Historical marker commemorates first Pennsylvania extension agent

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A state historical marker commemorating the first extension agent in Pennsylvania — and one of the first in the United States — was dedicated June 7 in Schellsburg, Bedford County.

The marker, at 3744 Pitt Street, highlights “the beginning of the Agricultural Cooperative Extension Service” and the approximate location where extension agent A.B. Ross officially began his work helping farmers in Bedford and surrounding counties in 1910.

Dignitaries from Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, Bedford County commissioners, Sen. John Eichelberger and the president of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents attended the ceremony, which was sponsored by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, the Schellsburg and Old Log Church Historical Society, and the Pennsylvania Association of County Agricultural Agents.

Traveled on horseback

Ross’ appointment by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Farm Management was a watermark in Pennsylvania’s agricultural history.

According to The College of Agriculture at Penn State: A Tradition of Excellence, written by Penn State historian Michael Bezilla and published in 1987, Ross had been practicing law in Cleveland, Ohio, until ill health forced his return to his native Bedford County in 1907.

“Looking for a way to occupy himself during his recuperation, Ross became interested in scientific agriculture and was appalled to learn how little local farmers knew about the subject,” Bezilla wrote. “He began traveling the countryside on horseback, making friends with agriculturists and distributing copies of USDA bulletins.

“He was soon proficient enough to make inoculation tests for legumes, advise farmers on corn varieties best suited for Bedford County and suggest better farm-management techniques.”

The success of Ross’ activities came to the attention of authorities in Washington, D.C., and he was eventually making his rounds throughout Bedford and five adjacent counties in a USDA-supplied automobile rather than in the saddle.

Envied worldwide

Speaking at the observance, Bruce McPheron, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences, emphasized the historical importance of the Cooperative Extension partnership between land grant universities, such as Penn State, and federal, state and county governments, both in the Keystone State and across the country.

“Cooperative Extension has helped make American agriculture the envy of the world,” he said. “Wherever I travel internationally, the questions inevitably come back to, ‘Tell me about extension and how we can help farmers and rural communities.’”

McPheron noted that Penn State Extension started serving farmers in Pennsylvania more than a century ago, even before the federal Smith-Lever Act was passed in 1914 establishing the nationwide Cooperative Extension system, connected to land grant universities.

In addition to McPheron, making remarks at the ceremony were Jean Craige Pepper, commissioner with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission; Mary Jo Depp-Nestlerode, associate director of Penn State Extension; Paul Craig, extension educator and president-elect of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents; Robert Goodling, extension educator and president of the Pennsylvania Association of County Agricultural Agents; and Janice Stoudnour, Penn State Extension district director for Bedford, Cambria and Somerset counties.

Duane Duncan, retired extension educator and life member of the Pennsylvania Association of County Agricultural Agents, unveiled the marker.

Bedford County commissioners in 2007 praised Penn State Extension in a proclamation, recognizing that the organization has made historical contributions to the county’s vitality.

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