U. of Md. began as America's first agricultural research college

October 24, 2006|by JEFF SEMLER

As many of you know, Maryland Cooperative Extension is part of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources of the University of Maryland.

This year - 2006 - marks the 150th anniversary of the founding of the university.

While my space does not permit a complete history of the Maryland Agricultural College, known today as the University of Maryland, I will attempt to hit the highlights.

On March 6, 1856, the Maryland General Assembly chartered a new institution of higher education, the Maryland Agricultural College which was the first agricultural research college in America.

In 1858, 420 acres were purchased for the campus from Charles Benedict Calvert's Riverdale Plantation. The purchase price was $21,400. Calvert also issued stock certificates to help launch the endeavor.


Calvert was engaged in agricultural pursuits and stock breeding. He served as a member of the Maryland House of Delegates in 1839, 1843 and 1844.

He became president of the Prince Georges County, Md., Agricultural Society and the Maryland State Agricultural Society, and vice president of the United States Agricultural Society. He was also among the early advocates for the establishment of the United States Department of Agriculture.

On Oct. 6, 1859, the doors were thrown open to the Maryland Agricultural College's first students - eager to learn about agriculture and engineering. Formal dedication ceremonies included Joseph Henry, head of the Smithsonian Institution, as speaker. In all, 34 students were enrolled in the first class.

Among them were Calvert's four sons: George, Charles, William and Eugene.

On July 11, 1862 the first degrees were conferred to graduates of the Maryland Agricultural College.

Just nine days earlier, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law what is generally referred to as the Land Grant Act.

The new piece of legislation, introduced by U.S. Rep. Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont, granted to each state 30,000 acres of public land for each senator and representative under apportionment based on the 1860 census.

Money from the sale of these lands was to be invested in a perpetual endowment fund which would provide support for colleges of agriculture and mechanical arts in each of the states.

In February 1864 the Maryland Legislature accepted the Morrill Act grant.

A short time later, General Ambrose E. Burnside and 6,000 men of the Union's Ninth Army Corps, en route to joining Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in Virginia, camped on the college grounds.

That same year, General Bradley T. Johnson and 400 men, as part of the Jubal Early's Confederate raid on Washington, spent the night on the college grounds.

It was also the year the college went bankrupt and became a preparatory school.

Two years later, the legislature appropriated money for half ownership of the college, which at that point became, in part, a state institution. And so, in October 1867, the college reopened with 11 students.

By 1873, the enrollment had risen to a steady 100 and the debt was paid off.

Then in 1887, the Hatch Act created federally funded agricultural experiment stations. The trustees offered up the college farm and Rossborough Inn for that purpose.

To disseminate information gleaned from the experiment stations' research, the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 created the Cooperative Extension Service associated with each U.S. land-grant institution. This act authorized ongoing federal support for extension services.

By 1919, the college was organized into seven schools: Agriculture, Engineering, Arts and Sciences, Chemistry, Education, Home Economics and Graduate School (including Summer School). And, the preparatory school was abolished.

While today to many, the University of Maryland is more famous for its football and basketball teams, it still stands as the state's flagship university for academics as well.

UM has 2,874 faculty members who teach 25,000 undergraduate students and nearly 10,000 graduate students.

There are more than 100 majors to choose from and the university is now one of the nation's top 20 public research universities and is an economic catalyst for the state.

And Maryland Cooperative Extension continues to bring the university to the people.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University ofMaryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at

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