I joined the faculty of Syracuse University in 1975. I was surprised to learn that my institution once had a farm and hopes for a college of agriculture.
To my chagrin, I learned that my school lost out to Cornell back in 1904 when Liberty Hyde Bailey (1858-1954) bested Syracuse University’s Chancellor James R. Day in getting legislation passed in Albany to provide Cornell with state funding for an agricultural school.
Syracuse ended up with a state-designated School of Forestry in 1911. Having a passion for all things agricultural, I thought it a poor exchange, though our forestry faculty did not. Bailey, designated the Dean of the College of Agriculture at Cornell in 1903, is said to have hung a picture of Chancellor Day in his office and in jest attached the tag line: “The Founder of the State College of Agriculture at Cornell University.” Using a horse drawn plow, Bailey broke ground for Cornell’s new agricultural college on May 1, 1905.
I once made a pilgrimage to the boyhood home of Liberty Hyde Bailey at 903 Bailey Avenue, South Haven on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. That was at a time when I was wishing that it would have been wonderful to have gone to Cornell and sit at the feet of Dean Bailey. Even now it is difficult to capture the all-comprehending brilliance of the man who is known as the “Father of American Horticulture” and for so much else. An exhibition created at Cornell University in Bailey’s honor was appropriately called, “A Man for All Seasons.”
The exhibition sponsors resorted to a lengthy list of descriptors to try to capture the genius of Liberty Hyde Bailey: “botanist, horticulturalist, plant breeder, traveler and plant explorer, outstanding teacher, astute and successful administrator, lobbyist, rural sociologist, prolific writer and superb editor, environmentalist, philosopher, photographer, poet, and visionary.” In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Bailey chair of The Country Life Commission, a national agency designed to study and improve rural life.
Bailey as Prolific Author and Legendary Horticulturist
More than two hundred books bear Bailey’s name as author or editor. He wrote over a thousand articles, cyclopedia entries, and academic papers. Many years ago, I began an attempt to collect Baileyana, only to discover that the task was herculean. Several shelves in my library testify to his passionate concern for the welfare of American farmers.
I own a well-used four-volume set of the Cyclopedia of American Agriculture that Bailey edited. The MacMillan Company published it in 1909. Someone placed several botanical specimens in the volume on Farms. Bailey was a world-renowned botanist and the author of many classics on horticulture. He would certainly be able to identify the mystery pressed specimens.
George P. Brett, president of The MacMillan Publishing Company held Bailey in such high esteem that the executive once told Bailey that he should inform the press when he had the title of a new book in mind. The publisher would immediately issue him a contract. A prodigious researcher, Bailey was the world’s leading expert on palms. The Bailey Herbarium at Cornell, which he donated to the University in 1935 and directed until 1951, became one of the largest collections of preserved plant material in North America.
Bailey developed his talents to observe, classify, and understand the natural world at an early age. Born on March 15th, 1858, on a farm at South Haven, Michigan, Liberty Hyde Bailey, Jr., spent much of his childhood collecting plants and studying them. While yet a schoolboy, Bailey became an expert at grafting cultivars and delivered talks on apple trees to the South Haven Pomological Society.
In September 1878, at the age of nineteen, Bailey enrolled in Michigan’s State Agriculture College, a school founded in 1855 at East Lansing as a land-grant institution and a model for future land-grant colleges authorized by President Abraham Lincoln in the Morrill Act of 1862. Bailey graduated in August 1882 with the Bachelor of Science. Four years later Michigan Agriculture College awarded him the Honorary Master of Science degree. By February 1883 Bailey was working at Harvard as an assistant to Asa Gary, America’s most prominent botanist. By early 1885, Bailey was back in East Lansing teaching horticulture.
Michigan’s Loss, Cornell’s Gain
In late 1887, Cornell invited Bailey to come to Ithaca and deliver a series of lectures. Cornell’s leadership was so impressed that Bailey was offered a professorship of horticulture. Bailey’s long tenure with Cornell began in 1888. Isaac P. Roberts, Professor of Agriculture at Cornell from 1873 to 1903, loved to tell a story of the impression Bailey made. When a special edition of The Cornell Countryman appeared in December 1913, Roberts reminisced about the extraordinary young professor Cornell gained and Michigan lost.
