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Vision and tenacity marked the efforts of those who laid the groundwork for the founding of N.C. State and its missions of teaching, research and extension.

In a year of anniversary observances at N.C. State University – the 125th of the founding of the university and the 150th of the passage of the Morrill Act which made that founding possible — there have been celebrations of N.C. State’s past and a determined focus on its future and the transformational impacts the land-grant university has had and will continue to have on North Carolina’s economy and the lives of its citizens.

But in illuminating those subjects, a good way to start is with two names: Justin Smith Morrill and Walter Hines Page. Morrill was born in 1810 in Stafford, Vermont. Page was born in 1855 in Cary, North Carolina. Though separated by background and generation, these disparate figures’ historic impacts intersect at Pullen Road in west Raleigh.

Justin Smith Morrill
Justin Smith Morrill

Morrill, as Vermont’s U.S. congressman, in 1862 introduced the bill that would establish federal funding for public institutions, accessible to the children of all citizens, in each state. More than two decades later, Page would work to ensure the creation of such a land-grant college in North Carolina. Page was a founding member of the Watauga Club, which advocated for a school of agriculture and mechanic arts in North Carolina — efforts that brought about the founding of the N.C. College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (now N.C. State University) in Raleigh and, later, N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro.

Morrill’s career path, first as a merchant and farmer, took him to Washington, D.C., where he served in Congress, elected first in 1854 as a Whig, then as a Republican in five succeeding terms, and moving from there to the Senate, in which he served from 1866 until his death in 1898. As a congressman, he sponsored the Land Grant College Act, also known as the Morrill Act, to establish federal funding for public institutions of higher education in every state in the nation. It was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln July 2, 1862.

The Morrill Act of 1862 (and the Second Morrill Act of 1890) established the federal mandates for funding higher education in agricultural and mechanic arts. It was the foundation of today’s public research universities, their accessibility and affordability — and the sharing and extension of their research-based knowledge for the public benefit.

In its observance of the Morrill Act Sesquicentennial Anniversary, the Association ofPublic and Land-grant Universities (APLU) has noted, “This is not a celebration for just the land-grant institutions, but a celebration that marks the democratization of higher education and emphasizes the critical importance of research and innovation to the nation’s bright future.”

As Morrill himself put it in 1862, “This bill proposes to establish in every state upon a sure and perpetual foundation, accessible to all, but especially to the sons of toil, where all of needful science for the practical avocations of life shall be taught, where neither the higher graces of classical studies nor that military drill our country now so greatly appreciates will be entirely ignored, and where agriculture, the foundation of all present and future prosperity, may look for troops of earnest friends, studying its familiar and recondite economies, and at last elevating it to that higher level where it may fearlessly invoke comparison with the most advanced standards of the world.”

The bill based the funding of agricultural schools through the sale of public land. The money, called “land scrip,” obtained through the sale of the land, would be used to endow at least one college that would teach the practical agricultural education in each state. This was also the beginning of the land-grant educational mission of schools founded to democratically serve the children of all citizens, not founded in the European tradition of serving mainly the monied classes.

Walter Hines Page
Walter Hines Page

Such an institution was in keeping with the views of Page, a proponent of a new economically progressive South. Educated at Trinity College (later Duke University), Randolph-Macon  College and Johns Hopkins University, he became a journalist and publisher (including partner and vice president of Doubleday, Page and Co.) and served as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain. Believing that education is the key to a better life, he urged the establishment of a school offering industrial and agricultural education. His hope to move North Carolina from Reconstruction to a modern economy informed the zeal that he and his fellow Wataugans – who questioned whether classical universities served the children of all citizens — would exercise in pushing for the kind of school in North Carolina that Morrill’s act would enable.

It wasn’t until after the Civil War that North Carolina claimed its land scrip allotments. However, the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, in great debt after the Civil War, worked to secure the scrip monies for itself. Historians note that the Chapel Hill offering was meager at best, with just one professor hired to teach a sampling of courses in which few students were even enrolled.

Leonidas L. Polk
Leonidas L. Polk

Page, his fellow Watauga Club members William Joseph Peele, Charles W. Dabney and Arthur Winslow – along with other New South reformers, such as Gen. Daniel Harvey Hill, Daniel Augustus Tompkins and Leonidas L. Polk, the first state commissioner of agriculture – all leaders in a movement for agricultural education, felt that the children Justin Morrill hoped to reach were getting no return on the money. Polk called for the scrip money to be used to establish a new “People’s College.”

