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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Coverdale, John Walter
(April 4, 1884–August 22, 1965)

–farm leader, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation secretary, and American Farm Bureau Federation secretary—was the first of four children born to Elijah and Sara Jane Coverdale. Reared on the family farm in Bloomfield Township, Clinton County, Iowa, Coverdale quickly became familiar with the benefits of agricultural improvement. His father consistently experimented with livestock. Elijah Coverdale often had 200 cattle, 250-300 hogs, and up to 100 draft horses on feed at a time. He imported Belgian and Percheron stallions from Europe in an effort to improve the quality of draft horses in his community.

    With such a background, it was no surprise that young Coverdale decided to attend Iowa State College to gain the knowledge and experience necessary to commence his own farming operation. Concentrating on animal husbandry, and filling the balance of his credits with crops and horticulture, by 1905 Coverdale had taken all of the course work available in those areas and determined that he would not return to graduate, believing that further requirements in mathematics and sciences would not serve him well on the farm. He had also determined to marry and commence farming on his own.

    On January 26, 1906, he wed Elsie H. Grindrod, a school acquaintance of his childhood days, and on March 1 of that same year he started farming on his own. He soon started herds of purebred Aberdeen Angus cattle and Poland China hogs. He also started his own seed house operation, specializing in Reed's yellow dent corn, which he sold to his neighbors.

    Soon Coverdale begandelivering presentations at local farmer' institutes, speaking on such subjects as corn production and the breeding of superior colts. When the opportunity arose to affiliate himself with the Clinton County Farm Improvement Association in 1912, he did so, essentially helping to organize the first farm bureau in the state of Iowa. His success did not go unnoticed, and in November of that year representatives of Iowa State College urged him to become state supervisor of county agents. Taking counsel from his wife and father, he agreed, liquidating his farm in November 1912.

    Throughout the early 1910s, Coverdale worked not only to educate the public at large regarding improved agricultural production but also to build farm bureaus and to supply them with competent agents. The movement gained urgency with the outbreak of World War I. By the end of the war, every county in the state had at least one farm bureau.

    To capitalize on the momentum, representatives of the assorted county farm bureaus determined to gather to formulate a permanent body to pursue the well-being of farmer Accordingly, in December 1918 representatives from the majority of the counties met in Marshalltown, declaring themselves to be the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation (IFBF). Serving as president of the nascent organization was James R. Howard; John W. Coverdale was to serve as secretary (1918-1919). By the end of a few weeks' hard campaigning, the organization claimed 102,000 members, and a working fund of $400,000.

    Crop production, commodity prices, railroads, daylight saving time, and cooperative activities, both buying and selling, claimed the new organization's time. The IFBF leaders also contributed to the formation of a national organization, the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), and, as they had with the IFBF, Iowa's James R. Howard became its first president and Coverdale its first secretary.

    Coverdale's term as secretary of the AFBF lasted a mere four years (1920-1924) but had a tremendous impact on the organization, perhaps even saving it from total disintegration. Some in the AFBF argued for a strictly cooperative-based organization, but Coverdale argued at length for a "well rounded" program. From Coverdale's perspective, the organization should not only contemplate cooperatives, both in terms of purchases and sales, but also should consider education, social activities, and legislative endeavors. He was fired in 1923 for his vociferous advocacy, but his position finally held sway, leading to mass resignations at the AFBF. Coverdale's well-balanced program undoubtedly saved the organization from perishing in its infancy.

    In 1924 Coverdale resigned as secretary of the AFBF to assume leadership of the Grain Marketing Company, which was attempting to consolidate a number of grain companies into a cooperative endeavor. He left the organization to commence grain trading as a private businessman in 1925.

    Business was not brisk or exceptionally profitable, however, and in 1932 Coverdale accepted the Rath Packing Company's offer to head its fertilizer division, a position he held until 1943, when he became the director of Rath's Agricultural Bureau. He remained with the firm until his retirement in the 1950s.

    In his retirement, he managed a 340-acre farm and experimented with orchids and dahlias. Coverdale died on August 22, 1965, in Waterloo.
Sources For more on Coverdale, see "History of John Walter Coverdale" in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City; D. B. Groves and Kenneth Thatcher, The First Fifty: History of the Farm Bureau in Iowa (1968); and Robert P. Howard, James R. Howard and the Farm Bureau (1983).
Contributor: Kimberly K. Porter