The boom in home radio usage began in the early 1920s. The Department of Commerce issued regulations to control the chaotic spread of radio stations in December of 1921.
A listing from March 10th, 1922, included 67 stations that were officially licensed to use the public airwaves. One of those would become extremely significant in the life of Jared van Wagenen, Jr., a graduate of Cornell University and a farmer who lived at Hillside Farm at Lawyersville (north of Cobleskill) in Schoharie County.
Van Wagenen (1871-1960), though a self-proclaimed “dirt farmer,” was a prolific writer and speaker on all things agricultural. He championed an agricultural civilization where human values were prized over profit.
WGY Broadcasts from Schenectady
The General Electric Company established the WGY station at Schenectady, New York. It went on the air on February 20, 1922. The station had a powerful signal. One listener in Hilo, Hawaii, picked up WGY’s signal in 1922 at a distance of about five thousand miles. I am not a radio geek, even of the kind who as a kid built an old-fashioned solid-state radio from a crystal set. To me, a “cat’s whisker” belongs to a feline and not a fine wire used to adjust radio waves into the audio signal. I don’t even understand what a radio wave is. Yet I remember well how important radio was to farm families in the pre-television and pre-internet days.
Initially, farmer-oriented radio programs commonly gave only market and weather reports with an occasional recipe thrown in for good measure to interest women on farms. My Uncle Charlie listened religiously to the radio in the 1940s and 1950s for market prices of hogs, cattle, and grain. If the hog market was up, my uncle, who had listened to the markets while eating his noon lunch, would hustle us out to load several good-looking porkers into his truck to take to town. Agricultural reformers soon saw great potential for expanding extension services via radio waves. Farm programs also offered entertainment for the young people. The nation’s first full-time farm broad- caster was Frank E. Mullen, an employee of the Stockman and Farmer magazine.
WGY began a program called the “Farm Paper of the Air” in late 1925. The program aired on weekdays at the noon hour when farm families were likely to be in their houses eating their lunches, though one suspects farmers heard the show over radios in their barns as radios became less expensive and more portable and electricity reached farmsteads. WGY also sponsored a program called “Farm Forum” that aired on Friday evenings. Until 1952 when Don Tuttle, the newly hired program manager, asked guest speakers to ad lib, the rule for WGY’s farm programs was “everything from script.”
Jared van Wagenen, Jr. as a “Country Speaker”
Jared van Wagenen, Jr., became one of the “Country Speakers” of the “Farm Paper of the Air” about 1930 and remained a popular voice heard over WGY for nearly three decades. He once characterized his radio talks as “one-sided gossip over the air” because his audience was an invisible and silent one.
Van Wagenen’s radio scripts were not idle blather. They were intelligent, adroitly written, and personable, treating his hearers as worthy participants in an ongoing (though one-sided) conversation about the changes in agriculture that Van Wagenen had experienced in his own life- time and about topics of general interest.
He often wrote about the topics he chose for the “Farm Paper of the Air” in a column he contributed to the American Agriculturalist, thereby extending his influence. At the height of his popularity, Jared van Wagenen, Jr., was the most influential commentator on rural affairs in the Northeast.
Van Wagenen wrote the scripts for his talks on the “Farm Paper of the Air” at home at Hillside Farm, typing them at a desk set up in the dining room. He delivered nearly four hundred of these chats from 1930 to 1959, doing so until a few months before his death. The typescripts of most of Van Wagenen’s radio talks exist today, gathered in large three-ring binders, and kept in the house at Hillside Farm at the northern edge of Lawyersville. When reading the typescripts, I felt as if I were listening to the “Farm Paper of the Air” and hearing the voice of “The Sage of Lawyersville.”
Don Tuttle, the Farm Editor for WGY and its sister station WRGB from 1952 to 1969, captured Van Wagenen’s popularity among his farm audience well in saying that Van Wagenen “combined the unusual talents of both an agricultural humanist and a practical hardworking Schoharie County farmer.”
Though Van Wagenen generally composed topical essays related to rural matters, he often chose to speak about historical subjects. Here is a sampling: “The Grand Old Erie Canal,” “The Story of the Cardiff Giant,” “Old Steamboats on the Hudson River,” “The Story of Johnny Appleseed,” and “A Confederate Cemetery in New York State [at Elmira]”.
Van Wagenen customarily began his radio talks by addressing his listeners as “Good People of the Countryside,” “Good Friends of the Countryside,” or variations thereof. Given the strength and range of WGY’s signal, city dwellers also heard Van Wagenen’s broadcasts. Perhaps they found his talks on historical themes interesting and learned something of the history of Van Wagenen’s beloved Schoharie County.
For example, Van Wagenen told the story of Vroman’s Nose on January 17, 1933. A prominent feature of Schoharie County’s landscape in the Town of Fulton near Middleburgh, this rock outcropping, popular today with hikers and climbers, received its name from Adam Vroman, a Dutch burgher from Schenectady who received a patent in the valley in 1714. I cannot tell you what the good burghers’ nose looked like, but his name has been associated with the peculiar geological formation for nearly three centuries.
“The Sage of Lawyersville”
Van Wagenen’s talks, much like the thirty “fireside chats” given by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt between 1933 and 1944, had a folksy and informal quality to them.
Roosevelt had successfully used radio, specifically WGY, during his two gubernatorial terms in New York State. President Roosevelt stumped for his recovery programs in his “fireside chats,” but he also spoke of drought conditions, the banking crisis, and the progress of the war in Europe.
Like Roosevelt, Van Wagenen made use of the radio to create a sense of community among his listeners, scattered as they were in the homes and coping with both economic and natural disasters during the Great Depression. Carl Carmer, one of the Empire State’s great writers, said of Roosevelt: “I never saw him – but I knew him. Can you have forgotten how, with his voice, he came into our house, the President of these United States, calling us friends?” I believe that Van Wagenen’s hearers also felt that they knew him as a friend even though most never met him.
Jared van Wagenen, Jr., took to the medium of radio in 1930 with some trepidation. He was a gifted writer, well versed in all things agricultural as well as a knowledgeable about a wide range of historical topics. Many years as a Farm Institute speaker as well as countless talks before a variety of community and church groups, gave him the confidence to address a live audience. But sitting before a microphone and talking to an invisible audience over the wireless was a novelty. But he adapted quickly to the radio format and, by all accounts, did an admirable job, even when Don Tuttle was pointing to the clock and telling him that his allotted minutes were rapidly ending.
Nearly a decade ago I was loaned a WGY studio recording of one of Van Wagenen’s talks on “The Farm Paper of the Air” by Martha Ivins, Van Wagenen’s granddaughter. Before listening to it I had read the typewritten scripts of scores of his talks. Then I heard his voice. Only then did I fully understand why so many farm families in the Northeast and beyond turned their radio dials to the WGY frequency to listen to the “Sage of Lawyersville.”
Illustrations, from above: Postcard image of General Electric’s WGY building, Wikimedia Commons; Jared van Wagenen, Jr. giving a “Farm Paper of the Air” broadcast, Van Wagenen Collection, Hillside Farm, Lawyersville, NY; Jared van Wagenen, Jr., at his typewriter in the family home, Van Wagenen Collection, Hillside Farm, Lawyersville, NY.