When E.L. Luther came to Oneida County in the early 1900s, he saw a land newly stripped of trees, the work of pine barons and lumberjacks who had left the area to seek other riches. But he was not disheartened. To his mind, this remote and barren acreage looked like the perfect place to farm; its only drawbacks were big stumps that needed to be wrested from the fields.
Mr. Luther was a true farmer at heart and in fact, 100 years ago, he became the first ever agriculture extension agent and would head an agency that has had a hand in shaping Wisconsin’s forests and farms ever since. In fact, this year the UW-Extension is celebrating their centennial and E.L. Luther, although dead for 144 years, has played a big part in drawing attention to this celebration.
“It is really remarkable that the UW-Extension basically started with E.L. Luther in Oneida County,” said Bill Klase, who is a regional specialist with UW-Extension. “It’s hard to imagine now that Oneida County was considered capable of much agriculture, but when the forests were logged off and the land was barren, there were lots of immigrants who were eager to start a new life here. Land was cheap and plentiful.”
E.L. (which stands for Ernest Leonard) Luther was truly a Northwoods pioneer. He received a bachelor of science degree from UW-Madison in 1912 when he was 44 years old. He was born in Hart, Mich., in 1868 on a farm and started his career as a teacher and then eventually became a superintendent in Ripon.
But his heart was always in agriculture and in the early 1900s he saw a need to connect farmers with research and educational opportunities so they could make better decisions about herd health and production. Growers were also hungry for information on how to farm in a country where the summers are short and the soil is sandy with little loam.
So in 1912, E.L. became the first paid agriculture agent in Wisconsin and the second in the entire nation (he made $1,000 that year) and traversed Oneida County on a daily basis aboard a motorized bicycle when the weather allowed. In fact, there is an old photo of him with his machine standing in front of the Oneida County courthouse back in 1912 and it was this likeness that was used to bring attention to the UW-Extension’s momentous anniversary. E.L. and his motor bike were cropped from the photo and blown up into a life-size depiction. He then traveled (by modern day car) from county to county where he was photographed at fairs, at county board meetings and near other landmarks throughout the state. In fact, it was Bill who brought him back to Oneida County. “I wanted to get a picture of him in the exact spot he stood for the original photo,” he said. “It proved to be a challenge because the wind kept knocking him over.”
However, while he was setting up this unusual photo shoot, Bill was surprised at the number of people who approached him about Mr. Luther. “He worked as a good ambassador,” laughed Bill. “Lots of people really liked his bike.”
But E.L. didn’t limit himself to just riding his motorized cycle around the county. In a paper he published in the early 1930s, he recounts the many miles he traveled and the hours he worked to put Oneida County on the map as an agricultural leader. “In one year I traveled 18,400 miles by rail, 216 by team, 1,850 by auto and 12 on foot,” he wrote. “I worked 318 days that year, including 30 Sundays.”
Mr. Luther’s primary goal was to educate farmers and school students about crops and livestock. In his first winter on the job as a county agent, he held a class for 15 teachers at the county training school and ran a 10-week agriculture short course for 17 boys. He also conducted a farmer’s course that was attended by 20 per cent of the farmers in Oneida County. “Oneida County needed improved livestock, liming to correct acid soils, legumes to increase the nitrogen content of the soil, furnished forage and silos to provide winter feed storage for cattle,” he wrote in his paper. “It was in these areas of need that I concentrated my teaching efforts.”
He also took a hands-on approach when he visited area farms. For instance, he would produce a magnifying glass and show farmers the difference between feed grains and weed seeds. He also liked to hang hand scales near areas where farmers were milking. Then he would encourage them to weigh what each cow produced so they could determine if the animal was being profitable or not. “Later I would go back and the farmer would insist on buying the scale because by then he had started a milk record,” E.L. wrote.
He also did a lot of teaching in schools and educated teachers on how to measure butterfat in milk samples with a device developed at UW-Madison known as a Babcock tester. Many teachers held socials and raised money to purchase these testers to run milk tests. Teachers also raised money to purchase microscopes so pupils could learn how to test milk for purity.
In 1915 the Board of Regents appointed E.L. as the Superintendent of Farmer’s Institutes. He continued in this position until 1933 when this department was discontinued. From 1934 to 1938, when he retired as Emeritus Professor of Agriculture Extension, he served as the assistant state leader of county agents.
E.L. did have a family while he was performing his duties asWisconsin’s first county extension agent. He married Mary LuLu Eddy in 1896 and they raised two children. Their son, Melvin, was a leading Wisconsin potato farmer in Elcho and their daughter Breta (Luther) Griem had a homemaker’s television show in Milwaukee. E.L. retired from his position in 1938.
But his legacy lives on, not only in his pioneering of agriculture in Oneida County, but also in the cut-out board that has traveled the state, reminding people of the long history of the UW-Extension in Wisconsin. “It was a neat way to celebrate this milestone,” said Bill. “I’m sure E.L. Luther would have agreed.”