The first N.C. A&M College faculty
The first faculty to teach at N.C. A&M College included (seated, from left) William A. Withers, pure and agricultural chemistry; college President Alexander Q. Holladay, history; Daniel Harvey Hill Jr., English and bookkeeping; (standing) John H. Kinealy, mathematics and practical mechanics; Wilbur F. Massey, botany, horticulture and arboriculture; and Joseph R. Chamberlain, agriculture, livestock and dairying.

So, in 1887, the demand for the new agricultural college in North Carolina took the form of a bill in the North Carolina legislature written by Dabney and sponsored by August Leazar of the state board of agriculture. It passed on March 7, 1887, the date now celebrated as Founder’s Day at the farmers’ college envisioned by Polk and built on 60 acres of land donated by Richard Stanhope Pullen: N.C. State University.

The Morrill Acts, the 1887 Hatch Act (which provided funding for agricultural research at the new colleges) and the 1914 Smith-Lever Act (which provided for the establishment of agricultural extension work) set forth the following mandates for the land-grant institutions: to provide education for an agrarian-based economy, research for agribusiness and extension services to reach the farmers and benefit all citizens.

The delivery by the land-grants of that education, research and outreach has served to free up a majority of the U.S. population from subsistence farming and ultimately made possible that a small percentage of an average American’s paycheck goes to buying food, as opposed to 50 percent and even beyond in other countries.

It was historically important to have the workforce freed from agriculture, so they could do other work for the economy, according to N.C. State’s Dr. David Smith, CALS associate dean and director of the N.C. Agricultural Research Service (NCARS), who noted that research at the land-grants made possible the technology and the shared know-how to increase yield and food production. Fewer farmers were needed to grow the food, so people moved from subsistence farming to farming for sale to others or into other modes of work.

Today, the university’s agricultural research directly supports the state’s largest industry and the approximately 700,000 jobs North Carolina agriculture provides.

First N.C. A&M freshman class
Members of N.C. A&M College's first freshman class (shown above) arrived Oct. 3, 1889. Shown on the same steps of Holladay Hall (below) is a group of current N.C. State University students.

The tripartite land-grant mission is reflected in the structure of N.C. State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences with its Academic Programs, North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service and N.C. Agricultural Research Service administrative divisions.

Just as Morrill and then Page and his colleagues might have envisioned, CALS Academic Programs provides the children of the state’s citizens a full range of higher education degree options from associate’s degree programs in the Agricultural Institute to bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. degrees in biology-based disciplines, agriculture and the environmental sciences.

Current N.C. State University students
On the steps of Holladay Hall is a group of current N.C. State University students.

The North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, based in CALS, sustains a network of upwards of 1,000 staff members, working with tens of thousands of volunteers and advisers, making 2.5 million face-to-face contacts annually to enhance the state’s economy, environment and quality of life. It is a national leader in educational and applied research programs for alternative agricultural crops and enterprises, childhood nutrition and physical activity, school-age care and disaster preparedness.

And the CALS research programs – which range from basic discovery in the agricultural and biological sciences to crop and animal production —are fully integrated with Academic Programs and Cooperative Extension to implement the land-grant mission of research, education and outreach. The land-grant university’s research in human health, food safety and wellness, ecosystem diversity, environmental protection and land use improves our state for both urban and rural citizens. The NCARS also partners with the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to manage one of the nation’s most extensive research station operations.

Dr. Johnny Wynne, recently retired CALS dean, had these words about the anniversary year of the university, the Morrill Act and the College as it prepares for the next 125 years at N.C. State: “We honor and celebrate our past, but do so while looking forward to a great future. As a national and international leader in research, teaching and extension, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences continues to address statewide, national and global challenges such as food security, human health and nutrition, environment and energy sustainability and economic development.”

In the articles that follow, we look at how far the university and its College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have come — and where we’re going.

-Terri Leith


  • North Carolina State University: A Narrative History, Alice E. Reagan, N.C. State University Alumni Association, 1987
  • North Carolina State University: A Pictorial History, Burton F. Beers and Murray S. Downs, NCSU Alumni Association, 1986
  • “The Compleat Cow College,” Terri Leith, NCSU Alumni Magazine, November 1991
  • “Page in History,” A.S. Knowles, NCSU Alumni Magazine, May 1994
  • “Morrill Act Sesquicentennial Anniversary,” Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU),, 2012
  • Wikipedia: Justin Smith Morrill; Walter Hines Page; May 2012
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