Centennial Celebration

Centennial: CAFES History in Detail


1910-19:  The Beginning

In 1911 the WiscAg students 1915onsin legislature passed a law establishing that agriculture be taught in the high schools, thus creating a need for teachers of agriculture. The River Falls Normal School already offered a course in agriculture taught by Winthrop Welles, who saw the opportunity for the school to establish a specialty in agriculture. President Crabtree was interested in building up the school and saw this as an opportunity to attract another group of students, and students from across the state. Through local Regent, Philip W. Ramer, President Crabtree successfully appealed to the Board of Regents for authority to establish a special curriculum in agriculture.  

When schoAg students 1915ol opened on September 2, 1912, there were 40 students in the program. That very first year, students and staff organized a livestock show. In the early years a large tent was erected for the show. As the show grew in popularity, faculty members and local farmers co-signed on a bank loan to build a 300 foot stall shed. The show was an annual event organized by upper-classmen until 1923 when county fairs took over this role.     

By 1914 the school started acquiring land for a farm. The first 14 acres were just west of South Hall. Where Stratton Hall now stands there was a small house, a stone cellar and two small sheds. For the first few years, the cellar served as housing for a few cows and a team of horses. Over the next few years additional acreage was purchased so that by the end of the decade the farm was just over 100 acres.     

BecAg students 1917ause of the passage of the federal Smith-Hughes Act in 1917 which subsidized high schools offering agriculture instruction, the program at River Falls boomed. The River Falls Normal School was quickly approved by the State Vocational Board as an institution to train agricultural teachers. Approval was also needed from the Federal Board to obtain funds and have River Falls graduates accepted on an equal basis with those from the land-grant campus in Madison. The Federal Board wanted River Falls to be better equipped before being approved – they wanted a hog house, a barn, a milk house, a tractor and more animals among other items. It wasn't until 1919 that the Wisconsin legislature appropriated funds and construction started immediately on a "modern" 25 stanchion dairy barn. The barn was built for $5000 on the site where the Agricultural Science building now stands.

The original barn (1919) and shops 1921


1920-29:  The Fight for Equivalency

In 1925 the Wisconsin legislature gave the authority for Normal Schools to become State Teacher Colleges. This meant changing from a three-year course of study to a four-year program leading to a bachelors degree. Since River Falls graduates were still technically not qualified to teach in Smith-Hughes schools it was cause for concern, but the faculty forged ahead believing that sooner or later the River Falls program would be recognized as equivalent to the land-grant program at Madison. Little did they know how long the fight for equivalency would take!

The department had a staff of six (May, Segerstrom, Prucha, Spriggs, Johnson and Campbell) when the degree program was established in 1927. Many letters and visits were exchanged between Director John May and President Ames at River Falls, the state and federal representatives of the education governing boards, and administrators at the University in Madison. At one point the representative of the Federal Board indicated the only way the River Falls program could be recognized was if the University in Madison recognized the program as equal to their own. Believing the situation hopeless, that Madison would never recognize the River Falls program as equivalent even if they met all the requirements imposed by the federal board, President Ames informed the agriculture staff that they were “free to seek other positions and would probably be wise to do so.” Despite this recommendation none of the six staff members left.

John May 1925William Segerstrom 1925Edward Prucha 1925Roy Spriggs 1925Arthur Johnson 1925

Tensions between the parties continued to rise. In 1930, the state proposed a compromise that would have them handling teacher placement. All agricultural education seniors in the state were to be interviewed by the state supervisor, and rated by the supervisor and their respective department. The state supervisor would then recommend which students qualified for positions in Smith-Hughes high schools. Although not pleased with the compromise, River Falls went along with it, and by 1932 the University (Madison) monopoly came to an end.

Even as they fought for equivalency, and respect, the faculty continued to focus on improving the curriculum and facilities, particularly the farm. Professor Johnson recalls the farm in his early years:

The herd sire 1921“There was 60 acres of sandy land, very poor land, six to eight scrubby cows, and that was about it. So we went to work right away and bought a bunch of cattle on notes. We gave some of our own notes for the cattle. We got some good Holsteins and we were successful in getting a good sire in the first one.”

