Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

When he is remem­bered at all, Fre­derick Watts is likely to be men­tioned in connection with the McCormick Reaper, the Cum­berland Valley Railroad, the establishment of the Pennsyl­vania State University or, more recently, the controversy over the demolition of his farm­stead in Carlisle. It may seem an incongruous legacy but therein lies the charm and the extraordinary genius of this man from Cumberland County. Indeed, Frederick Watts was all of these: agricul­tural reformer, entrepreneur, educator and steward of the earth long before it was the fashion. He had a brilliant legal career and eventually served in the administration of Pres. Ulysses S. Grant – but only after having been asked twice. At the time the presi­dent requested his services, Watts was reluctant to leave his beloved farm. Although born and reared in town, and in spite of the fact that he never depended upon the land for his living in the usual sense of the word, it was Watts’ lifelong dream of a just position for the farmer that became his raison d’etre and his most enduring gift to the generations which followed.

The key to understanding this extraordinary individual begins long before his birth. Frederick Watts’ paternal grandfather, for whom he was named, was born in Wales and later settled in what is now Perry County. During the American Revolution he became brigadier general of the Pennsylvania Militia, after which he served in the Su­preme Executive Council of Pennsylvania. Watts’ maternal grandfather, Henry Miller, also served as an officer in the Revolutionary Army and dur­ing the War of 1812. Watts’ father, David, another notable native son, was a member of the first graduating class of Dickinson College. He entered the legal profession, whose practitioners believed that “he was without a superior in the State either on questions of law before the Courts or of facts before the jury.”

Frederick Watts, born on May 9, 1801, in Carlisle, was a member of the Dickinson College Class of 1819 – a class which never officially gradu­ated because of the school’s financial difficulties. At the age of eighteen, his studies com­pleted, Watts left for Erie County, where he spent the following two years on the farm of his uncle, William Miles, a prominent leader in agriculture, politics and rail­roading. It was there that the small town boy developed a respect and love for an agrar­ian way of life that would pervade his life’s work.

Upon Watts’ return to Car­lisle in 1821, he began reading law and was admitted to the bar three years later. An anec­dote from those early years illustrates Watts’ tendency to excel at whatever he under­took. His handwriting was so illegible that the recipient of an important letter was unable to read it at all. He snipped Watts’ signature from the page and pasted it on a return letter, inquiring as to the subject of the original correspondence. Watts immediately set out to correct the situation. That he served for more than two decades as court reporter for the state Supreme Court­ – personally recording for pos­terity more than eleven thousand pages of legal proceedings – he evidently overcame the problem. In 1849, Watts was appointed President Judge of the Ninth Judicial District, a position he held for three years until the position became elective and Watts, a Whig, was defeated by the Democratic majority.

Frederick Watts’ legal career spanned more than forty years and, according to his obituary, “the work he accomplished as a lawyer … would have filled the measure of ability of any two ordinary men.” Even more impressive than the sheer volume of his work, however, is the respect with which it was, and is, viewed. Watts respected, understood and was adept in the practice of law, but he clearly saw it only as the means toward justice, which, in all things, was his lifelong passion. He had a common sense, a logical style of getting to the point in a legal matter. In the courtroom he “despised quirks and quib­bles” and, as he put it, “smothering the plain points of a cause in a multiplicity of words.” Unlike his father who, although a brilliant attorney, was noted for his violent and abusive behavior in the court room, Judge Watts was widely admired for his sensitivity and gentleness with everyone from court crier to constable to indignant counselor. He had a reputation for guiding younger colleagues and that trait, as well as his basic integrity, were tenderly rendered in a letter of encouragement to B. F. Junkin after Junkin was made Presi­dent Judge. The year was 1871, by which time Frederick Watts had retired from his legal ca­reer to fill a position at the federal level, yet he took time to write: “You have been se­lected to hold the scales of justice; no hand can hold them steadily which does not pro­ceed from a heart that has a conviction of purity, candor and truth. Allow me to say that I am impressed with the belief that you possess these characteristics and that you have little to do but to avoid the temptation which power will throw in your way.”

A man of boundless energy and drive, Frederick Watts also left his mark as an entrepre­neur of some standing. His accomplishments in develop­ing an incredible range of businesses were quite impres­sive. In April 1841, Watts was elected president of the nearly bankrupt Cumberland Valley Railroad. By the time he re­tired, after a remarkable and colorful thirty-two year tenure, he had turned the railroad into a phenomenal financial suc­cess by his ability to “pinch each of the company’s dollars until the eagle shrieked in agony.” In 1862, a Confederate raid on Chambersburg had resulted in the destruction of the railroad buildings, three engines and other equipment, a loss estimated at fifty thou­sand dollars. Yet the railroad was on such secure financial ground that in his annual report for that year, Watts was able to assure shareholders that the destruction, “will not interfere with the regular pay­ment of interest on our bonds and dividends to the stock­holders.” Where Frederick Watts had learned to manage money so wisely remains a mystery, particularly since his father reputedly “spent his money with careless profu­sion.”

During this productive phase of his life, Watts orga­nized the Carlisle Gas and Water Company in 1854 and personally secured passage of an Act of Assembly authoriz­ing the borough of Carlisle to subscribe to the stock of the fledging company. This far­sighted move contributed heavily to the prosperity and growth of the Cumberland County seat and, ironically, to the ultimate destruction of a treasure Watts would leave there.

