Friday, June 3, 2011

The Life of Dr. Seaman A. Knapp by His Daughter

From the Seaman A. Knapp Collection in the Archives and Special Collections Department, Frazar Memorial Library, McNeese State University, Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Brief Sketch of the Life Work of the Great Farmer-Statesman
By Mr. and Mrs. A. M. Mayo (daughter of Seaman A. Knapp)
Dr. Seaman A. Knapp was born at Schroon Lake, New York, December 16, 1833, and was the youngest of a family of eight children. His parents soon moved to Crown Point, a village on the western shore of Lake Champlain, not far from the Canadian line - a picturesque village, its one street extending several miles between rugged Adirondack mountains. His grandparents moved from New England to Northern New York soon after the Revolution. His father was a captain in the war of 1812 and later a “Doctor of the Old School,” having a wide practice up and down Lake Champlain. The Seamans, his mother’s people, were scholars and his uncle B. K. Seaman, was the first graduate of the State Normal School at Albany, New York.

Dr. Knapp went to school at Crown Point Center to the village schoolmaster named Bingham. To this man is due, not only the splendid foundation of his education, but the firing of his boyish soul with the desire for higher education in a day when few went beyond the rudiments learned in the “Little Brick Schoolhouse.”

When he was fifteen, he ran his oldest brother’s cabinet shop, the brother being ill for a year. It meant rising at four in the morning, working by candlelight, often pulling out the lumber from under the snow, laying the pattern of the piece of furniture to be made, and then carefully cutting it out with a saw. A small old-fashioned table with drop leaves and two drawers, in the possession of his oldest son, Professor Herman Knapp, is a sample of the excellent work of the boy. His brother Alonzo, bitterly opposed to his going to college, for he said it was the spoiling of a fine cabinet maker to make a poor scholar, but his sister, Mary, who was teaching school, loaned him the money and urged him to go. In the later years of her life, when the two were all that were left of the family, he was able to reciprocate bountifully this sisterly kindness.

At sixteen, he started for Troy Conference Academy, a Methodist school at Poultney, Vt., spending two preparatory years there. Here he met and became engaged at eighteen to Maria Elizabeth Hotchkiss, a young woman of rare personal gifts and culture, who for fifty-four years was his companion and wise counselor and to whose brave, self-sacrificing life, he owes much of his ultimate success. At eighteen he entered Union College, Schenectady, New York, during the presidency of Dr. Knott, graduating in the summer of 1856 with high honors and a membership in the Phi Beta Kappa society to which only high scholarship gives access. He achieved this under the difficulty of teaching during his senior year and going to college to pass examinations. He was married on August 6, 1856, and the young couple, (both twenty-two years of age), went to teach in Fort Edward, New York, he teaching Greek and Latin at the time. During the first year, both together received $300.00 and their board. Later, he became junior partner in the Institute. In 1863, he purchased a one-half interest in the old Troy Conference Academy and it was changed to Ripley Female College, a finishing school patronized by many wealthy New York families.

It seemed like the chance of a lifetime, the opportunity for wealth and culture and position to a young man. But it was short lived. The same year, he was out teaching the young ladies to play ball and fell upon a small cobble stone, tearing the knee-pan from the bone. Six of the most famous army surgeons of the time were consulted, but they could do nothing. In 1866, he went out in the Iowa prairies when the tales of the Comanche Indians were still fresh enough to be blood curdling. Here he rode the plow with the crutches by his side. But the sheep farm was a failure because he had not learned the difference between the sheltered Vermont hills and the bleak Iowa prairies. For two years after this, he preached at the Methodist church in Vinton, Iowa, sitting on a high stool in the pulpit to preach. In the meantime, he had become known as an educator and in 1869 accepted the superintendency of the Iowa College for the blind where he remained six years adding to the capacity of the school and placing it in fine condition. These details of his life between 1863 and 1870 are given to show his indomitable will and energy when most men so afflicted would have given up, for he walked on crutches with the right limb so shriveled up that the toe barely touched the floor and his spine was supposed to be affected. How was he cured? Through that same unconquerable spirit. Learning the principles of diet, bathing and exercise which then were little thought of, he put them into such rigid practice that he was permanently cured.