Because most of the farm machinery was horse drawn at the time, a pair of purebred Percherons were purchased in 1922. These horses proved to be invaluable to the farm in many ways.  With their arrival, the milk delivery route started with a hand pushcart in 1915 was switched to horse and wagon. Several of the horses – ‘Old Maude’ and ‘Bill’ - became well known on campus and in the community, with occasional mentions in the Student Voice. Not everything on the farm went well during this time. Tuberculosis was diagnosed  in the dairy herd. The disease was not well understood back then, but the staff undertook a regimen of regular blood testing and vigilant separation of the diseased and healthy animals. Their work eventually proved effective and by 1929 the barns were full of animals and the department began selling breeding stock to make room for other animals.


Industrial arts bldg 1934
1930-49: Depression and the War Years

The period started out on a high note with the  completion of the new Manual Arts Building in 1930. It’s likely that at the time no one would have predicted there would be no new construction on campus for the next 20 years.

This period also started out well in terms of student numbers, with 95 students enrolled in agricultural education at River Falls in 1931, more than Madison and Platteville combined. One reason students chose River Falls very likely had to do with cost. The March 29, 1933 edition of the Student Voice compared the cost:

Fees ($)
River Falls
UW-Madison Private
Tuition 0 0 350
Course Fees
0 100 0
Student Fees
30 109 20
Activity Fees
12 31 20
Textbooks 0 34 30
Board 144 240 269
Room 63 145 200
Incidentals 46 185 200
Total 295 844 1,089

Two faculty, Melvin Wall and Thorvald Thoreson, when they were students at River Falls in 1934However enrollment varied quite a bit during this period and the depression made placement of graduates very difficult. In 1934, 20 seniors graduated from the program and there were no openings for teachers. The graduates found jobs as cow testers and took other menial work. Only seven freshmen enrolled in fall 1934 and a few of these dropped out after a few weeks. Anticipating criticism that the department faculty might not be fully occupied, President Ames requested that they offer extension courses in neighboring communities. Overall though enrollment increased through the 1930s, allowing the department to add two new faculty by the end of the decade – Thorvald Thoreson and Melvin Wall.

The old issue of equivalency was fully settled in 1935 when River Falls was accredited by the North Central Association (NCA). That same year, for the first time, an agricultural education graduate from River Falls was admitted to the graduate program in Madison, without penalty or loss of credit. NCA accreditation also helped with graduates seeking teaching certification in other states. President Ames was celebrated for this great achievement.

World War II brought the enrollment growth to an abrupt halt since all the agricultural education majors were men. The number of graduating seniors dropped from 23 in 1940 to 0 in 1944. Once again the faculty were assigned other part-time duties, but the group that saw the program through the struggles of the 1920s and 1930s remained intact.


1950-59: Transformation

The need for more multi-purpose educational institutions became apparent with the end of World War II. In 1951 the River Falls Teachers College became a State College opening the doors for new programs beyond teacher education, and enrollment soared. The campus organized itself into three divisions – Agriculture, Education, and the Arts and Sciences, and soon after the Division of Agriculture began offering two curricula – Agriculture Education and Liberal Arts (non-teaching). In 1947-48, 9 out of 10 agriculture graduates entered teaching, by 1954-55 only 5 of 10 chose to teach – they were becoming Ag agents, soil conservationists, salesmen, businessmen and journalists.

Industrial arts 1952More improvements were made in the agriculture facilities during this decade than in the previous 40 years combined. Two laboratories in North Hall, one for crops and one for dairy, plus an office and a small shops building constituted the academic facilities for the program until 1955. In 1955 the agronomy building was completed providing three laboratories, a classroom, and four offices. With the rapid increase in enrollment though, it quickly became inadequate and staff were forced to share offices.  

