of the use of fertilizers and farming tools and machines.

Instruction is given by lectures and recitations, and by practical exercises in the laboratories greenhouses and fields, every student being taught to make experiments, study specimens and observe for himself.

The aim of the teachers is to give the student a just idea of the principles upon which the arts of agriculture and horticulture depend; to teach him how to make intelligent use of the scientific literature which relates to these arts; and to enable him to put a proper estimate upon those kinds of evidence which are obtained by experiments and by the observation of natural objects. Examinations are held statedly to test the student's proficiency.

Mr Hersey lectures on such practical subject as the selection of farms for special purposes, soils best adapted to different crops, the location of farm buildings, the clearing land of rocks and stumps, the building of farm roads, the preparation and management of cranberry bogs, the selection of stock for farm purposes, with direction for breeding, the breeding and care of poultry, the construction of poultry houses, on how to compost manures and to save those waste materials of the farm which contain plant food, how to buy, mix and apply commercial fertilizers, and on the preparation of the soil for different crops, cultivation, harvesting and marketing of crops, fruit-growing and market gardening.

In the department of horticulture a graduate of the university, Mr Benj. M. Watson, lectures on the preparation of soils for horticultural and floricultural purposes, the management of plants, including methods of propagation, horticultural improvements, the methods of obtaining new varieties of vegetables, fruits and flowers, the arrangement and care of flower gardens, nurseries and orchards, the construction and care of greenhouses, plant cellars, pits, frames and hotbeds, the principles of landscape gardening, the value of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants, for ornamental purposes. Practical greenhouse and garden work by the student supplements the lectures. Mr Watson is the son of a well-known nurseryman at Plymouth.

Students interested in the cultivation of trees and shrubs have the opportunity of seeing them grown in great variety and in large numbers for the Arnold arboretum, on grounds adjacent to the school.

In natural history, lectures are given by Mr E.W. Morse.The course is an introduction to the study of organic life. Plants and animals are contrasted. The cell and its significance, the different parts of living organisms and their uses, the physiology of plants and animals, the methods of recognizing weeds, grasses and other plants, and of destroying weeds, the structure and habit of insects, and the methods of combating those kinds which are injurious, the detection habits and prevention of smuts, rusts, blights and mildews, the relation of bacteria to dairying, the sanitation of farm buildings, heredity, variation and development, the domestication of plants and animals, and the derivation of improved varieties, cross-breeding and hybridizing and the influence of insects in fertilizing plants, are among the topics of study.

In agricultural chemistry, the dean of the school, Prof F.H. Storer, lectures on soil, air and water in their relations to the plant, the food of plants, manures, general and special, chemical principles of tillage, irrigation, systems of rotation and of special crops and farms, the food of animals, simple and mixed rations, the values of different kinds of fodders, of the means of determining fodder values, and of the methods of using fodders to the best advantage.

Laboratory instruction in chemical analysis is given to those students who wish it.

Instead of taking the full regular courses above described, which occupy the whole of the academic year, October to June, inclusive, short courses of instruction on a variety of subjects, included in the regular stated courses, may be selected by young men of ability and judgement who cannot afford to spare much time for advanced study. As examples of these short courses may be mentioned:

Lessons on market gardening and fruit growing, 10 weeks; lessons on the propagation of plants by seeds and cuttings, 8 weeks; lessons on budding and grafting, 2 weeks; lessons on pruning, 2 weeks; lessons on the principles of tillage, 5 weeks; lessons on artificial fertilizers, 8 weeks; lessons on farm manures and composts, 6 weeks; lessons on injurious insects, 6 weeks; lessons on injurious fungi and bacteria, including the management of milk, 6 weeks.

The regular exercises of the school are supplemented by excursions for studying farms, animals and dairies. Opportunity is found in this way to discuss the methods of managing milk farms and poultry farms, and to inspect recent improvements in the construction of farm buildings, and of buildings used for the preservation of meat, apples, pears, cranberries and other fruits. There are field lessons also for the better examination and comprehension of objects of agricultural natural history.

The farm connected with the school is devoted primarily to the production of hay, which is consumed on the farm by horses taken to board. Members of the school have constant opportunity to observe the methods of procedure by which the fertility of the fields is kept up. The instructor in agriculture explains the structure and operation of improved implements for preparing land for the growth of crops and for harvesting all kinds of farm products, and special effort are made to teach the student how to select tools and machines which are properly constructed and best adapted to do the desired work.

The regular fee is $150 a year, but for the special short courses, which are designed for hard-working farmers, a fee of only $8 is charged for 12 lessons in six weeks.

One of the picturesque scenes at the school is that of the class in horticulture, in the attire of farmers, working in the greenhouses on the grounds, grafting roots and leaves and propagating seeds.

It is to the scientific farmer such as this school produces that New England must look for the redemption of the abandoned farm. When the farmer who has done all that back-breaking effort can do to make the thankless soil of the worked-out farm produce something has failed, the scientific farmer, with his greater knowledge of chemistry and of the sciences that pertain to agriculture, steps in and forces the apparently barren field to yield a remunerative profit for his labor.

This, it is said, is what a school like Harvard's does for agriculture.

It enables the scientific student of agriculture actually to make two ears of corn grow where the farmer who has relied only on "elbow grease' has given up the task of trying to make even one grow, and this with less effort than the old system involved.

The secretary of agriculture has said that the sick fields of New England need doctors to administer to them the right kind of tonics, and that after proper treatment by skilled land physicians they will regain their lost health and fertility.

The medicine chest of this land doctor, such as Harvard's school produces, is filled with all kinds of fertilizers and recipes for diet and exercise that will be administered to the farms that are all run down, and are distinguished by that tired feeling, and in this medicine chest the agricultural sharps have great confidence.


  1. henry francis dupont of the winterthur estate, gardens and library attended the bussey institute of horticulture and managed a dairy farm in delaware as well.

  2. Excellent read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing a little research on this topic. And he actually bought me lunch because I found it for him. So I should thank you for the free lunch I got.

    Lawn Mowing Xenia & lawn companies Beavercreek