Levi Stockbridge and UMass

The following is excerpted from a report by Professor Daniel Chard, University of Massachusetts Department of History, who did this study as a graduate student on behalf of Michael Malone, Vice-chancellor for Research and Engagement, August 2012.


Levi Stockbridge: Applied Research and the Origins of UMass

From 1867-1882, Levi Stockbridge (1820-1904) was an ardent spokesperson for Massachusetts Agricultural College (MAC) and the societal benefits of applied research conducted on its campus. During Stockbridge’s tenure on the MAC faculty, the College faced an uncertain future. Throughout the 1870s, MAC President William S. Clark (1826-1886) endured opposition from Massachusetts farmers skeptical of “book learning” and state legislators who insisted the College move away from reliance on state funding and become financially self-sufficient (12).  As MAC confronted mounting debt, Clark and his small cohort of faculty struggled to prevent the institution’s financial collapse. The institution may not have survived its first fifteen years of existence if not for the work of Stockbridge. Through his tireless championing of MAC agricultural research and his investment of funds earned through the sale of plant fertilizers bearing the mark of his famous “Stockbridge formulas,” Stockbridge played a crucial role in ensuring the school’s preservation for future generations.

Born and raised in neighboring Hadley, Massachusetts, Stockbridge joined MAC as farm superintendent and agricultural instructor in 1867, just in time to teach the college’s “pioneer class” of fifty-six young men. He earned a promotion to Professor of Agriculture in 1871. Along with MAC’s other “big four” professors—William S. Clark (botany and horticulture), Henry H. Goodell (modern languages), and Charles A. Goessmann (chemistry)—he endeavored throughout the 1870s, despite meager pay and the College’s primitive infrastructure, to teach his students through a curriculum based on hands-on agricultural research (13).  Having no college degree, Stockbridge was an unlikely professorial candidate. But the Commonwealth’s federal mandate under the Morrill Act had created a job opening for which he was uniquely suited.

The younger of two sons, Levi assumed management of his family’s farm as a teenager in the 1840s, while his father, Deacon Jason Stockbridge, sent older brother Henry to study at Amherst College (14). Exhibiting a keen interest in learning, Levi often sat in on his older brother’s chemistry classes.  He also developed a curriculum for independent study based on his brother’s school materials and readings recommended by Amherst College President Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864), who became a mentor to the young Stockbridge, and granted him free access to the college laboratory. Nights reading the works of Justus von Liebig and other agricultural chemistry pioneers, his practical experience on the family farm, and time spent conducting experiments in the Amherst College lab, convinced Stockbridge that the emerging discipline of agricultural science held the promise of immense benefit for the farmers of the Pioneer Valley and the world (15).  He even dreamed of the Pioneer Valley as a future home to an agricultural college similar to those that had so immensely contributed to Germany’s recent agricultural progress (16).

Taking after his father, Levi Stockbridge was also a community leader and respected advocate for Pioneer Valley farmers. He was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1855, helped found both the North Hadley Farmer’s Club and the Massachusetts Board of Agriculture in 1856, served in the State Senate from 1865-1866, returned to the State House of Representatives in 1870, and made an unsuccessful gubernatorial run on the Greenback ticket in 1880 before returning once again to the House from 1883-1884 (17). His determined advocacy and political connections were essential to the Commonwealth’s choice of Amherst as the site of its new agricultural college in 1863, as MAC became one of the nation’s first colleges founded under the Morrill Act (18).

Once under the employment of MAC, Stockbridge also labored vigorously to promote the College among the people of Massachusetts. Speaking regularly before meetings of county agricultural societies, Amherst political leaders, and the Massachusetts General Court, he constantly extolled the benefits of College’s applied research upon the state’s farming industry. In an 1876 talk before Massachusetts Board of Agriculture, for example, Stockbridge spent four hours explaining his Mass Ag experiments with chemical fertilizers and their benefits to farmers around the country, as part of a request for state aid to establish an agricultural experimentation station on campus that would generate further research useful to the state’s agricultural industry (19). Indeed, Stockbridge was unmatched among his colleagues in his faith that MAC’s development of applicable technical knowledge would eventually ensure its prosperity.  Before the institution landed on a secure financial footing, Stockbridge frequently visited downtown Amherst to personally endorse loans from the local bank to cover the institution’s payroll. Stockbridge expressed similar generosity in his frequent cash loans to students, who looked to him not only as an inspiring teacher, but also as “a father confessor and ever present help in time of trouble” (20).