When the authorities of Cornell University, many years ago, wrote to the President of the Agriculture College of Michigan to ask his opinion of Liberty Hyde Bailey, he replied that he scarcely knew what he thought because he had never been able to move fast enough to catch up with him. After Professor Bailey had been a while at Cornell, we came to understand. Here was a young man who did not wait for things to happen-he made them happen. While the frost was still in the ground, he built a forcing house by digging into a clay hillside with a southern exposure and locating his beds over trenches filled with water. He couldn’t wait for the ground thaw; he just laid some planks on stilts and went to work.
Jared Van Wagenen, Jr., a well-known Schoharie County farmer and student of Bailey, also contributed to the festschrift edition of The Cornell Countryman to honor Baily when Bailey stepped down in 1913 from the position of Dean of the College of Agriculture. Van Wagenen gave tribute to Bailey from his standpoint as a farmer. “In remote mountain hamlets,” Van Wagenen said, “hard-handed men from the furrows speak with heartiest admiration his name–not as a horticulturist or even as the head of a great college but rather as the Prophet of the Soil.”
The Man for All Seasons turns 90
On April 29th, 1948, Van Wagenen joined a host of Bailey’s former students, friends, colleagues, and admirers to celebrate the his 90th birthday. The birthday celebration had been scheduled for the previous March, but, as Time magazine put it: “The birthday boy was nowhere around. Liberty Hyde Bailey, when last heard from, was somewhere in the West Indies, wandering through jungles in search of rare plants and palms. And not even his 90th birthday would bring him back from such an expedition.”
One of Bailey’s admirers observed that the good doctor, called “Lib” Bailey by hundreds at Cornell, “like some other kings,” had the right to celebrate his birthday at a time convenient for him.
After being introduced as “par excellence, a dirt farmer,” who was “one of the best exponents of the essentials of the good farm life,” Van Wagenen rose to offer his tribute to Bailey at the 1948 gala. He recalled how nearly six decades earlier he took a course on general horticulture taught by the Master. The class met in a lecture room on the second floor of Morrill Hall.
“At the precise hour the door would open,” Van Wagenen remembered, “and as Bailey’s head and shoulders were through the door, he would begin his lecture. He continued to lecture as he walked to the center of the room as he mounted the foot-high rostrum. Then he turned and faced his students still lecturing, and he would be going strong when his fifty minutes were done. It was the simple, unaffected technique of a man who had many things to say and who felt that the time was all too short.” One of Bailey’s teaching techniques, so the story goes, was to pause in his lecture, look out the window, and then suddenly call out the name of a student and ask, “What do you know today that you did not know the last time we met?”
In 1990 the American Society for Horticultural Science established an international Hall of Fame. The Society inducted its first honorees: Gregor Mendel, the Austrian Augustinian friar who was a pioneer in the field of genetics and Liberty Hyde Bailey, Cornell’s longtime professor and Dean of the College of Agriculture, renowned horticulturalist, and champion of farmers everywhere. Cornell University’s Bailey Hall, a Greek revival edifice built in 1912 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984, honors a true American original.
Bailey once said, “The true purpose of education is to teach a man to carry himself triumphant to the sunset.” He died at his home in Ithaca on Christmas Day 1954 at the age of 96, having carried himself triumphantly into the sunset.
Illustrations from above; “Groundbreaking repeats elements of ’05 ceremony,” Cornell Chronicle; Bailey and his books, Liberty Hyde Bailey Papers, #21-2-3342. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library; Bailey’s boyhood home, https://foundryhall.org/liberty-hyde-bailey-museum/; Portrait of Liberty Hyde Bailey, The World’s Work, XVII, 1 (November1909): 4; Cornell’s Bailey Hall, Wikipedia.