National Historic Landmark

Connecticut Agriculture Experiment Station

Osborne Library, 123 Huntington Street, 1882-83.

Osborne Library, 123 Huntington Street, 1882-83.

In 1875 the State of Connecticut created the first state agricultural experiment station. Ever since its establishment the station has remained a leader of its kind and has made notable contributions to American agricultural development. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964.

Within 20 years after its establishment the station had assumed the responsibility of administering a state food law, the first institution of its kind to do so. Additional important contributions to both Connecticut farmers and agriculture in general were work on amino acids in the human diet, and the discovery of vitamins by the station's scientists, as well as significant developments in tobacco production, hybrid corn, pest control and soil and water improvement.

The station did not secure a permanent home for several years. It was initially housed in a building at Wesleyan University and then moved to space in Yale University's Sheffield Scientific School. In 1882-83 Connecticut purchased a small estate on Huntington Avenue in New Haven where the station still has its headquarters.

The station's oldest building is Osborne Library, erected in 1882-83. Generally believed to be the country's first structure built for a state agricultural experiment station, the library is a one-story brick building. It is now only one of several buildings amid the greenhouses and gardens of the six acre station.

Connecticut's founding of an agricultural experiment station largely stemmed from the work of one man, Professor Wilbur Olin Atwater. Atwater helped to found the science of agricultural chemistry in America, and his doctoral thesis of 1869 on the chemical composition of maize remains a landmark. In it, Atwater discussed for the first time in this country the possible advantages of applying the results of advances in chemistry to agricultural undertakings. Subsequently, after he had become a professor at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Atwater stimulated a widespread interest in agricultural chemistry. Atwater's position was strengthened in 1872 after a convention of individuals in Washington, D.C., concerned with farming advocated the creation of agricultural experiment stations throughout the United States.

Atwater's struggle to move Connecticut to establish an agricultural experiment station began in 1873 and culminated successfully in 1875. When the State board of agriculture held its winter meeting in December, 1873, at Meridan, Atwater argued for the development of an institute devoted to the study and practical application of agricultural chemistry, basing his scheme on similar institutions in Europe with which he was familiar. A committee was appointed to study Atwater's suggestion, and after it had returned a favorable report, a permanent committee was created. That group had the task of stimulating public and legislative support for an agricultural station. Numerous meetings occurred throughout Connecticut in 1874, and a great deal of enthusiasm for the plan was aroused, in almost everyone but the farmers. The great body of the farmers, perhaps too concerned with their own problems, displayed small interest in the scheme. Nevertheless, a bill calling for the establishment of an experiment station was introduced in the State legislature in 1874. That was a herald of things to come, even though legislators failed to act on the measure.

Although temporarily denied success, the proponents of the measure triumphed in 1874. In an effort to secure state action, a private offer was made to help the contemplated station if the state would authorize it. Thus on July 2, 1874, the legislature approved a bill creating a station, and by October personnel had been hired. Atwater became the director.

Since Atwater saw his plan become a reality, the Connecticut agricultural station has been an outstanding success. Atwater immediately began to study fertilizer in 1875 and quickly produced standards concerning the quality of commercially manufactured fertilizers. These standards became the basis for the state's efforts to eliminate fraud in fertilizer production, the results of the analysis of fertilizer purchased on the open market appearing in print.

After using facilities at Wesleyan University on a trial basis for two years, Atwater and others recommended administrative changes and drafted a bill to establish a permanent station, independent of other institutions. The revised arrangement was approved by the State in 1877 and this statute created the Connecticut State Agricultural Experiment Station, to be governed by a board of control and financed by a continuing annual appropriation of $5,000 from the state treasury. The state charter severed organic connection with a university and specifically assigned to the station a single duty: the conduct of "scientific investigation and experiments."

The new governing board immediately acted to put the statute into effect. It ended the Middletown experiment facility, elected Samuel Johnson, Atwater's former mentor, to the directorship, and leased temporary quarters at Sheffield. These were occupied until 1882 when the state legislature authorized purchase of a small estate, with buildings adaptable for laboratories, in suburban New Haven.

Johnson advocated a suburban site for the Connecticut station, rather than a model farm. There, the necessary facilities for research could be concentrated in a limited area. There also, the scientists could use the laboratory, library, greenhouses and test plot, while being near to the important facilities of the mail, telegraph, express offices and public utilities.

The station was founded on the principle that publication of results of analysis of fertilizer samples purchased on the open market was the most effective deterrent to fraud and deception in this area. The idea was soon extended to many fields. Since 1895, station chemists have analyzed food and drug samples and published the results for consumers to make their judgment and comparisons. The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station was the first institution of its kind in the country to be given the responsibility of administering a State food law.

The turn of the century saw no lessening of the station's valuable work. Research by station personnel led to the development of the shade tent for tobacco in 1900, a success which stimulated the rise of an important crop venture in the Connecticut Valley. Another striking accomplishment came from the work of Thomas B. Osborne, whose study established the significance of amino acids in the human diet. Moreover, Osborne, in conjunction with Lafayette B. Mendel, of Yale, discovered vitamins. Additional important discoveries have come from the station, such as the devising of a new method of producing corn seed and studies that led to the development of hybrid corn.

The importance of the agricultural experiment station, conducted as a scientific institution, was confirmed by the early work at New Haven, and its influence extended throughout the United States.

The following structures are currently located on the six acre station grounds:

Osborne Library, erected in 1882-83, the year the station bought the property, is the oldest building. Thought to be the nation's first structure erected for a state agricultural experiment station, the library is a small, one-story brick building with cross gables and black brick decorations over the arched windows and in imitation belt courses at three levels across the exterior walls. When Atwater used the building it was a chemical laboratory. It then had a number of chimneys which have been removed, and the small front portico is a recent addition. Otherwise the exterior is quite unchanged, while the interior has been remodeled for library use.

Johnson Laboratory, named for the station's first director, is the second oldest building, currently housing the chemistry laboratories. It is a two story, L-shaped brick structure with remarkably large brackets supporting the wide eaves of the hipped roof.

In addition there are four buildings of secondary importance:

Jones Auditorium, a brick building used for lectures and laboratories, was constructed as a Works Progress Administration project during the 1930's, and has a more recent north wing.

Slate Laboratory, a brick building constructed in 1959, contains the administrative offices for the station, but primarily laboratories of the genetics, soils and ecology units.

Jenkins Laboratory, another twentieth century structure houses plant pathology and entomology laboratories.

Britten Laboratory area is a group of buildings of a more temporary nature, mostly shops and utility buildings.


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Johnson Laboratory, 123 Huntington Street. c. 1890s.

Johnson Laboratory, 123 Huntington Street. c. 1890s.

Johnson Laboratory, 123 Huntington Street. c. 1890s.

Johnson Laboratory, 123 Huntington Street. c. 1890s.

Jones Auditorium, 123 Huntington Street. c. 1930s.

Jones Auditorium, 123 Huntington Street. c. 1930s.