While Stockbridge’s banknotes enabled Mass Ag’s short-term survival, his harnessing of applied research put the university on a firm footing for long-term success. During the 1870s, Stockbridge and his colleagues Professor Charles E. Goessmann and then President William S. Clark conducted experiments in sugar beet, maple sugar, and tobacco production, all of which piqued the interest of Massachusetts political leaders interested in these crops’ commercial potential (21). Most importantly, Stockbridge gained international repute for his innovation in plant fertilizer.  Drawing upon his prior farming experience, Stockbridge conducted experiments at MAC on the novel premise that fertilizers should be custom tailored to the chemical composition of specific plant varieties, rather than spread over fields in a generalized manner, as was then traditional practice. The results were his “Stockbridge formulas” for corn, potato, and dozens of other crop fertilizers published in agricultural bulletins and pamphlets distributed throughout the world. Leading agricultural journals of the day confirmed the benefits of Stockbridge’s research. A December 1875 issue of the Scientific Farmer, for example, published results of experiments its researchers conducted testing Stockbridge’s formulas for grass (hay), oats, and potato fertilizer.  They demonstrated enormous increases in productivity: fertilized grass yields doubled the harvest in an adjoining unmanured plot, while the oats harvest quadrupled, and the potato harvest nearly doubled (22).  As a result of his contribution to such agricultural advances, Stockbridge became a household name in rural communities for his role in “transforming farming into a modern science” and “revolutionizing” the fertilizer industry (23).

On a cold, grey afternoon in December 1875, William H. Bowker (class of 1871) ascended the creaky steps to Stockbridge’s cluttered office above the woodshed abutting his house to discuss the “Stockbridge Formulas” with his former professor (24).

Companies from New York had been hounding Stockbridge for the rights to manufacture fertilizers under his name, but the twenty-five-year-old Bowker hoped that Stockbridge would instead take a chance with his recently formed Bowker Fertilizer Company. Always one to support the Mass Ag community, the professor readily agreed to a deal. “I know you,” Stockbridge remarked, as he was about to sign the agreement. “You have been one of my boys and one of our College family, and I think I’ll take my chances with you” (25).

As he had distributed them globally for free, seeking only the gratification of helping his fellow farmers, Stockbridge had not hitherto earned income from the fertilizer formulas bearing his name. But Bowker’s sale of the “Stockbridge Manures” quickly generated profit. Remaining true to his generous ideals and faith in the social value of academic research, in 1878 Stockbridge donated the first $1,000 in royalties he received from Bowker to establish the Massachusetts Agricultural Experimentation Station he had long lobbied for in the state legislature (26).  He did so knowing that the Station would serve as a center for practical agricultural research that would increase public support for MAC. This donation won the Trustees’ authorization of the Station, which was the second of its kind in the country, and the first one affiliated with an agricultural college (27). With Stockbridge, Clark, and Goessmann assigned to a committee charged with managing the operation, the professors proceeded with new research (28).  In the Station’s first report printed in January 1879, Goessmann outlined his experiments ruling out sorghum as a lucrative Massachusetts cash crop, while Stockbridge explained the results of his experiments with a new lysimeter (a device used for measuring the percolation of rain upon soil) demonstrating the impact of moisture upon soil temperature (29).  These reports added to the dozens of useful studies recently completed in MAC faculty, including investigations on the agricultural value of South Carolina phosphates (as fertilizer), the convertibility of Massachusetts’s salt marshes into farmlands, and the influence of different feeds upon the quality of cow’s milk (30).

Recognizing the importance of such research for both Massachusetts industry and the nation’s agriculture, President Clark expressed in the 1879 MAC Annual Report his hope “in the interests of scientific agriculture, that the liberality and enterprise of Professor Stockbridge in thus starting the Massachusetts Experimental Station will be followed up by the appropriation or gift of means for its continuance” (31).

Stockbridge’s business deal took place at crucial time for MAC.  With its endowment shrinking steadily, by 1877 the College had increased its debt by $5,000 to $8,000 per year, and public criticism of the institution had become widespread (32). Two years later, internal disagreements split the Board of Trustees, and articles in the Springfield Republican, Boston Post, and Boston Globe attacked the administration as “negligent and unintelligent” for supposedly wasting public funds through poor management (33).  In the midst of this turbulent period, Stockbridge’s investment in MAC’s mission reaffirmed to the school’s Trustees that he was a key leader of the College community. They called upon the Professor of Agriculture in the spring of 1880 when the College faced its worst crisis to date, as President Clark submitted his resignation amid frustrations with the Legislature’s stubborn refusal to provide the institution with adequate state funding. Stockbridge accepted the president’s chair reluctantly, after withdrawing his own resignation from the College faculty.  But in two short years he succeeded in saving the College from collapse (34).

