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UC Davis Centennial
100 years of service, solutions, impact
Photo: Peter J. Shields

Peter J. Shields, "father of the farm"

Looking Back

On becoming UC Davis

Get ready to celebrate. UC Davis marked a 100-year milestone March 18 — not of its birth but its conception. On that day in 1905, Gov. George Pardee signed into law an act to establish a university farm school for the University of California.

The new law also created a commission to pick the site and appropriated $150,000 to buy the land, setting into motion a furious competition among more than 70 communities around the state vying for the University Farm.

It would be more than a year before that commission, after crisscrossing the state, selected a tiny town then known as Davisville. In 1908-09, the first students arrived.

In coming issues, Dateline UC Davis, the campus's faculty-staff newspaper, will mark some of the key events and dates leading up to the centennial anniversary of the opening of the University Farm School. In addition, a new centennial Web site is in the works.

As more eyes begin to focus on UC Davis' past, it becomes clear that a combination of people and social forces were behind the campaign to establish the new school for agricultural instruction and research. But, in a way, you could say it all went back to butter — and the namesake of UC Davis' general library, Peter J. Shields.

Shields, father of the Farm

Shields was a Sacramento judge, breeder of prize Jersey cows, past secretary of the California State Agricultural Society and a supporter of agricultural education. He would become known as the "father of the Farm."

According to Ann Scheuring's campus history, Abundant Harvest, Shields got into a discussion with William Saylor, California's first dairy chemist, about the grading of butter at the State Fair, the science of butter making and what they saw as a need for a school to improve farming in California.

Historian and former state librarian Kevin Starr calls the establishment of the University Farm at Davis 'one of the greatest legacies of the Progressive Era.'

The dairy industry, facing demands for large-scale butter production for California's growing urban areas, became a major supporter of the campaign to establish a farm school away from the coastal climate at the University of California's founding Berkeley campus.

With the backing of a newly created dairy operators association, Shields wrote unsuccessful bills in 1901 and 1903 that would have established a state dairy school — the first in Kings County and the second in Yolo County.

Third try was the charm

His third try in 1905 — which expanded the proposed farm school beyond dairy instruction — was the charm. Despite concerns of some UC administrators about dividing the agricultural college between Berkeley and the new, second location, the bill passed.

It was the height of the Progressive Era. That same year, Albert Einstein formulated his theory of special relativity. Theodore Roosevelt was president. Mass production of automobiles was just getting underway. The Wright brothers built Flyer III, the first practical aircraft, though there was still widespread public disbelief in their flights. A first-class postage stamp costs 2 cents.

The Panama Canal was under construction. Mata Hari debuted as an exotic dancer in Paris and a barefoot Isadora Duncan was revolutionizing modern dance. Jules Verne died. Jack London published White Fang. Norway gained independence from Sweden. The Russo-Japanese War ended and Japan was emerging as a power. Russian troops fired on a protest march, killing or injuring 1,000 people on "Bloody Sunday."

Yolo backers enter the fray

Meanwhile, in California, Yolo County backers of a new ag school had entered the fray. A group of Yolo County farmers and business owners had persuaded Shields to make a last-minute change in the bill to require that the land have an irrigation system or water rights already in place. It was no coincidence that one of the bill's two co-authors was a Yolo County senator.

Nine days after the bill was signed into law, the Sacramento Union newspaper endorsed the Davisville site as "absolutely the nearest point to Berkeley which possesses all the requisites."

A newly organized Davisville Chamber of Commerce — led by two UC-educated neighbor farmers George Pierce Jr. and Jacob "Gene" LaRue — began promoting the site with a pamphlet titled "An Ideal Spot for a University Farm." Besides fertile soil, the pamphlet lauded the area for its temperate climate, plentiful water, low taxes, good roads, train service, proximity to Berkeley and Sacramento, "13 incoming and 13 outgoing mails each day," two telephone systems and two telegraph offices.

Historian and former state librarian Kevin Starr, in a forward to Abundant Harvest, calls the establishment of the University Farm at Davis "one of the greatest legacies of the Progressive Era."

"The University Farm expressed the Progressive ideal that science and engineering were not merely speculative arenas," Starr wrote, "but were also instruments by which the world could be improved."

Kathleen Holder is associate editor of UC Davis Magazine.

Take a look back at UC Davis' history