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University of Minnesota Agricultural Extension Service, 1917–1919

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Black and white photograph of young bakers participating in a bread-making demonstration at the 1918 Minnesota State Fair.

Young bakers participate in a bread-making demonstration at the Minnesota State Fair, 1918.

The University of Minnesota Agricultural Extension Service was the first state agency to respond to the urgent food conservation needs of World War I. Extension director Archie Dell (A. D.) Wilson and other staff worked throughout the war to provide guidance, information, persuasion, and recipes to farmers and homemakers across Minnesota. Their efforts helped preserve the food that would win the “war to end all wars.”

The United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917. Less than a week later, University of Minnesota Extension Service director A. D. Wilson announced steps farmers could take to produce more wheat and other grains. Most of Minnesota’s farmers had not yet planted for the 1917 harvest. As a result, they were able to shift their crops to those best suited to war needs.

Before the end of April, Minnesota Governor J. A. A. Burnquist named Wilson to head the state’s Committee on Food Production and Conservation, also called the Food Committee. Technically, this group was a division of the statewide Minnesota Commission of Public Safety (MCPS), which oversaw all wartime activities. In practice, however, Wilson independently took the lead on agricultural issues, including home food conservation. Later, he became the federal food coordinator for the state.

The Extension Service was essential to the war effort. Persuasion and information went hand-in-hand in this voluntary program, which both taught Minnesotans that “food could win the war” and gave them the skills to do it. Wilson and Extension staff showed citizens how to limit consumption, change cooking and eating practices, and eliminate waste to meet this challenge.

Wilson, following the lead of U.S. Food Administration head Herbert Hoover, framed his appeals as calls for voluntary cooperation. Working to enlist the help of every Minnesotan, Wilson encouraged those who had an abundance of food to practice self control and share.

Increasing the food supply was a pressing goal. Food production in the farms of America’s European Allies had slowed significantly since the war began in August 1914. Now American farming and food distribution needs would change, too.

Citizens were called upon to share nutrient-dense foods that shipped well—wheat, meat, sugar, and fats—with the nation’s hungry Allies. Additionally, over the next eighteen months, the United States drafted an estimated 2.7 million men into military service. Among them were more than seventy-nine thousand Minnesotans. This shift of population from cities and farms to army camps required a shift of foods from the nation’s kitchens to the army camps as well.

In the first days of U.S. involvement, University of Minnesota home economists Mildred Weigley, Joan Muir Dorsey, and Mable McDowell began developing bread recipes that used alternative flours and grains to stretch the wheat supply. After six weeks’ work, the Extension Service published recipes that taught homemakers from Duluth to Worthington how to use unfamiliar products such as rice and barley flour. These tips became the basis for wheat conservation guides distributed across the nation by the U.S. Food Administration. Minnesota home economists also devised recipes for the best ways to substitute nuts, vegetables, and cottage cheese for meat.

In these days before television and radio, Extension news services used diverse tactics to persuade and inform Minnesotans. They distributed recipes and crop- and garden-growing advice through news releases to newspapers across the state. They hired agents to work in the counties, offering guidance for novice gardeners. Extension home economists demonstrated conservation recipes and the newest and best ways to preserve garden surpluses by canning or drying them. Teenaged members of the Boys and Girls Club, an Extension-supported precursor to the 4-H, showed how to bake wheat-saving Liberty Bread at the 1917 and 1918 Minnesota State Fairs.

In October 1917, the need to conserve food resources became more urgent. Hoover called for meatless and wheatless meals. By February 1918, families across the nation were asked to make major changes. Of the twenty-one meals served each week, only three were completely unrestricted. The remaining eighteen were wheatless, meatless, or both.

All Minnesotans were urged to join in the effort. In November and December 1917, Wilson made weekly trips up to the freezing North Woods lumber camps. There, he promoted food conservation with lumberjacks and their cooks. Camp cooks traveled to take special conservation cooking classes on the University of Minnesota campus.

As a result of Wilson’s persuasion and on-campus training, the camps observed meatless days. Wheat flour usage dropped from twenty-six pounds per man per month to fourteen and a half pounds. In the summer of 1918, lumberjacks, like many other Minnesotans, began growing their own vegetables. They, too, replaced meat and wheat dishes with abundant garden goods on their dinner plates.

During the eighteen months when the United States was at war with Germany (from April 6, 1917, to November 11, 1918), the U.S. Food Administration adjusted food conservation goals. The revisions reflected changes in the needs of our troops and allies and the foods that were in shortage or abundance. The situation was remarkably fluid. For example, through the early days of the war, potatoes were in short supply. It was “unpatriotic” to eat bacon. By spring 1918, however, when supplies had increased, cooks welcomed bacon and potatoes to their tables as food conservation heroes.

The Extension sponsored pig-growing clubs for youth living on farms. During the 1917 growing season, Wilson and other Extension experts advised novice potato growers on how to raise healthy crops. The division acted as a clearinghouse for data about what was planted and how well the crops were doing. As harvest time neared, they suggested the best way to bring them to market. By the fall of 1918, the Extension was sharing recipes across the state to assure that every spud “could be a soldier.” Potatoes stood in for wheat and meat, appearing at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and even in desserts.