During all these years he had kept a farm, having a great love for the work. In 1876, he established a fine stock farm near Vinton, Iowa, and also edited a farm paper of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. In the spring of 1880, through Secretary James Wilson and other prominent Iowa men, he was tendered the chair of Professor of Agriculture at the Iowa State College. The work was only in embryo when he commenced. He left it a fully established department, sending out yearly as graduates young men with a broad knowledge of agriculture and a vision if its higher possibilities.

It was his great pride that his students were found in the Agricultural Department of the Government, in college professorship and as men of influence working out the problems of scientific agriculture. While at the College he was a member of the committee which framed and had passed the act establishing experimental stations in connection with Agricultural colleges which are doing such excellent work in all the states of the Union.

His wife always said that he never cared for a position after the knotty problems were solved and some one else could take up the work and follow it successfully. Hence, when the department of the college was on a firm basis, he turned his eyes toward the South where the promise of new fields of study and enterprise were very alluring to him. The opportunity came through his friend, Professor Alexander Thomson, who had been at the Iowa State College, and his [Thomson’s] brother-in-law, Jabez B. Watkins, the large land owner in Southwestern Louisiana.

He came South with his family in 1885 and made his home in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where he remained twenty-two and one-half years, leaving there for Washington, D.C., in January 1908, to take charge of the Farm Demonstration work. After coming South, he remained for a little time with Mr. Watkins, but soon branched out into projects of his own. He became very much interested in the development of the country and particularly the rice industry. Through his life-long friend, Secretary James Wilson, he was sent abroad to study Agriculture and particularly rice in foreign countries. He visited Japan, China and the Philippine Islands in 1898 and the same countries and India in 1902, remaining abroad six and nine months respectively. He visited Mexico and Porto (Puerto) Rico in the same manner.

In 1904, the Mexican cotton boll weevil had crossed the Rio Grande and invaded the rich cotton belt of Texas, bringing ruin to the country. The majority of people thought that the growing of cotton would cease and the great money crop of the United States be destroyed. Dr. Knapp had been experimenting in a small way and when he announced that he could grow cotton in spite of the weevil, could teach every farmer in Texas to do the same, could, by teaching them to grow more and better corn, feed and home supplies, make them far more prosperous than before the boll weevil came, the farmers and businessmen followed his plan until today Texas is producing almost one-third of the cotton of the United States.

His plan was to go to a farmer, ask him to grow a few acres exactly as instructed, make frequent visits to see that all was correctly done. In the fall when the yield was two to four-fold more on this land than on the balance of the farm, the lesson was so well illustrated that it was remembered. Thus the demonstration work was started.

In 1906, the General Education Board of New York sent their specialist to the South to see what could be done to help advance the rural communities. They reported Dr. Knapp’s demonstration work as the greatest force for uplift and progress in the country and arranged to cooperate in giving large sums yearly to advance the work ahead of the boll weevil. The Boys’ Corn Clubs and the Girls’ Canning Clubs were also formed and at the time of Dr. Knapp’s death, he had a field force of over seven hundred traveling instructors visiting thousands of farmers from western Texas to Eastern Virginia, bringing prosperity out of adversity. Our sixty thousand boys and girls compete in the clubs and their success is worldwide and has caused many of their elders to try new methods. The demonstration method of teaching has been found so practical that our last Congress appropriated a large sum of money to carry this work into the Northern States.

Dr. Knapp died at Washington, D.C., April 1, 1911, in the seventy-eighth year of his age, still active and interested in his work.

Note: The above sketch of the life of Dr. S. A. Knapp was prepared at the request of John McNeese, Superintendent of Schools for Calcasieu Parish, by Mr. and Mrs. A. M. Mayo. Mrs. Mayo was Dr. Knapp’s daughter.

The sketch was prepared for the boys and girls of the public schools of the parish in order that “they may the better understand the elements of true greatness and hoping that many of them will be inspired to emulate the example of this great man who is now honored and admired throughout the civilized world and who for many years lived as one of the citizens of Calcasieu Parish.”

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