The farm facilities – two frame barns, a small swine house, machine shed and poultry house – were also outdated after 30 years of usage. Early discussions focused on how to re-purpose some of the existing farm buildings and add a few new ones, but the staff soon realized it would be impossible to produce a functionally efficient educational farmstead with outmoded facilities. A second option evolved, to move the farm to a completely new area. In 1951 and 1953 additional land was purchased adjoining the existing farm on the east side. In 1957, $206,000 was appropriated for the farm and planning began in earnest. After receiving approval from the Board of Regents in December 1958, construction of the 10 new buildings began in 1959.Artists rendition of new pavilion bldg (From College Countryman May 1959)

Over the span of this decade the department would be completely transformed through retirements and deaths. It started in 1950 when two long-serving faculty, Spriggs and Segerstrom, passed John May with students 1956away. Campbell retired in 1953 after 26 years on staff. By the end of the decade the three remaining founding fathers announced their retirements – May in 1957, Prucha in 1958 and finally Johnson in 1960. The impact of these founders was evident at John May’s retirement when former students and friends from coast to coast - a truly remarkable 840 graduates - came back to honor him. They presented him with many gifts and enough cash to last him for years. The Department of Agriculture was considered by most to be a monument to May and his dedication and skill in guiding it through many seemingly hopeless times. Similar sentiments were expressed about Arthur Johnson, who saw the farms through many rough periods, often signing personal notes on loans to help out when things were at their worst. The names of May and Johnson were said to be synonymous with River Falls agriculture.

The first formal effort to stay in touch with alumni and recruit new students was initiated In February 1958 when the first issue of the College Countryman debuted. The need was noted and the FFA Chapter stepped up to start this quarterly publication.

College Countryman front page Nov. 1959


1960-1969:  Boom Years

A building boom…

Ardys Hanson by the new sign to the farm 1961The decade started on a high note: In October 1960 the new $240,000 College Laboratory and Demonstration Farm was dedicated. Although it was noted that many visitors failed to register in the guest book, 777 guests were recorded for the event. The hub of the new facility was the Pavilion, a concrete block building to be used for teaching as well as farm shows, stock sales and other events. Within 4-5 years though, there was a drastic need for additional land as campus expansion Artists sketch of AGS 1965enveloped land that had been part of the farm. In May 1964 the purchase of additional farm land was approved and the 293 acre Herbert Turner farm, two miles northwest of the city of River Falls, was acquired for $82,500. This farm was to provide pasture for the beef cattle and sheep as well as additional acreage for the production of feed crops. At the same time plans for construction of the new $2 million Agriculture-Science Building were nearing completion. It was to house facilities for the agricultural sciences, biology, mathematics and the earth science programs. The building was completed on September 1, 1966.

New beginnings…

1st Ag division banquet 1960 L-R Arnold Cordes, Elmer White, Ed Pronschinski and Richard DeloritThe FFA and Agrifallian Society combined efforts to hold the first Agriculture Division Banquet in March 1960. Of note was the title to the article in the College Countryman newsletter regarding this event - Women Invade the Banquet - for the first time wives and girlfriends of the members and faculty attended.

On May 6, 1961, the first agricultural techniques (Ag tech) contest was held for high school students, 163 students from 17 schools participated. By the second year of the contest, 325 students from 25 schools participated. And the contest continued to grow such that in 1965, 42 schools participated Ag Tech Colby team with 1st female 1965including 646 boys and 1 girl – marking the first time a girl participated in the contest. Colby, the team with the lone female participant, took first place that year.

The first River Falls Royal was on May 10, 1962. It was co-sponsored by the three student organizations in the school - the Collegiate 4H, FFA and the Agrifallians. A traveling trophy was awarded to the organization accumulating the most points, the FFA Chapter.

In fall of 1963, for the first time in its history less than 50% of the freshmen were enrolled in agricultural education. Of the 124 students in the freshman class, only 34 chose Ag education as their major. Up until then never more than 1/3 were enrolled in the non-teaching (broad area) curriculum.

