The News & Observer today has a story about Leonidas LaFayette Polk (above), leader of the Watauga Club, the group that lobbied the state legislature to create NC State in the late 1800s. The former agriculture commissioner’s house opens to the public tonight after 10 years of renovations. Polk, who also was an owner and publisher of The N&O and founder of the Progressive Farmer, was a tireless advocate for farmers:
At war’s end, Polk returned to a scarred South and found penniless farmers and freed slaves without land. In his home county, he founded the town of Polkton and started the Ansonian newspaper as the poor farmer’s voice. This advocacy got him appointed to the new post of agriculture commissioner in 1877 — a job he quit in disgust after a few years. Basically, his family reported, he kept bumping up against moneyed interests that ran counter to his farmers’ agenda.
“Our farmers buy everything to raise cotton, and raise cotton to buy everything,” Polk once said, “and, after going through this treadmill business for years, they lie down and die and leave their families penniless.”
He continued that tone through the Raleigh News, then the Progressive Farmer, and used his political weight to help open both Agricultural and Mechanical College — now N.C. State — and Baptist Female University — now Meredith College. His goal with N.C. State had been to teach farmers the “practical arts,” and he faced fierce opposition from advocates of UNC-Chapel Hill, who feared competition for state dollars.
(Photographs courtesy of Special Collections, NCSU Libraries)