Smithsonian discovers moving stories of agricultural education in search for FFA jacket

We recently asked for your help in collecting an FFA (Future Farmers of America) jacket with a great personal story—and you came through! Intern Chris Fite reports on the nationwide jacket search and why we're preserving the history of youth agricultural education in America. Learn more about the five jackets that were added to the museum's collection on July 25, 2014, in this post

Finding and collecting artifacts for the national collections can be challenging. "Determining what is important is a major step," said Curator Peter Liebhold, who led the search for the FFA jacket. "Once you know what's important, determining who might have it, and convincing them to part with a personal treasure can be difficult."

Not this time.

"We invited people to send a description of their FFA jacket and tell us about their life experiences and were enthused by how many offers poured in," said Liebhold. "From the submissions, we will select one or more jackets to add to the Smithsonian collections. We're so grateful to the many people who offered to donate their jackets and can't wait to reveal which we select."

The famous FFA jacket originated at the 1933 FFA national convention. In Fredericktown, Ohio, teacher Gus Lintner had ordered blue corduroy jackets for local FFA band members to wear at the convention. Delegates were so impressed that they voted to adopt the jackets as part of the FFA uniform. Worn with pride for over 80 years, members' jackets turn FFA events into a sea of blue. Yet, every jacket is unique, displaying the owner's name, state, chapter, and honors.
The famous FFA jacket originated at the 1933 FFA national convention. In Fredericktown, Ohio, teacher Gus Lintner had ordered blue corduroy jackets for local FFA band members to wear at the convention. Delegates were so impressed that they voted to adopt the jackets as part of the FFA uniform. Worn with pride for over 80 years, members' jackets turn FFA events into a sea of blue. Yet, every jacket is unique, displaying the owner's name, state, chapter, and honors.

While we add new items to our collections in a variety of ways, this type of open, public request is fairly unique. We heard from people across the country. Offers rolled in from over a dozen states, from Oregon to Florida. The enthusiastic response was a testimonial to the rich history and continued legacy of FFA and the importance of agriculture. "The only downside is having to choose from among all these gracious offers," said Liebhold.

Even more impressive than the jackets are the stories behind them. In their submissions, people told us about memorable, often life-changing, experiences in FFA. They not only learned about agriculture but also developed valuable leadership and public speaking skills. Through the FFA Supervised Agricultural Experience, they even designed and managed their own capstone projects. For most, FFA was the beginning of a career in agriculture. Some became farmers or ranchers, while others are involved with agriculture through their work in business, government, and education.

A 1941 photograph by John Collier. "Clark's son keeps his eye on all farm activity and is active in the 4-H Club. Coffee County, Alabama." Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration Collection.
A 1941 photograph by John Collier. "Clark's son keeps his eye on all farm activity and is active in the 4-H Club. Coffee County, Alabama." Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration Collection.

"All of the stories were fascinating," said Liebhold. "I was struck by how these experiences changed lives."

The jacket search is now officially closed. We'll announce the selections in a donation ceremony and share the donors' stories of youth agricultural education here on the blog. The jackets will officially enter the museum's collection but won't go on immediate display.

The jackets are destined for individual display in American Enterprise, a new exhibition which opens in July 2015 and focuses on the role that business and agriculture have played in American history. One of the hands-on learning experiences, also known as "interactives," in the exhibition is the "Farming Challenge." It is near this area that we will display one FFA jacket at a time on a rotating basis (rotation helps conserve sensitive textiles).

Design proposal for the Farming Challenge interactive
Design proposal for the Farming Challenge interactive

The Farming Challenge will be a recreation of a modern tractor cab complete with steering wheel, guidance controls, and yield monitors. Sitting in the driver's seat, visitors will be faced with questions they have to answer. Just like the contestants in Who Wants to be a Millionaire, they will be able to search for help in formulating their decisions. The experience likens farming to the role of a CEO in a large firm where processing large amounts of information quickly and accurately is key.

An early concept design for the interior of the cab in the Farming Challenge interactive
An early concept design for the interior of the cab in the Farming Challenge interactive

We cannot wait to tell you more about the donors and their contributions to American agriculture. In the meantime, please share your own stories with us at the Agricultural Innovation and Heritage Archive.

Chris Fite is an intern in the Division of Work and Industry. He is a graduate student in Public History and Library Science at the University of South Carolina. His research interests are in environmental and agricultural history. Chris plans to write his M.A. thesis on mutation breeding with radiation during the Cold War. Mutation breeding is the use of chemicals or radiation to induce genetic mutations in crops and create new crop varieties.

The American Enterprise team would like to thank FFA for their help in supporting the jacket collecting effort.

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