The internship program had it’s start in 1968, with 12 students enrolled. Jim Dollahon and Peery Johnston were the initial architects and organizers of this initiative, which was seen as a natural extension of our emphasis on educating students to meet the needs of the industry and government agencies. 

Mel Wall with students 1960sThe long and rich history of college involvement in international activities began in the early 1960s. In 1963 Dick Delorit led a People to People agricultural tour to the Soviet Union, one of many organized by the U.S. State Department. Recent graduate Dick Jensen recruited Marv Thompson to visit Nigeria in 1965, as part of a curriculum and teacher development project. Jensen was later recruited for a supervisory role in a USAID project in Nigeria and was stationed in Ibadan. In 1967 Mel Wall traveled to Vietnam as part of a U.S. foreign assistance delegation of eight faculty and administrators studying the higher education system in Vietnam. Sadly all eight members were killed in a plane crash during turbulent weather in a mountainous region north of Da Nang. The Melvin Wall Amphitheater on campus, the only one of its kind on any Wisconsin campus, was designed by Wall and built by hundreds of students, faculty and friends of the university. The official memorial to Wall is the fountain located to the north of the Ag Science Building, which was donated by his wife.


1970-1979:  Reach and Reputation on the Rise

Building the 2nd Wall Memorial FountainThe start of the decade found the college and campus in the midst of planning and construction of the Wall Memorial Fountain and the Wall Amphitheater. Thorvald Thoreson, professor of Agricultural Engineering Technology, took on the role of the Chair of the Campus Planning Committee overseeing these two initiatives honoring his colleague and classmate, Mel Wall. Wall had been the long-time Chair of this committee and laid the groundwork for the amphitheater, modeling it after one he had seen on a visit to northern Italy. 

Building the Amphitheater BandshellSadly, the first Wall Memorial Fountain, donated by Wall's widow, was destroyed by vandals. The agricultural fraternities, DTS and AGR, took the lead, and with the help of other students, campus Facilities staff, and the Art and Ag Engineering departments, a new fountain was completed by commencement in spring 1970. The Wall Amphitheater was dedicated in 1972 with a performance by the Minnesota orchestra.

Thorvald Thoreson, 1970In the fall of 1972, Thoreson took a two-year leave of absence to accept a temporary position with USAID. He and his wife went to Nigeria to help establish an Ag Engineering program at the University of Ife in Ife-Ife. In 1973, while in Nigeria, Thoreson suffered a serious head injury in a road accident. He was quickly evacuated, first to Germany and then to New York for restorative brain surgery. By winter 1974 Thoreson was back on campus, but he was unable to resume his teaching career. He maintained an office on campus for many years, and with a cheerful attitude he did what he could to help out.

Ag Engineering Addition, Spring 1971The decade was marked by growth in many ways and this includes facilities. In 1971 a 3600 ft2 addition to the Ag Engineering Annex was completed. A 3700 ft2 greenhouse was opened in 1973. Late in 1978, funds were secured from the UW-System to build the Food Science Addition, with construction anticipated to begin in two years. By the end of the decade, 1979, construction began on the third and final addition to the Ag Engineering Annex. The 11,890 ft2 of space included laboratories, offices and storage space to replace the outdated facilities in the 50-year-old Industrial Arts building. In 1979 the governor also approved a School of Veterinary Medicine for the University of Wisconsin. The main school was to be built in Madison and a satellite facility located at River Falls.

The reputation and reach of River Falls also expanded over the decade. In 1975 six faculty had part-time appointments with UW-Extension, and were serving as state-wide specialists for their areas of expertise (Swanson, Henderson, Nolte, Rohde, Erickson and Huffman). Gary Rohde '60, Assistant Dean and Professor of Agricultural Economics, was appointed Wisconsin Secretary of Agriculture beginning in January 1976. Arguably the most notable finish for a judging team during the decade, took place in fall 1978, when the Soils Judging Team took 1st place at the Midwestern intercollegiate event marking the first time a non-big 10 school won the event and ending the 11 year domination of the competition by Purdue University.