Wilson praised the people of Minnesota for their efforts. Their work, he said, “put the war food efforts over the top.” During 1918, Minnesotans diverted thirty-six million pounds of sugar. Hotels and restaurants saved more than five million pounds of meat. As to the increase of war-vital crops, Wilson reported that Minnesota farms produced more food in 1918 than in any other year in the state’s history.

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  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Chrislock, Carl. Watchdog of Loyalty: The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety During World War I. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1991.

Dickson, Maxcy Robson. The Food Front in World War I. Washington, DC: American Council on Public Affairs, 1944.

Eighmey, Rae Katherine. Food Will Win the War: Minnesota Crops, Cooks, and Conservation during World War I. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010.

“Lumberjacks Attend Food Training Program.” University Farm Press News, December 12, 1917.

Minnesota Commission of Public Safety main files, 1917–1919
Minnesota Commission of Public Safety
State Archives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/gr00954.xml
Description: The food conservation bulletins folder contains posters, pamphlets, issues of Minnesota Farm Review, circulars, etc., distributed by the Committee of Food Production and Conservation.

Minnesota Federal Food Administration and State Food Conservation Committee records, 1917–1919
Minnesota Federal Food Administration and State Food Conservation Committee
State Archives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
https://mplus.mnpals.net/vufind/Record/001704152
Description: The collection contains the files of Mildred Weigley, home economics director of the Minnesota Federal Food Administration and chairman of the State Food Conservation Committee.

“Minnesota’s Wilson Tours Lumber Camps.” Bemidji Daily Pioneer, December 11, 1917.

Mullendore, William C. History of the United States Food Administration, 1917–1919. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1941.

UARC 935
University of Minnesota Extension records, 1858–1996, 2003 (bulk 1917–1985)
University Archives, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
Description: The collection contains the letters of A.D. Wilson, the Extension Service’s director from 1912 until 1920.

Records of Governor J.A.A. Burnquist, 1915–1927 (bulk 1915–1921)
State Archives Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/gov033.xml
Description: General correspondence, telegrams, subject files on public policy matters, files on state departments and agencies, organizations files, and materials relating to pardons and tax-forfeited property.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of young bakers participating in a bread-making demonstration at the 1918 Minnesota State Fair.
Black and white photograph of young bakers participating in a bread-making demonstration at the 1918 Minnesota State Fair.
Black and white photograph of 4-H Potato Club members Alvin Tofte, Andrew Tofte, and Hjalmar Tofte in 1918.
Black and white photograph of 4-H Potato Club members Alvin Tofte, Andrew Tofte, and Hjalmar Tofte in 1918.
Color poster printed by Frank P. Kaltenbach Company during World War I, c.1917.
Color poster printed by Frank P. Kaltenbach Company during World War I, c.1917.
Color poster promoting food conservation printed by Forbes Lithographers in Boston, Massachusetts,c .1918.
Color poster promoting food conservation printed by Forbes Lithographers in Boston, Massachusetts,c .1918.
Black and white photograph of members of the Boys and Girls Club participating in a canning demonstration, 1920.
Black and white photograph of members of the Boys and Girls Club participating in a canning demonstration, 1920.

Turning Point

In the first week of April 1917, the United States enters the war against Germany. Staff members of the University of Minnesota Agricultural Extension Service, under the leadership of A. D. Wilson, realize the responsibility to help the state and its people contribute to the war effort.

Chronology

August 1914

World War I begins in Europe. French, English, and Belgian soldiers engage in protracted trench warfare against German troops along the northern border of France.

January 1915

William Edgar of Minneapolis, publisher of Northwestern Miller magazine, accompanies a shipment of tons of Midwestern flour to Europe.

Early 1917

Germany declares unconditional submarine warfare, threatening to sink all ships in the north Atlantic. Between February 1 and the middle of March, German U-boats sink 210 ships. The sinking of the U.S. steamship Healdton kills thirteen seamen.

March 1917

In his second inaugural address, President Woodrow Wilson declares that there can be no turning back from the war in Europe. Wilson and Herbert Hoover discuss Hoover’s role as voluntary leader of what will become the U.S. Food Administration.

April 6, 1917

The United States declares war against Germany.

April 12, 1917

A. D. Wilson, director of the University of Minnesota Agricultural Extension Service, issues a press release outlining steps to increase farm yields in the state.

April 15, 1917

President Wilson calls for all Americans to become citizen soldiers, challenging the nation to supply abundant food for citizens and our armies as well as for overseas allies.

Mid-to-late April 1917

Minnesota Governor J. A. A. Burnquist appoints a twenty-nine-member committee to develop ways to increase food production and conservation. A. D. Wilson is named the head of the Food Committee.

April 21, 1917

A. D. Wilson sends out a press release saying that Minnesota’s agricultural industries are being organized as never before to increase food production and conservation.

June 5, 1917

All men between twenty-one and thirty-one register for the U.S. Army draft. The first men are called up for service in July and report for service in September.

Summer 1917

University Extension Service home economists develop waste- and wheat-saving recipes that are distributed via weekly press releases to newspapers across the state.

Summer 1917

University of Minnesota home economics demonstrators conduct food training sessions for canning and new wheat- and meat-conserving recipes across the state.

October 1917

Significant, yet voluntary, food restrictions begin with the introduction of meatless and wheatless meals.

April 1918

Restrictions begin to lift on specific food measures, but Americans are urged to continue to reduce food waste.

November 11, 1918

The fighting in Europe ends with an armistice signed between France, England, the United States, and Germany.