Richard Silvester and Maryland Agricultural College: “A School for the Farmer’s Boy”

Do you think that farming is “the loveliest of all professions on the face of the earth?” Would you argue that agrarian work is “the vocation on which all prosperity rests?” Or would you be so bold as to say that working on a farm “brings men into contact with that mysterious principle of life, that essence of God in the world?” If you answered yes to any of these, then you should have gone to the Maryland Agricultural College in 1895! This small land-grant college that eventually became the University of Maryland, College Park (my alma mater!) was originally a school devoted to training farmers and using agriculture experimentation to support the state’s farms. In order to really understand the college’s role in agriculture in the late 1800s and early 1900s, let’s get acquainted with Richard Silvester, the 16th president of the school.

Revilee_Silvester Portrait
Richard W. Silvester (1857-1916). Image Credit: 1900 Reveille.

Silvester was originally from Virginia. He was involved in agriculture his whole life starting with his early days on the family farm and study of agriculture at the Virginia Military Institute. Before coming to the MAC, he helped transform a small school in St. Mary’s County called Charlotte Hall Academy into a thriving institution for practical farming education. Silvester was dedicated to making college affordable and immediately useful for ordinary farmers. Unlike many American schools in the 19th century that focused on religious education, the liberal arts, or military training, Silvester’s vision of the perfect school was one that used practical, vocational training to address the needs of local communities.

1913 Revilee_Students doing ag work
MAC students participating in various agricultural pursuits. Image credit: 1913 Reveille.

The trustees of the MAC elected Silvester to replace Henry Alvord, a respected dairy scientists who had also supported agricultural education. Silvester was similarly focused on agricultural education at the MAC, and according to Dr. George Callcott, he was also “most concerned with serving the rural people who had never imagined sending their sons to college.” Unlike previous presidents who had grand schemes for making the college an elite institution, Silvester stuck to the college’s original mission: “to instruct the youthful student in those arts and sciences indispensable to successful agricultural pursuit.” He liked to call the school “a College for the Farmer’s Boy” and reduced the fees and board at the college to a bare minimum so that more students could attend. President Silvester also expanded the scholarship program and hired students to work at the MAC agricultural experiment station to help pay for their room and board. In 1900, the average cost of  $95 annually. Considering the average farm laborer earned about $370 a year, this low cost was significant.

Revilee_Ag drawings
The pages of the MAC yearbooks during Silvester’s tenure are loaded with photos, drawings, and stories about agriculture. This was one of the funnier ones I came across! Image Credit: 1897 Reveille

Silvester wasn’t content with the education of students, he also believed that the MAC should be on the cutting edge of agricultural research that would ultimately benefit farmers young and old.  A few years before Silvester took office, the Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station was built on the MAC campus with federal Hatch Act funds in 1888. Silvester made sure that the two institutions worked together to bring the most benefit to students and faculty. “Captain Silvester resolved that the sphere of the College must be widened,” a faculty member wrote in 1900, “and that the College would no reach its maximum degree of usefulness until it should be recognized as the Farmers’ College of the State, as it is to-day.” Largely through his efforts, the state government created the Department of Farmers’ Institute, State Horticultural Department, and Department for Inspection of Dairy Food Stuffs. He also was instrumental in the reorganization of the State Chemical and Fertilizer Department. Silvester made sure that these state bureaus were established as “adjuncts” to the MAC, so that his faculty and researchers could remain linked with agriculture developments at the local and state levels.

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This is the entire 1898 MAC faculty, including President Silvester (bottom row, 4th from right). Image credit: 1898 Reveille.

Although Silvester was most concerned with agriculture, he also supported other subjects that he believed were useful to the young farmer. Under his leadership, the college created a horticultural education program that was closely linked to existing agricultural programs. The MAC also expanded its engineering program during the Silvester administration from a single part-time professor in 1892 to eight professors in 1912. Silvester closely linked engineering to agriculture, calling classes “rural road-building” or “farm machinery.” Eventually, Silvester conceded that many future engineers were destined for city work and allowed the subject to branch out into civil mechanical, electrical, and other technical fields.

While he allowed engineering and horticulture to become respectable subjects at the MAC, Silvester eliminated the liberal arts almost entirely from the curriculum. By the time Silvester left the school in 1912, the MAC only employed two instructors to teach English, history, philosophy, economics, and social sciences. Silvester and his administration believed these disciplines were useful for providing young farmers with a sense of refinement, but according to vice-president Thomas Spence the humanities were to be “rigidly subordinated” to more practical vocational subjects. How ironic that the old engineering building (Taliaferro Hall- named for one of Silvester’s finest professors of engineering) is home to the History Department and a variety of other liberal arts!

In addition to growing the agriculture and engineering programs, Silvester also worked to build up the College’s campus. Under his tenure the following buildings were built, some of which are still standing today:

1893- Gymnasium and Library (razed in 1958)
1894- Mechanical Engineering Building, this was the west wing of what is now Taliaferro Hall (razed 1961)
1897- Chemical Building, later named McDowell Hall (razed 1958)
1898- Science Hall, later named Morrill Hall
1901- Infirmary
1904- Administration Building (burned 1912)
1909- Engineering addition, this is not the east wing of Taliaferro Hall

1913 Revilee_fire
Destruction after the 1912 Fire. Image credit: 1913 Reveille.

Silvester led the MAC until 1912, when a devastating fire destroyed most of the campus and nearly closed the school permanently. Disheartened by so much loss, Silvester resigned. Luckily, the remaining students and faculty rallied and kept the College running.

So then, what is Richard Silvester’s enduring legacy today? The school still is involved in agriculture education and research, but this has been subordinated to business, the sciences, and those pesky humanities that he didn’t think were valuable to students. Even the name of the school has changed from “Maryland Agricultural College” to “University of Maryland” in 1920. Almost every building that was built under Silvester’s tenure was either burned in the Fire of 1912 or has since been demolished to make way for more modern structures on campus. However, the Agricultural Experiment Station is still functioning and remains an important part of Maryland’s contributions to state agriculture, as does the Agricultural Extension program.

If you ask me, one of the most important (and thankfully enduring) impacts that Silvester had was much less visible. The Maryland Agricultural College didn’t have a strong commitment to providing practical, affordable education to students until Silvester took charge. Though some earlier presidents had also promoted agricultural education at the college, others were more concerned with military training (for a list of 19th century MAC presidents and their legacy see here). Without Silvester promoting and expanding agriculture for twenty years, the college could have totally abandoned its agricultural programs. “Silvester had, in the words of Dr. Callcott, “by patiently identifying the institution with the needs of the people had laid the basis for a renaissance.”

Today, the University of Maryland is still committed to making education accessible to ordinary students (affordable!). This happens in the classrooms on campus as well as in extension programs and in many other places. Along with that, Maryland still shares Silvester’s desire to make education practical, effective, and meaningful to students. These are the things that have really endured. Though he wouldn’t recognize the campus today and might be a little disappointed that there are fewer farmers around, I think Silvester would be glad to see that these things are stronger than ever at Maryland.

To learn more about Richard Silvester and the history of the Maryland Agricultural College near the turn of the century, the best place to go to is the University of Maryland Archives! They have some fantastic collections (many of which can be found online here) and a wizard staff that can answer any questions you’d have about the school. If you’re not able to make it to Maryland, then I’d also suggest reading George Callcott’s “The History of the University of Maryland.” Even though its been out of print for decades, its still the best published history of the school you can read. Though there are some things in this book that I haven’t been able to confirm using archival records from the University Archives (I used to work there, after all!), its very well written and I highly recommend reading through it.


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