New book sheds light on little-known ‘father of Penn State’ | Center County Gazette


It is a fairly well-known historical fact here that Penn State was founded in 1855, and was first known as “Farmers’ High School of Pennsylvania”.

The Townies and Penn Staters also know the names of many people who played a significant role in the school’s early years – names like Pugh, Pollock, McAllister and Allen, to name a few.

However, the name of the man historians have dubbed the “father” of Penn State – Frederick Watts – is less well known.

With the recent publication of his new book, “Frederick Watts and the Founding of Penn State,” local historian Roger L. Williams is looking to change that.

This is the third book Williams has written about Penn State history. He said his research while writing his second book, “Evan Pugh’s Penn State: America’s Model Agricultural College,” piqued his interest in learning more about Watts and writing more.

“I was curious about what really happened, how this place really started before Evan Pugh, and I was also fascinated with what happened after Pugh,” he said. “I was interested in doing what I call a prequel and a sequel to Pugh. It’s those two things.

The book explores the life of Watts (1801-1889) – a fascinating figure in Carlisle, who ran a lucrative law firm for 40 years, served as a Pennsylvania state court reporter and district court judge, and was president of the Cumberland Valley Railroad for 30 years.

But that description only scratches the surface of the life and influence of this “19th century businessman,” as Williams calls him. Despite his suburban upbringing, Watts fell in love with farming while studying law in Erie County under a lawyer and farmer named William Miles. He eventually established Creekside Farm near Carlisle, where he made several major contributions to agriculture, including introducing a hardy new variety of wheat to farmers in Pennsylvania and being one of the first Americans to own and demonstrate the McCormick Reaper, an innovative farm machine that would eventually reform American agriculture.

“He was always looking to innovate, seeking to improve Pennsylvania agriculture and American agriculture. That was really his driving purpose in life — to improve the social, economic, and political position of the agricultural class of Pennsylvania,” Williams said.

This sense of purpose led Watts to help found the Pennsylvania State Agricultural Society in 1851 and, as its first president, led the organization to sponsor the new “Farmers’ High School of Pennsylvania”.

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The institution’s use of the name “secondary school” was intended to distinguish it from the private literary institutions that constituted the bulk of formal post-secondary education at that time. This new public institution was intended to offer a more professional and practical curriculum focusing on agricultural sciences and soon on engineering.

After considering potential Erie locations in Philadelphia, Watts was instrumental in selecting 200 acres of Center Furnace land as the site for the new Farmers’ High School.

The book details the many trials and tribulations the new board faced as it attempted to build a new campus, raise funds, and obtain funds from the Pennsylvania Legislature.

Watts served as chairman of the new college’s board of trustees and hired its first president, Evan Pugh – a brilliant young scientist and leader determined to “grow up on Pennsylvania soil the finest agricultural college in the world”.

Williams described the effort under Pugh as “an overnight success”, as this new school, which was renamed the Pennsylvania Agricultural College in 1862, quickly became the national model for agricultural and engineering schools in land grant.

Sadly, after just five years on the job, Pugh died at the age of 36 from typhoid fever, and Watts went on to hire several disastrous presidents to succeed him, driving the school to the brink of closure. It was not until George Atherton was hired in 1882 that Penn State was able to recover and re-establish itself as the leading land-grant college.

(Ironically, the names of these unsuccessful presidents – i.e. Allen, Fraser, Burrowes, Calder, Shortlidge – have become local household names as they grace the local street names of State College and the University Park campus. For his part, Watts has a dormitory in West Halls named after him.)

Meanwhile, Watts continued to impact American agriculture in his later years. At the age of 70, he was appointed U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture under President Ulysses S. Grant, and during his tenure there his contributions included promoting a national seed distribution program through the through the Department of Agriculture and the creation of the United States Department of Forestry.

“Watts was the leading figure in Pennsylvania agriculture for three decades,” Williams said.

“He was an incredible man, there’s no doubt about it.”

Williams, who retired as associate vice president and executive director of the Penn State Alumni Association and affiliate associate professor of higher education, is the current president of the Center County Historical Society.

In addition to the book on Watts and Pugh, he wrote “The Origins of Federal Support for Higher Education: George W. Atherton and the Land-Grant College Movement.”

His three books have been published by Penn State University Press.


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