Remembering the Smith-Lever Act

Paul McKenzie, N.C. Cooperative Extension
May. 18, 2014 @ 09:23 AM

Smith-Lever may sound like the name of a company that makes toothpaste and dryer sheets. And while I can’t imagine life without those things (especially dryer sheets!), it’s arguable that Smith-Lever has had a profoundly deeper impact on our daily life.

According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia (georgiaencyclopedia.org), Michael Hoke Smith grew up in Chapel Hill. His father was a professor at some college there (can’t remember the name, probably not important), and essentially “home-schooled” the young lad. Later they moved to Atlanta, Ga., and Michael eventually became a U.S. Senator, serving from 1911 to 1920.

Our southern neighbor was the home of Asbury Francis Lever. The Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress (bioguide.congress.gov) tells us that he graduated law school in 1899 and soon became involved in politics, serving as one of South Carolina’s U.S. Congressional Representatives from 1901 until 1919.

The two must have met for coffee and donuts from time to time, to chat and make plans for some grand piece of legislation which would carry their names and be mentioned in history books. I imagine they ruled out the “Smith Lever Act to Establish the Internet” since moving electrons about on horseback is impractical. They may also have ruled out the “Smith Lever Act to Regulate Young Canadian Pop Stars,” which in hindsight is probably regrettable.

Ultimately, as they sipped on their java, they settled on the “Smith-Lever Act of 1914” which authorized and funded “Cooperative agricultural extension work” and more specifically “giving of instruction and practical demonstrations… in agriculture, home economics, and rural energy, and subjects relating thereto to persons not attending or resident in said colleges in the several communities, and imparting information on said subjects through demonstrations, publications, and otherwise…”

I literally had to pause for a few minutes after typing those words, feeling somewhat overwhelmed by their power. And for once, I’m completely serious.

For 100 years, the Smith-Lever Act has empowered Cooperative Extension to “bring the University to the People.”

All the great research taking place in those ivory towers now had a direct link to communities everywhere, where the information could change peoples lives.

And change them it did. Farmers now had direct access, through their County Extension Agents, to unbiased information on best practices, highest yielding varieties, and pest management. Farm wives received instruction from the home economics agent on food preservation, sewing, furniture-making and other skills that were vital to a family’s financial well-being. Youth were provided hands-on learning opportunities in livestock care and other farm skills through the 4-H program.

Early on, county extension centers also realized the unique role they could play in community development, helping to organize farm commodity groups and small farmers markets.

Today, in the year of our centennial, the county extension center continues to be a primary source for practical, unbiased, research-based information on controlling pests (still no progress on the young Canadian pop star issue, but I hear they are working on a spray), child development, nutrition, food safety and much more.

My research on this topic, however, failed to turn up an answer as to why they settled on “Smith-Lever” and not “Lever-Smith,” but my best guess is a frog jumping contest down the center aisle of Congress. I believe that’s how they normally decide those things.