He OPPOSED BARBED WIRE because it was ‘way “over-barbed.” Ensilage was rarely tried or used until near the turn-of-the twentieth century, he felt was “hum buggery.”
He also opposed Rural Free Delivery because he felt it would be another government agency that would prevent the individual citizen from doing for themselves.
Being in opposition to any of these issues wouldn’t be out-of-the-way for the average citizen but on reflection it was a little odd for the editor of the leading farm magazine in the U.S. in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
Wilmer Atkinson founded the “Farm Journal” in March of 1877. He edited it and set its policy for the next forty years. It is still published one hundred thirty-five years later. Atkinson’s idea was to print an agriculturally-related monthly magazine for the “practical, not fancy farmer.” ... “Those within a day’s drive of Philadelphia.” Firm in his convictions and opinions, he was somewhat surprised that within a short time farmers outside that day’s drive boundary, were clamoring for the periodical. Soon the mailing list extended far beyond Philadelphia to other states and territories.
Farmers were somewhat puzzled by the magazine because until they’d read it, they hadn’t realized that they had needed it. That their needs were being addressed by someone other than themselves. And so comprehensively. The editors and writers were so well-informed about their subjects—and wrote on their level so they could understand the contents and put them to use.
The first printing was 25,000. The yearly subscription was 25¢, a surprising amount today. If the reader received a magazine and wanted to continue getting the publication, he should send the money to the office address on Sansom Street in Philadelphia or give it to the local postmaster would forward it to the publisher stationed at the “Saturday Evening Post building,” street above. Of course, the “Post” as most called it, had been on the news stands for decades already a popular periodical with non-fiction and fiction stories with many illustrations by famous artists and authors of the day. It faded eventually.
At the time of the introduction of the “Farm Journal,” farming was about to undergo the greatest changes it could possibly have made in thousands of years ... Oxen had been the power ahead of the plow until into the nineteenth century when horsepower became the way energy for farm implements was measured. Crude reapers and binders had been developed and every neighborhood had an inventor so they steadily improved and other labor-saving machinery came onto the market. The Farm Journal reflected all those changes that also included new seeds that swelled crop production and breeds of livestock were being improved as “agriculturalists” learned more about why and how.
Atkinson had definite standards and rules. He being called “paternalistic,” kept his hand on every facet of the magazine, emphasizing “Fair Play.” He couldn’t tolerate cheats of cheapness, procrastination or Socialism! His firm guidance even extended to what advertisers were allowed in the “Journal.” He screened all ads and vowed to make good on any product that hadn’t lived up to the promise made. He was particularly on the lookout for swindlers and for products that were useless or harmful to readers.
Mr. Atkinson encouraged readers to try new inventions or produce their own. Many a seed brand or livestock breed had its beginning because they’d appeared in some form in the pages of the “Farm Journal.” A great exchange of information was made in those days between editor and writers, and the readers. Subscribers and editor were rewarded with new ideas and techniques that otherwise would have gone unnoticed and untried. “Now is the Time To ...” was a popular monthly column that persisted into the modern era and ceased only when the magazine became business centered.
While Wilmer Atkinson was open to changes in agriculture and new information, there were some things that originally he refused to budge to accept; such as agriculture schools that he felt were too expensive and a cushion for their professors who might be able to write and teach but could they farm? As time passed he did become more lenient in studying their experiments and analyses. Helpful and time saving.
AS for the issues that were mentioned at the beginning of this article, his opposition to barbed wire as being too expensive, use of it caused him to relent because of how long it lasted and how easily obtained and installed. Those features told him by users/readers. He had no trouble saying he’d been wrong.
Dialogue surrounding Rural Free Delivery covered the fact that he felt another government agency would take away freedoms that Americans did not need to surrender.
Debates raged in the pages of the “Journal” until he was convinced that rural mail patrons should have RFD as well as urban patrons. As a result of that need becoming obvious to him, he and the “Journal” worked diligently for rural delivery and helped greatly in passage of the laws making it possible. He could turn his thinking upside-down if it was good for “Our Folks,” as he called his readers.
Perhaps there was no editor as close to his readers as Wilmer Atkinson, despite his seemingly gruff demeanor.
He had vowed from the first that the “Farm Journal” never be a vehicle to promote one political party over another, but some of the issues he argued for or against were strongly political such as striving for minimum wage, private property, taxation of millionaires, woman’s suffrage and the Grange, this despite that he earlier was strongly opposed to farmers organizing “self interest” groups which was the backbone of granges, alliances and leagues.
He was strongly against trusts and monopolies and opposed the Department of Agriculture becoming a cabinet office for fear it become too easily partisan for patronage. Lastly, he urged strong restrictions on immigration.
The material here was gleaned from a book written in 1977 by various of its editors and writers to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the periodical. It included the entire first issue of Farm Journal whose front page is used here. Like successive issues it featured new or extensive information about some farm-related interest, this one strawberries and sheep husbandry. It introduced a new berry, Essex Beauty, and three conditions necessary in sheep raising. Each issue had such specialties. All ages were considered in Farm Journal, women and children also. It is pointed out that the pages of “Farm Journal” strongly reflect the times in which it was re-published.
Atkinson may have been a bit naive despite his paternalistic attitude and “Let’s get it done.” His standards and disciplines tied around a futuristic slant in which to find foundation and boundaries was how the nation has succeeded. He saw that the farm was often passed on generation to generation and that called for a continuum of some carrying on of traditions and limits within which it was easier to work.
Wilmer Atkinson, editor of “Farm Journal,” and its founder, retired in 1917, after forty years. It was the cusp of another vast change in the field of agriculture, horsepower now beginning to give over to motorized machinery, hybrids and mixed breeds as never before. For centuries, farming had been “a way of life,” but now it steadily became a business, big business, as it turns out. Mechanized machinery of every size and sort became the norm and when we see draft horses pulling a plow, it’s quaint. Little do we realize the steps in between yesterday and tomorrow. Agriculture is a close-up view.
Next Week ... Changes after Wilmer Atkinson’s retirement.