Wilson Hall Namesake: James "Tama Jim" Wilson
"He was a most valuable public servant." ~ President William McKinely
"He was a canny Scot, a delightful associate, thoughtful, genial, and thoroughly loyal." ~ President William Howard Taft
"He was one of the finest teachers that it has ever been my privilege to listen to." ~ George Washington Carver
James Wilson (1835-1920) was born August 16, 1835 in Ayrshire, Scotland, the oldest of 14 children. The family emigrated to the U.S. in 1851, settling in Connecticut, but moved to a farm near Traer in Tama County, Iowa in 1855.
During his early years in Iowa, Wilson tended to his family farm and was taught to read by his father. When he wasn't needed on the farm, he attended school and worked in local flour and saw mills. He later taught school for a year before attending Grinnell College for a short time, after which he returned to Traer and established his own farmstead. When his brother Peter fought in the Civil War, Wilson also farmed his land. In 1863, Wilson married Esther Wilbur, and they had seven children.
Wilson was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives in 1867 and served as Speaker from 1870-1871. In 1872 he was elected to Congress. It was here he was given the nickname "Tama Jim" to distinguish him from Senator James Falconer Wilson ("Jefferson Jim"), also from Iowa. When in Congress he served on the Committee on Agriculture and the Rules Committee.
In 1885, at the close of the forty-eighth Congress, Republicans were filibustering to prevent Wilson's unseating. At the same time, friends of General Grant, who was on his deathbed, were trying to pass a bill restoring Grant's Lieutenant General Rank. The Democrats refused to consider the Grant bill until the issue of the Iowa Senate seat was resolved. Wilson asked the Republicans to end the filibuster so the Grant bill could be voted on while Grant still lived. Wilson was unseated, but it was recognized that he had sacrificed his place to honor a great soldier, earning him the respect of many. Upon his retirement from Congress in 1885, Wilson returned to his family farm and wrote for the Iowa Homestead and other farm journals.
From 1891 to 1897 Wilson was a Professor of Agriculture and Director of the Experiment Station (later know as the Dean of Agriculture) at Iowa State College. It was during this time at Iowa State that Wilson established a close relationship with George Washington Carver. Carver regularly attended a Sunday school class taught by Wilson, Wilson often invited Carver to the family farm in Traer, Carver frequently accompanied Wilson on lecture tours and the two often discussed the application of plant genetics principles to improving livestock. Wilson's home while at Iowa State, The Farm House (Knapp-Wilson House), was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1964.
From 1897 to 1913, Wilson served as Secretary of Agriculture under three presidents (McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft). His time as Secretary is known as a period of modernization of agricultural methods and some historians consider Wilson the greatest of all who have held the position. During his tenure, the Department of Agriculture extended its activities and established the U.S. as a world leader in agricultural science; the number of U.S.D.A employees grew from 2,400 to 11,000; the agricultural balance of trade grew from $23 million to $425 million; the value of farm products expanded over 200%; the number of American farms grew from 4.6 million to 6.1 million. One of Wilson's main concerns was to make America self-sufficient agriculturally. He promoted silk production as well as the growth of sugar beets, tobacco, tea, and rice. Wilson introduced high-yielding Durum wheat, helped re-establish the Morgan breed of horse, encouraged new breeds of hens and introduced new varieties of alfalfa.
Wilson was pivotal in enhancing food inspections; improving rural roads; expanding weather forecasting; establishing experimental fields and laboratories stations throughout the U.S; developing programs in agricultural economics, farm credit, soil conservation, irrigation, insect pest control and reforestation; and beginning the building of the U.S.D.A. complex.
After leaving office, Wilson once again retired to his home farm in Traer, Iowa where he died on August 26, 1920. Wilson was an unusual combination of accomplished educator, shrewd politician, and gifted organizer. President Warren Harding once asserted that except for his Scottish birth he would almost certainly have become president of the United States.