The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Knapp, Seaman Asahel
(December 16, 1833–April 1, 1911)

–administrator, teacher, and gentleman farmer—was born in Schroon Lake, New York, on December 16, 1833, the ninth child of Dr. Bradford Knapp and Rhoda Seaman. His family moved to Crown Point, New York, in the late 1830s and established a small family farm, where he developed habits and knowledge of the farming profession, including self-reliance, common sense, use of farm tools, and care of crops and animals. As a boy, he attended the Troy Conference Academy at Poultney, Vermont, and at 19 entered Union College at Schenectady, New York, graduating in 1856. He married Maria E. Hotchkiss, of Hampton, New York, in August of the same year.

    One month after his wedding, Knapp became the vice principal of Fort Edward Collegiate Institute at Fort Edward, New York. He also taught Greek and Latin, while Maria taught French and Spanish and filled the preceptress position. In 1863 Knapp accepted the position of vice president of Troy Conference Academy. Just three years after taking that job, Knapp suffered an accident that left him disabled, and his health began failing. Hoping to recuperate, he and his family moved to a farm near Vinton, Iowa, in 1866. In 1869, after three years of convalescence and limited success as an independent farmer, he became the principal at the Iowa Institution for the Education of the Blind at Vinton. He resigned in 1876 and began raising livestock, specializing in the improvement of Poland China hogs. He also wrote extensively for state and regional agricultural journals; he edited the Western Stock Journal and farmer and contributed to the Progressive farmer During that time, he also organized and eventually became the first president of the Iowa Fine Stock Breeders' Association.

    In 1879 President Adonijah Welch of Iowa Agricultural College offered Knapp the vacant position of professor of practical and experimental agriculture. Knapp accepted and began work in Ames in February 1880. He found the college facilities in a dilapidated state and proceeded to rebuild the farm and revitalize the work performed by the college, emphasizing the practical experiences students gained through hands-on work, while also enlarging the institution's experimental endeavors. He carried out extensive experimental work in dairy and animal husbandry, the dairy industry, and farm crops. Through his work in Iowa, Knapp became known as the "founder of farm demonstration work." In 1882 he helped draft a federal bill requesting funds and support for agricultural experiment stations. Despite his support of the original legislation, Knapp disagreed with the legislation passed in 1887, known as the Hatch Act, because it allowed too much state autonomy and did not provide adequate support for intelligent and experienced supervision at the experiment stations.

    After the college's governing board removed President Adonijah Welch in 1883, Knapp was elected as vice president and took over Welch's duties. Knapp's avowed support of hands-on experience was popular with the largely rural student population and seemed to situate him as a supporter of the local community's desire for more practical agricultural and industrial education. However, as enrollment declined and local farmer and businessmen continued to complain about the college's aims and goals, Knapp struggled to maintain a productive educational atmosphere. He gladly stepped aside as president in 1884, but remained as professor of agriculture.

    In December 1885 Knapp secured a leave of absence from the college, and he and his wife moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana, to establish a rice plantation, pursue further experimental work, lecture on farming practices, and assist in drafting national agricultural legislation. Herman Knapp filled his father's position at Iowa Agricultural College on a temporary basis, but after a year Seaman Knapp's move became permanent, and he officially resigned in 1886. Largely through his efforts, some 500,000 acres of Louisiana prairie were ultimately opened to rice and sugar cultivation. He also promoted colonization schemes to entice farmer from Iowa and other regions to settle in Louisiana.

    In 1898 James "Tama Jim" Wilson, Knapp's successor as professor of agriculture and director of the Experiment Station at Iowa State College, who had become U.S. secretary of agriculture in 1897, invited Knapp to become a special adviser for the South in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In that capacity, Knapp traveled throughout the world studying agricultural practices, in particular rice culture. He brought back with him improved strains of rice that multiplied the South's rice production. In 1903, when the boll weevil panicked cotton growers in Texas, Knapp was able to demonstrate how, by changing farming practices and using different strains of cotton seed, cotton farmer could keep the boll weevil under control and still produce a profitable crop.

    Knapp spent his last years promoting the development of demonstration farms, and in 1906 he initiated the county agent plan. He also began promoting a plan to develop boys' cotton-and corn-growing clubs and girls' canning and poultry clubs, an idea he may have borrowed from Jessie Field Shambaugh, who had been developing the idea of agricultural clubs in the schools of Page County, Iowa, since 1901. After his death, the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 formalized his efforts to develop demonstration farms and a county agent system.

    In late spring 1910 Maria Hotchiss Knapp died. Her death hastened Seaman's already declining health, and on April 1, 1911, he died. Ten months later, in January 1912, he was buried beside his wife in the Iowa State College cemetery in Ames. He was survived by five children.
Sources Some of Knapp's papers are housed in Special Collections, Iowa State University Library, Ames; three more boxes are in Special Collections, Texas Tech University Library, Lubbock. Secondary sources include Joseph C. Bailey, Seaman A. Knapp: Schoolmaster of American Agriculture (1945); History and Reminiscences of I.A.C . (1893); and Earle D. Ross, A History of the Iowa State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (1942).
Contributor: Paul Nienkamp