Fred Whitford’s latest book chronicles the life of John Harrison Skinner, Purdue’s first dean of agriculture.
By Tom Campbell
Fred Whitford never planned on being an author. “Shoot, when I came to Purdue, I could barely write,” he joked.
Like many people, Whitford was simply looking for the answer to the question “Who are we?”
That was in 1991, when he joined the Purdue Cooperative Extension Service.
With the publication of his third agricultural history book, For the Good of the Farmer: A Biography of John Harrison Skinner, Dean of Purdue Agriculture, Whitford, 58, has been quietly gaining a reputation as the historian for Purdue’s College of Agriculture.
Skinner was the first dean of Purdue’s College of Agriculture (1907-39). He grew the program from one building and 150 acres to ten buildings and 1,000 acres during his tenure as dean.
“John H. Skinner was a farmer, a teacher, a researcher, a politician, a tireless promoter, and, most of all, a visionary who never lost his focus on the Indiana farmer,” said Jay Akridge, Glenn W. Sample Dean of Agriculture at Purdue.
And in his biography of Skinner, Whitford just may have found the answer to the question that started his writing career back in 2002.
“About 11 years into this business, I started asking myself, “Who are we as a college and as a university?
“I kept reading about a man named William Carroll Latta. He was the one who started the Farmers’ Institutes (a forerunner to the Cooperative Extension Service) across the state as well as the Winter Short Courses in agriculture. He actually built the School of Agriculture outside the campus.”
Whitford went to the library to see what he could find out about Latta.
“There was nothing on him,” Whitford said. “I thought maybe I should write a book about this important pioneer who developed the mission of Extension in Indiana.”
While writing The Grand Old Man of Purdue University and Indiana Agriculture: A Biography of William Carroll Latta, which was published in 2005, Whitford came across several of Latta’s communications with Virginia Claypool Meredith, a Shorthorn cattle breeder from Cambridge City near the Indiana-Ohio border.
Latta employed Meredith to lecture to farmers across the state.
“William Latta had no staff. He needed people to teach at the Farmers’ Institutes. He had $5,000 from the Indiana General Assembly to do that,” Whitford said. “He paid speakers $25 a week to travel to these outlying places across the state. They took trains and got picked up by buggies to go to their speaking engagements.
“Meredith was a livestock producer who was not only good at her trade; she also knew how to make money from farming. I got interested in her from the standpoint of how tough it would have been for a woman to be teaching men about livestock at the end of the 19th century.”
In addition to her accomplishments as a livestock producer, Meredith would become heavily involved in the creation of home economics as a field of science, both at Purdue and the University of Minnesota, and would be named the first female trustee of Purdue. The university honored her lifetime of contributions by naming a women’s dormitory after her.
In 2008, Whitford told her story in his second book, The Queen of American Agriculture: A Biography of Virginia Claypool Meredith.
Fred's Five Writing Tips:
Fred Whitford is a self-taught writer who encourages people to take a long look at their own family archives before determining their ultimate fate of keeping or disposing.
“If you have papers that you would like to donate, then consider a gift to the Purdue archives,” he said. “You never know how those photographs, letters, diaries and other documents might be used by a researcher working on a book.”
If you are writing your own history, Whitford offers five tips that have helped him:
1. Every person has a story to tell.
2. Write every day, even if it is re-reading or editing. Writing a paragraph is better than writing nothing at all.
3. Get your thoughts on paper first, as if you were having a conversation with someone else. Edits and rewrites come much later. Don’t try to make the perfect sentence or paragraph the first time around or you will never get the writing down and you will lose your train of thought.
4. Write when it is the best time for you. Some people are morning writers and others do better in the afternoon or evening. Take advantage of those periods when the words flow much easier.
5. Understand that sometimes you can have writer’s block. In these instances, reread what you’ve written or edit, or think about the flow. Don’t let writer’s block become an excuse for not doing anything on the project.
Whitford researches and writes at night and on weekends, always making sure to write something every day.
“Even if it is just a sentence or two, I make sure I get something down that moves the process along each day,” he said.
His day job, as Extension specialist and coordinator of Purdue Pesticide Programs, offers Whitford ample opportunities to write.
He has written or co-authored more than 250 Extension and regulatory publications and research papers on subjects such as transporting agricultural products, flood planning, chemical storage tanks and farm retail customer service.
Whitford has also presented more than 4,500 programs at conferences, workshops and field days. He is a past recipient of the Hovde Award of Excellence in Educational Service to the Rural People of Indiana and received the Outstanding Extension Faculty/Specialist Award from Purdue Extension in 2012.
While writing an Extension publication may seem vastly different from writing a 600-page book, Whitford acknowledges that there are similarities. Both require a willingness to sort through the information, summarize it and produce something of value that provides helpful information to the questions being asked in agriculture.
The same patience and thoroughness allowed Whitford to go through thousands and thousands of folders on Skinner’s tenure as Purdue’s first dean of agriculture (1907–39).
“You have to have a passion for what you are writing about because the process is so time consuming,” Whitford said.
“Most everyone has some old papers lying around. It may not be their story, but it might be a part of somebody else’s story that links us together. That’s why saving stuff — writings, documents, personal letters — is important,” Whitford said.
Whitford feels that it is his job as an author to put that saved stuff into books.
“These books are my contribution to Purdue University, the College of Agriculture and Purdue Extension. It’s what I give back for having been paid for doing this job, this great job that I have,” Whitford said.
And he has gotten some insight into the question of who we are as scientists and educators.
“We have a culture that started with the founding of this university. And that culture is still helping people today,” he said. “It’s in our DNA, and it goes back to the very beginning, to the people I’ve written about. That is who we are. It’s a mission of caring, helping and serving.”
And Whitford believes that this DNA is present in all of the people who make up Purdue’s College of Agriculture and Purdue Extension.
“Writing a book is one thing — it’s a collection of what it was like in the early days of our history. But we can relate all of that to the things we do today. We’re doing similar things, only with different technologies.
“Whether we’re talking about planting depth and spacing, fertilizer rates, economic trends or feeding, we’re still pushing science and information to make our farmers better, the home a better place to live and our communities stronger.”