George Peabody College for Teachers, which opened on its present-day campus in 1914 after a series of previous incarnations dating from 1785, had two related missions. One was to provide a graduate-level education for Southern teachers, the other to improve country life in the South.
This second mission, now all but forgotten, explains why the first classroom buildings on the new campus were for home economics and industrial arts. It also explains why the first and most eminent professor was the leading horticulturalist in the United States. By 1915 vegetable gardens, chicken coops and a barn occupied the eastern part of the campus, while the latest farm machinery was on display in the basement of the Home Economics Building.
Early plans for the new Peabody coincided with a national concern about the eroding quality of life in rural America, especially in the most rural part of America, the backward South. By 1900 rural Americans were steadily lagging behind urban areas—in income, health, education, transportation and cultural opportunities. To deal with this problem, Liberty Hyde Bailey, dean of the College of Agriculture at Cornell University, organized a Country Life Association that sponsored country life conferences throughout the country. These helped persuade President Theodore Roosevelt to appoint a Country Life Commission in 1908, which issued a long analysis of rural problems and proposed dozens of reforms.
One of these reforms involved rural schools, which had failed to relate directly to the way people lived. They had not emphasized agricultural and country life subjects. The commission recommended that rural schools should become community centers and teach courses on agriculture, home economics, health and sanitation. This agenda became, in effect, a mission statement for the new Peabody.
The commission also recommended increased extension work to aid farmers and homemakers. This was already under way in the South, thanks largely to the work of Seaman A. Knapp. A farmer, clergyman, and second president of Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University), Knapp moved to Louisiana in 1885 to help develop a new, scientific rice culture. To induce farmers to adopt new methods, he set up some successful demonstration farms. In 1904 the federal Department of Agriculture appointed him as a special agent to promote agriculture in the South. In pursuit of this goal, he began to appoint agents to work with individual farmers. Both the Department of Agriculture and the John D. Rockefeller-funded General Education Board (GEB) provided money for more and more such agents each year, until more than 500 extension agents were at work in Southern states by the time of Knapp’s death in 1911. The success of these agents led Congress, in 1914, to pass the Smith–Lever Act, which established the Cooperative Extension Service, which soon supported farming and home demonstration agents in every rural county.
By 1914, the year Peabody opened for classes, Knapp was a hero in the South. Local Knapp Memorial societies had begun plans for a school of country life in his honor. Wallace Buttrick, the executive secretary of the GEB and one of the greatest benefactors of both Vanderbilt and Peabody, had already decided that Peabody was the perfect location for such a school. In 1913 during a final, desperate effort to raise a million dollars for the new campus, Buttrick’s GEB donated $250,000 to fund a Knapp School of Country Life.
No one was more enthusiastic about such a school than Bruce Payne, a close friend of Buttrick and first president of the new Peabody. Payne was a prominent educator with a Ph.D. from Columbia Teachers College. He, like one of his teachers, John Dewey, wanted schools to become change agents in rural communities.
Payne came to Peabody from the University of Virginia, where he was a professor of psychology and secondary education. The GEB, which paid his salary, funded one professor in each of several Southern universities to help improve secondary schools and country life. At Virginia, Payne began a co-educational summer school, organized the first university conference on country life, and invited Liberty Bailey to address such a conference in 1908.
Peabody never organized a formal school of country life—no department, no separate faculty. In the early years it awaited expected funds from the Knapp Memorial societies to fund a country life building. Only meager funds came in, and these went into a new demonstration farm, appropriately named Knapp Farm. But even without an organized school, Peabody abundantly fulfilled the goals of the country life movement, and in four areas: agriculture, home economics, industrial arts and public health. Payne simply announced, in early catalogs, that all the courses in these fields, plus Knapp Farm, constituted a school of country life.
The three most eminent professors of the early Peabody College well served the country life cause. Kerry Davis, hired two years before classes opened, was a Ph.D. student of Liberty Hyde Bailey at Cornell. An expert on orchards, Davis was author of a dozen books and articles. He headed the agriculture department until his death in 1936.
In 1915, Peabody hired Lewis C. Gray, a recent Ph.D. graduate from the premier program in agricultural economics at the University of Wisconsin. He remained only three years, but would eventually complete a classic two-volume history of agriculture in the South, head the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Agricultural Economics in the 1920s, and chair a famous committee on farm tenancy during the New Deal era.
For the critical field of health education, Payne hired Fletcher Bascom Dresslar. In addition to lending expertise in health education, Dresslar became the leading national expert on school design.
During the first full academic year, Peabody listed 18 courses in agriculture, 11 in agriculture economics, 11 in health education, and six in rural education. An ever greater array of courses was listed in home economics and industrial arts. During the first summer 113 students took courses in agriculture, 308 in home economics. By then donors had funded 20 country life scholarships.
In the absence of a country life building, Peabody most emphasized its Knapp demonstration farm. Payne and Davis loved the farm, which was located on Mill Creek, northwest of the present Nashville International Airport. A small Knapp Memorial gift, plus two state appropriations, helped pay for more than 300 acres of land.
Davis planted 25 acres in a model orchard. The farm experimented with every crop that would grow in Tennessee and soon accumulated a herd of purebred Holsteins. During the first few years, the farm attracted visitors from all over the South. It offered jobs for students and provided healthy food for the college cafeteria. But the demonstration value of the farm soon declined, as state experiment stations and the Extension Service assumed its role. By the 1930s the dairy operation alone remained viable.
The recreational value of the farm, however, endured until World War II. In 1922 the College, in a bit of indulgence, built a clubhouse on Elm Hill Pike, adjoining Knapp Farm. It had a large dining space, outdoor fireplaces and meeting rooms. Students and faculty scheduled parties and picnics every weekend and, as Payne desired, were able to explore the wonders of Knapp Farm. The fare for city streetcars that ran by the club was only a nickel. But after the war, with no more streetcars, the club fell into disrepair and was rarely used.
By 1925 the GEB recognized that the land-grant universities were better equipped to aid the rural South than Peabody. It urged Peabody to drop increasingly ill-attended courses in agriculture, but to no avail. Payne and Davis would not let go of their early dreams.
When Davis, his dearest friend, died in 1936, a sorrowful Payne decided not to replace him. This ended instruction in agriculture at Peabody. For years no one but Payne had referred to a school of country life. Payne himself died in 1937. Only Knapp Farm remained as a reminder of the visions of 1914. A financially challenged Peabody auctioned its valuable dairy herd in 1959 and sold the whole farm in 1965 for an even $1 million.