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Johnson County

100 years of service: Johnson County Cooperative Extension celebrates its centennial anniversary

by Adele L. Wilcoxen, public information coordinator, Johnson County K-State Research and Extension


It was November 8, 1917. The U.S. had entered World War I in April and the nation was now at war. Eggs cost 48 cents a dozen, butter 49 cents per pound, milk 45 cents per gallon, and a 4 pound bag of sugar cost a whopping 37 cents. A 4-room cottage in Johnson County could be rented for $7 per month.

But before you pine for “the good old days,” consider this; most rural homes in Johnson County lacked running water and sanitation, there was no such thing as canned goods at the local grocery, most clothing was hand-made, and Kansas farmers relied on kerosene lamps for light, and wood or coal for cooking and heat. It was under these challenging times that Harry S. Wilson came to Johnson County to become its first county extension agent.

Dean Umberger in Johnson County KansasBy 1912, farmers were demanding technically trained people to serve as advisors and demonstrators. In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson signed the Smith-Lever Act. The law established a national system of cooperative extension services connected to the nation’s land-grant universities, which were created when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862.

With the passage of the Smith-Lever Act, university faculty, called agents, were relocated into local communities to inform people about current developments in agriculture, home economics, and other related subjects. Agents served as a bridge, helping local citizens apply scientific in-formation and technology to their individual needs.

“It was before the age of the communication explosion,” said Dennis Patton, current horticulture agent. “It was a time when there weren’t telephones and televisions in every home. It was an attempt to put someone with a college education out where the people were.”

Wilson had been sent to Johnson County to “co-operate” with the state’s land grant university Kansas State Agricultural College and the Johnson County Farm Bureau. His task was to work with local farmers to increase food production and food conservation.

The early years of Extension service in Johnson County
Wilson was a busy man. His 1920 Annual Report documented: 256 farm visits, 2,639 office consultations (not including phone calls), 103 meetings, 1,032 letters written and mailed, and 31 agricultural articles written and published. By 1921 the agent’s work included home economic programs. Women were demanding access to university information regarding pressure cooking and canning, sewing, modern heating, lighting, water and sewage systems. He also began 4-H youth programming in the county with the organization of two pig clubs.

Mrs. Paul Brown Johnson County KansasBy 1925, Wilson and the Farm Bureau were calling for a specialist to educate women in “dressmaking, home nursing and baby clinics, and kitchen improvement.” County women’s leader Mrs. Paul Brown (pictured right) launched an active campaign, signing up members for a women’s organization. She submitted a request to the County Commissioners to fund the hiring of a home demonstration agent. In response, Charlotte Biester was hired on February 1, 1926 to become the first Johnson County Home agent. Biester quickly went to work supervising the 12 home-maker units and forming 9 4-H project groups for girls.

Cooperative extension in the 21st century
While its roots started in Johnson County agriculture, today’s cooperative extension service has grown and adapted, reflecting the demands of modern life. Kansas’ land grant university changed its name from Kansas State Agricultural College and is now called Kansas State University. Its cooperative extension service is known as K-State Research and Extension. And the Johnson County Office has 6 agents and 10 support staff to serve its 580,159 citizens. Extension agents are university faculty and live within the community. Last year agents reported over 50,000 contacts, assisting the public with everything from radon testing to pond water quality management, to relief from miserable oak leaf itch mites.

Forty-five percent of the county’s land use is still agriculture. Its economic contribution to the county in 2016 was approximately $4.9 billion dollars. Just like the farmers of the past, today’s producers embrace the latest technology. Some of the newest innovations include the use of GPS and drones to monitor crops.

Home Economics is now called Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS) and includes health, nutrition, food safety, aging education, financial management, and indoor air quality in its programming. Canning and pressure cooking classes are more popular than ever due to the growing demands of a new generation embracing the local food movement.

Over the last century cooperative extension has adapted its original mission to address changing times and needs. It still plays a significant role in modern American life. In an era of growing misinformation, citizens can trust their local extension agent to deliver to them research-based, unbiased information based on scientific fact, and help them apply it to their specific local needs.

Internet. Cell phones. Drones. GPS. Satellite imagery. Harry S. Wilson would be flabbergasted at the technological tools and international network of scientific resources now available for use by extension agents. But he would be proud at how, 100 years later, the staff of Johnson County Extension still passionately embraces his original mission to serve and help county residents build better lives.