Immediately after assuming the presidency, Stockbridge organized a special town meeting in Amherst to respond to Governor Thomas Talbot’s plan to hand MAC over to Amherst College. The petition generated by this meeting, bolstered by a Bureau of Agriculture report favoring Stockbridge’s proposal for a Massachusetts Agricultural Experimentation Station, and a letter by Stockbridge asserting that the College had “done more for the advancement of agricultural science” since its founding “than the combined Departmental Schools of the nation,” convinced the Governor to abort his plan (35). Stockbridge then went about balancing the College’s $24,000 budget by dramatically cutting faculty pay; expenditures for salaries dropped from $17,461 in 1879 to less than $10,000 in 1882 (36).  He also continued lobbying for adequate state financial support.  In June 1881 he organized a convention at MAC bringing together the governor and his Executive Council, the Board of Agriculture, and the Board of Trustees to discuss the needs of the College, and hear Trustee Daniel Needham’s fervent request for a budget appropriation guaranteeing free tuition and other essentials needed to fulfill Massachusetts’ contract under the Morrill Act (37).

Stockbridge’s appeals to the legislature remained unfulfilled when he resigned from his post in January 1882, shortly after filing his last Annual Report. But his efforts to salvage MAC had established the momentum needed to garner the state government’s lasting support for the Agricultural College.  A few months later, the legislature made its first appropriation for the experiment station; $15,000 allotted through the federal Hatch Act of 1887 allowed for the construction of new laboratory buildings, now known as West Experiment Station (1887) and East Experiment Station (1880) (38). The next few years also brought funds for the construction of several other new buildings on campus, including a new president’s house—no longer would a woodshed serve as the Mass Ag president’s office. Most importantly, a $10,000 scholarship appropriation attracted an 1883 entering class numbering fifty, the largest since 1878, when President Clark had obtained a one-time round of scholarships for incoming students (39).  As Harold Whiting Cary explained in his centennial history of UMass, Stockbridge’s successors “would not have to face another threat to bring the institution to an end.” (40).

Following his retirement from MAC in 1882, Stockbridge continued his work in agriculture and politics, and as a board member of the Bowker Fertilizer Company, until his death in 1904. In a eulogy for Stockbridge read at MAC’s 1904 commencement, William H. Bowker lauded the accomplishments of his revered professor, friend, and business partner. Bowker implored the MAC community to remember Stockbridge as not only an inspiring teacher, but also as someone skilled in applying scientific research to farmers’ practical problems.  “As good practice and good science must agree in the end,” he wrote, “so I believe the scientific world is coming to agree with the practical farmer that the system and method of application for which Stockbridge stood and labored is as truly scientific as it is thoroughly practical, and to accord him a high place among the workers for the advancement of scientific as well as practical husbandry.” (41).  In other words, an important aspect of Stockbridge’s legacy was his advancement of applied research beneficial to farmers, the plant fertilizer industry, and UMass.

Over a century since his passing, Stockbridge’s influence continues to be felt. It lives on in Stockbridge Hall, home of the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, whose faculty and students conduct cutting edge research on hydroponics, athletic turf design, organic farming techniques, and permaculture, the latter having recently gained recognition by winning the White House’s prestigious “Campus Champions of Change Challenge.” (42). Now in its 125th year of operation, the Massachusetts Agricultural Station (now part of the Center for Agriculture) also continues to positively impact the people of Massachusetts and the beyond, particularly in the areas of global food security, hunger and farm systems, climate change, sustainable energy, and food safety and functionality (43).

Stockbridge’s work also continues to influence farmers and fertilizer companies everywhere, who now take for granted the professor’s faith in the advantages of agricultural chemistry. Finally, Stockbridge’s legacy persists in benefitting the thousands of members of the UMass community, whose educations and careers, whether they realize it or not, would not have been possible without the field investigation and unflagging dedication of this tenacious Hadley farmer.


12 Harold Whiting Cary, The University of Massachusetts: A History of One Hundred Years (Amherst: UMass, 1962), 53.

13 William Henry Bowker, speech read at the fortieth anniversary of Massachusetts Agricultural College, October 2, 1907, excerpt printed as “Sketches: the Big Four,” one page leaflet distributed compliments of James E. Mulcahy, life insurance broker, Springfield, MA, 1970, Levi Stockbridge Papers, Box 3, Folder 52, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst (henceforth referred to as SCUA).  Cary, 39.

14 Anna Stockbridge Tuttle, “Reminiscences of Levi Stockbridge by his Daughter,” unpublished paper (undated), 5, Levi Stockbridge Papers, Box 3, Folder 54, SCUA.

15 Ibid, 6. On Liebig, see William H. Brock, Justus von Liebig: The Chemical Gatekeeper (Cambridge University Press, 1997).

16 Tuttle, 12-13.

17 Stockbridge, Levi, entry in Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. 18, 38-39, available in Levi Stockbridge Papers, Box 3, Folder 54, SCUA. Cary, 15-16.

