The beginning of MSU Extension in Ogemaw County 100 years ago

This year, Michigan State University Extension celebrates its centennial in Ogemaw County.

One hundred years ago, Ogemaw County looked very different than it does today. By 1910, the lumbering of northern Michigan and the beautiful, straight, tall white pines of Ogemaw County, followed by harvesting hardwoods, was mostly finished.

When the forests were cleared, the population of the county dropped from just more than 8,900 in 1910 to fewer than 7,800 in 1920 and continued dropping through 1930. Cutting down the forests, though, opened the land for farming that took off in the county in areas where the soils would support agriculture.

Michigan agriculture, during this time, was characterized by many small farms. The 1920 Census of Agriculture reported more than 196,000 farms in the state, most with some livestock. According the census, there were over 1.1 million swine in the state, 1.2 million sheep and more than 800,000 dairy cattle. In 1917, the federal government initiated a program to eradicate bovine TB.

Goodar Township was one of the last areas of the county to be logged during that time. But, from Rose to Richland, to Edwards Townships, farmers cleared stumps and made a living growing food. Grain elevators, which not only bought grain but cleaned seed and sold farming supplies, were built across the county in Prescott, West Branch, Rose City and elsewhere.

Cattle numbers grew. C.T. Prescott owned large acreages and raised cattle on his ranch. Railroads were critical to the success of communities back then. Not only did trains bring in much-needed supplies, but they also took shipments of lumber, manufactured good and agricultural products.

Into this scene entered William Frederick Johnston, appointed in 1917 as an Emergency Agricultural Agent by what was then Michigan Agricultural College. He was appointed to work with farmers in Ogemaw County, helping them apply research results at the college to their farm businesses.

It was a tumultuous time in America. President Woodrow Wilson began his second term and entered the war in order to make “the world safe for democracy”. The U.S. declared war on Germany after a series of provocations. Conscription of citizens for military service was started.

Emergency measures were enacted and, though voluntary, citizens were encouraged to support new policies on agriculture and food. “Food will win the war! – Wheat is needed for the allies, waste nothing,” was a public campaign by the administration. The president appointed Herbert Hoover as the U.S. Food Administrator. Citizens were challenged to have “Victory Gardens” in their yards and vacant lots. By the end of 1918, one quarter of all food production was diverted toward the war effort.

The Federal War Preparations Board sought means of increasing food production and funded 38 Emergency Agricultural Agents in 1917 to serve 49 Michigan counties. Johnston served Crawford, Oscoda and Roscommon Counties as well as Ogemaw. In the neighboring counties of Iosco, Arenac and Gladwin, colleagues were hired at the same time. They worked with farmers and homeowners to grow and raise the food for a nation at war.

The mission of Extension was similar then as it is today: help people improve their lives and communities by applying knowledge to critical issues, needs and opportunities. Cooperative Extension was still very young in America. The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 established it nationally as the means to get the research results from the land-grant colleges out where people could profit from it.

This year, Michigan State University Extension celebrates its centennial in Ogemaw County. Not only is it recognition of what William Frederick Johnston came to do, but also it is a celebration of the contributions over the past century by Extension agents, now educators and program instructors, working with county residents to help them improve their lives.

This article was based on information provided by the Ogemaw County Historical Society and “History of Cooperative Extension Work in Michigan, 1914-1939”, a publication of Michigan State University.

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