Soils Judging Team, 1978Over the 10 year period enrollment doubled and new majors were added in agricultural marketing, food science, scientific land management and general agriculture. The student body changed markedly over the 10-year period. In 1970, women made up less than 5% of the student body in the College; by 1975 they represented 17% of the enrollment. Just four years later in 1979, over 30% of the students enrolled in an agriculture program were women.


1980-1989: Continuing to Build

Jim Dollahon, 1979Gary Rohde, 1988The decade started on a sad note with the untimely death of long-time Dean of the College of Agriculture, Jim Dollahon. Dollahon was scheduled for a one year sabbatical with the USDA in Washington DC. On the day planned for his send-off party, May 25, 1980, he died of a heart attack while taking a flight test for his private pilot’s license. Roger Swanson was named acting dean of the college while a search for a replacement was initiated. In 1982 a familiar face was named the new Dean, Gary Rohde. Rohde had been assistant dean of the college in 1976 when he took a leave of absence to serve as the Secretary of Agriculture for Wisconsin.

Touring the new pilot plant1980 also saw the beginning of construction on the Food Science Addition that would extend westward from the main building. Prior to this, the Food Science program was primarily housed in May Hall, occupying spaces that had been used by the campus food service operations prior to the opening of Rodli Hall. The area was off the beaten track, and had to be accessed through the basement lounge of May Hall, a men’s residence hall. The new facility was dedicated in December 1982 and came on-line for classes in Fall 1983. One year later in fall 1984, the dairy plant officially began commercial production and offered squeaky fresh cSteve Watters and PC Vasavada, 1982heese curds with the promise of pressed cheese and ice cream to come.

In addition to the new Food Science Addition several other building projects were completed during this decade. The 3rd and final phase of the Ag Engineering Annex was completed in 1981, which added four new laboratories, for drafting, electricity, welding and woodworking. By winter 1988 the greenhouse expansion was nearing completion; this included the addition of four rooms to the south and a computerized environmental control system.

Alumni Homecoming Breakfast, 1983After several years of planning and with guidance from a steering committee of alumni, on September 24, 1983 the UWRF Agricultural Alumni Association was formally organized. A group of 60 alumni met to approve the constitution and by-laws, and elect a board and officers. Bill Sazama ’65 was elected president. The first official alumni gathering was the Homecoming Breakfast on October 8. In May 1984 the association sponsored the first Senior Breakfast (now a Senior Dinner) welcoming the soon-to-be graduates into the alumni ranks.

Several other notable events this decade:

  • Orion Samuelson, 1989In 1984 Orion Samuelson, host of the nationally syndicated television show, U.S Farm Report, came to campus. He filmed segments for future broadcasts, gave a public address in the afternoon and was the keynote speaker for the Ag banquet in the evening. Samuelson returned to campus in 1989 to do an update, highlighting changes in colleges of agriculture. He interviewed Phil George, P.C. Vasavada and Terry Ferriss during this visit.
  • March 16, 1985, marked the 25th anniversary of the annual Ag Technology Contest.
  • A recognition dinner was held in spring 1986 in honor of Vice Chancellor Dick Delorit and his 34 years of service to the university. Delorit came to campus in 1952 to teach agronomy, he became director of the School of Agriculture in 1957, serving as director and dean until 1972 when he was named Academic Vice President. Even though he was a long-time successful administrator, Delorit noted that he didn’t want to get into administration commenting that the administration of the university is very important “but people change lives as teachers.”
  • In April 1988, approximately 400 students from 31 colleges descended on River Falls for the NACTA Judging Competition, which consisted of seven different contests. As hosts, UWRF student couldn’t participate, but assisted the co-chairs Larry Meyers and Dewey Wachholz with organizing the events.
  • The 25th anniversary of the rodeo at River Falls was celebrated in fall 1989. Gerhardt Bohn served as the advisor for all 25 years. 

Rodeo anniversary FencePost, 1989



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