18 Cary, 27.

19 Massachusetts Board of Agriculture, Annual Report for 1876, 142-185. Clipping available in Levi Stockbridge Papers, Box 1, Folder 36, SCUA.

20 William H. Bowker, “Dedication of Stockbridge Hall at the Massachusetts Agricultural College, Friday, October 29, 1915,” pamphlet (1915), 10-12, Levi Stockbridge Papers, Box 3, Folder 53, SCUA. Stockbridge also held the “limited individualist” belief that society’s greater good would best be served by the state’s limiting individual wealth to one
million dollars in order to preclude the existence of an inherited plutocracy. Such ideas were consistent with his membership in the pro-labor, pro-farmer, anti-monopolist Greenback Party. In his 1904 eulogy, Bowker speculated that had Stockbridge been born in the twentieth century, “he would have become, in the best sense of the word, a socialist.”

21 Cary, 61. Also see, W. S. Clark, “A Lecture on the Flow of Sap and the Power of Plant Growth,” Massachusetts College of Agriculture, Annual Report for 1874, 18-53; C. A. Goessmann, The Cultivation of the Sugar-Beet for the Manufacture of Sugar (Boston: Rand, Avery, and Co., 1880).

22 “Prof. Stockbridge’s Experiments in Crop Feeding” reprinted in The Stockbridge Fertilizers and Formulas from W. W. Bowker & Co., pamphlet and catalog printed by W. A. Brooks & Co., Boston, 1876, 17-18, Levi Stockbridge Papers Box 1, Folder 30, SCUA.

23 William H. Bowker, Levi Stockbridge and the Stockbridge principle of plant feeding: Extract from tribute by William H. Bowker read at the memorial exercises at Amherst, 1904 (Boston: 1911), Levi Stockbridge papers, Box 3, folder 53. The latter text is an excerpt from the author’s 1904 eulogy for Stockbridge. Daniel Lombardo, “Levi Stockbridge transformed farming into modern science,” Amherst Bulletin, July 17, 1992.

24 Known today as the “Stockbridge House,” this building is now home to the University Club. Constructed in 1728 by settlers Samuel and Hannah Boltwood, it was Amherst’s first European-style house, and remains the town’s oldest standing building. The addition, which featured horse stables, a woodshed, and Stockbridge’s office, no longer exists, however. See, “Stockbridge House,” YouMass Wiki, http://www.library.umass.edu/spcoll/youmass/doku.php?d=buildings:s:stockbridgehouse.

25 William H. Bowker, “A Tribute to Levi Stockbridge,” pamphlet (1904), 7, Levi Stockbridge Papers, Box 3, Folder 52, SCUA.

26 Bowker (1904), 7-8. In his history of UMass, Cary mistakenly wrote that this money was royalties from Stockbridge’s fertilizer “patents,” but such patents did not exist. Bowker’s testimony clearly indicates that these funds were the proceeds of a copyright agreement allowing the Bowker Fertilizer company to sell fertilizer under Stockbridge’s name.

27 Ibid. The first agricultural experimentation station was located in New Haven and operated by the State of Connecticut.

28 MAC Annual Report for 1878, 15.

29 C. A. Goessmann, “Report to the Directors of the Massachusetts Experimental Station,” and Levi Stockbridge, “Report to the Directors of the Massachusetts Experimental Station,” in Annual Report for 1878, 27-41, 42-80. The latter was also reprinted as Levi Stockbridge, Investigations on Rainfall, Percolation and Evaporation of Water from the Soil, Temperature of Soil and Air, Deposition of Dew on the Soil and Plant at the Massachusetts Agricultural College Experiment Station, pamphlet (Boston: Rand, Avery, & Co., 1879), in Levi Stockbridge papers, Box 1, Folder 30, UMass SCUA.

30 MAC Annual Report for 1880, 14-15.

31 MAC Annual Report for 1878, 16.

32 Cary, 53.

33 Springfield Republican, January 4, 1879, quoted in Cary, 58. See Cary for quotes from the other papers listed here.

34 Cary, 60.

35 Levi Stockbridge letter to the Senate and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (undated), Levi Stockbridge Papers, Box 1, Folder 32, SCUA. Cary, 60-61.

36 Cary, 63.

37 MAC Annual Report for 1881, 14-21.

38 Cary, 72.

39 Ibid, 64.

40 Ibid.

41 Bowker (1904), 15

42 Janet Lathrop, “UMass Amherst Student-Led Permaculture Committee Wins White House’s ‘Campus Champions of Change Challenge,’” March 7, 2012, http://www.umass.edu/newsoffice/newsreleases/articles/148277.php.

43 UMass Amherst College of Sciences, Center for Agriculture website, “Issues We Focus On”: http://www.ag.umass.edu/index.php/research/issues.

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