Iowa History
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Iowa History

The Legacy of ‘Tama Jim’ Wilson

With Tom Vilsack’s return as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and the 25th anniversary of the Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area, we recognize Iowans’ unprecedented leadership in American agriculture.

Five Iowans have led the U.S. Department of Agriculture since its founding in 1862. That’s more than any other state, and their collective leadership has influenced food production throughout the world. James Wilson, Edwin T. Meredith, the father and son duo of Henry C. Wallace and Henry A. Wallace, and Tom Vilsack have shaped policies for agriculture, conservation, rural life, food and nutrition programs, and much more.

(State Historical Society of Iowa)

Wilson, in fact, was so effective that he led the USDA through three presidential administrations — those of William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft — and set a record as the longest continuously serving cabinet official in history, from 1897 through 1913. He may be the most significant USDA secretary to date.

Wilson was born in Scotland in 1835, the oldest of 14 children, and learned from his father how to grow crops and raise livestock in less than ideal conditions. He was 16 when his family came to America and just 20 when the Wilson family moved to the rich farmland of Iowa’s Tama County. After a year of college, he returned to help on the family farm, worked at the local mills and eventually served three terms in the Iowa House.

In 1873, Wilson was elected to the U.S. House and got the nickname “Tama Jim” to distinguish him from another Iowan in Congress, “Jefferson Jim” Wilson of Jefferson County. “Tama Jim” Wilson was re-elected in 1875, served on the Agriculture Committee and sponsored the bill that elevated the USDA to the cabinet. He returned to Iowa for a stint at Iowa State College Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) before returning to Washington, D.C., to serve as agriculture secretary.

Wilson followed two rules in leading the USDA: Find the best markets for farm products, and instruct and encourage farmers to produce the commodities those markets desired. Under his leadership, the number of USDA employees grew from 2,400 to more than 10,000. Trade skyrocketed from $23 million to almost $425 million. The value of farm products increased more than 200 percent. And the number of farms grew from 4.6 million to 6.1 million.

In one way or another, Wilson’s work has touched every American life in the years since and has helped us understand that farming is a science. He supported the Food and Drug Act of 1906, meat inspection laws, farm-to-market roads, conservation methods, and research and cooperative extension in agriculture. He inaugurated farm credit programs, expanded weather forecasting, encouraged new breeds of chickens to increase egg production, mapped soil types — and so much more.

Today, the historic contributions of Wilson and other agricultural innovators are recognized in the Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area, which spans 37 counties in Iowa’s northeast quadrant. It’s the only National Heritage Area in Iowa and one of just 55 across the country, which are in partnership with the National Park Service to preserve America’s naturally important landscapes.

This year Silos & Smokestacks celebrates 25 years of sharing the story of American agriculture — past and present — through a network of historic sites, museums and farms. You can learn more about “Tama Jim” Wilson at the Traer Historical Museum in his hometown and discover much more at the other Silos & Smokestacks sites.

— Candy Welch-Streed, director of partnerships for the Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area and former member of the State Historical Society of Iowa Board of Trustees. This essay is one of a series during Iowa History Month, in March, and the commemoration of Iowa’s 175th Anniversary, throughout 2021.

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