Frederick Watts had a long­standing history of experi­menting with soils, livestock and crops. In 1839, he intro­duced a Mediterranean variety of wheat to the Cumberland Valley. A bearded, red, winter variety, this wheat matured early enough in the season to avoid destruction by the Hes­sian fly, a characteristic which made it extremely popular. During the harvest the follow­ing year a singular incident occurred which established Watts’ place not only as an agricultural reformer, but as a recognized leader among the “independently minded” Scotch-Irish farmers of the valley. Watts recalled that on that particular day in 1840, in a twelve acre field of the high­-yield wheat, there was a horse-drawn reaper, with a cutter bar, a platform and a reel to tilt the wheat off the cutter bar onto the platform. A man was to walk behind the platform and rake the wheat off to be bound into bundles. The cutting of the wheat was rapid and perfect, but it be­came obvious to the throng of nearly a thousand spectators that one man could not keep up with the job and they had their jokes about “Watts’ fully.” Just then a well-dressed man stepped from the crowd, took the rake and easily demon­strated the proper way to handle the grain. The man was none other than Cyrus H. McCormick, the reaper’s in­ventor. What the crowd had witnessed was the first suc­cessful use of the reaper in Pennsylvania.

Both the machine and the man who had bravely spon­sored its debut would go on to revolutionize agriculture. The stubborn farmers who had joked about Watts and his folly developed a deep respect for the man who did so much to improve their lot in life. Years later, as a token of their esteem and admiration, the farmers of Cumberland County pre­sented Judge Watts with a handsome, classically-styled silver pitcher for his “disinter­ested services in behalf of Agricultural Interests.”

A natural product of Watts’ agricultural experiments was his involvement in the devel­opment of agricultural soci­eties, which he saw as a way of motivating farmers toward higher productivity and in­creased self-esteem. In January 1851, a meeting was held in Harrisburg for the purpose of establishing the Pennsylvania State Agricultural Society. Several hundred delegates, representing fifty-five coun­ties, elected Frederick Watts president of the state society. Watts resolved that the pri­mary objective of the society would be the creation of an agricultural school where scientific methods would be taught. The idea for this revo­lutionary experiment in educa­tion had been rumbling around for some time, part of a larger movement for the democratization of education. Classical colleges of the time placed an emphasis on the study of Greek and Latin, preparing students for profes­sions in law, medicine and theology. Physical and natural sciences, as they applied to daily life, were not included in the lofty curriculum. More­over, only the wealthy had the means to attend the existing colleges, so an aristocracy in education had become deeply entrenched. There arose a demand for people’s colleges, where students would be trained for more industrial professions. Far-sighted indi­viduals realized that until affordable, relevant education was available to the masses, this young nation could not fulfill her mission.

What was needed were individuals of vision who could take this laudable notion of democratization of educa­tion and apply it relevantly, who could turn philosophy to stone and steel, thereby dem­onstrating the very principle they espoused. Little wonder that Frederick Watts was drawn to this effort, for he strongly believed that the traditional colleges had failed his beloved farmers. He re­peatedly warned farmers that a son educated at a literary college would return not only totally unsuited for agricultural pursuits but unable to find companions or comfort at his own hearth, since he would be filled with ideas which alien­ated him from his family. Watts noted that these sons would simply drift to the nearest town to “be made a poor doc­tor or a worse lawyer.” He believed “chances are about three to one that the father not only loses the money which he has spent upon his son, but that he loses the son himself.” What Frederick Watts wanted was a school “where a farmer’s son may be educated to be a farmer.” He felt that establishing such a school was an idea whose time was overdue.

It is demanded of us all that we should put our hand to the noble work of education and especially that we should direct that educa­tion to a course of study which will fit the mind and adapt the energies of the body to that ex­haustive, interesting and delight­ful subject in which we are engaged and for which the world has yet done so little.

Watts loved farmers and saw their mission as sacred. He believed farming was an art which “contributes more largely than any other to hu­man happiness.” It deeply troubled him that farmers had not been afforded their right­ful place in the scheme of things. Here, in his dream for a school, was a way to right that wrong – a way to sow the seeds of justice. This was the endeavor for which Frederick Watts had been chosen, and the philosopher-farmer did not fail.

Little more than a year after the organizational meeting of the Pennsylvania Agricultural Society, a special convention was held to plan the establish­ment of the agricultural school of which Watts dreamed. At the convention, Watts pre­sented his committee’s report which outlined the organiza­tion and objectives of the school and proposed the name, “The Farmers’ High School.” Although the aca­demic work was to be of colle­giate grade, with baccalaureate degrees awarded, the word “college” was avoided so that farmers would not think they were being handed an old product in a new package.

The original bill to incorpo­rate the school was approved by the legislature and signed by Gov. William Bigler, a Cum­berland County native, in 1854. This bill, though primar­ily the work of Watts, had been amended to include a sixty member board of trustees. Unlike his colleagues, who were congratulating themsel­ves on the charter. Watts recog­nized immediately that the large, unwieldy board would not work. He directed his efforts toward obtaining a new charter and the appropriation necessary to support it. The formal history of the school began in 1855 with a new char­ter, again primarily the work of Watts, which called for a thir­teen member board. Not sur­prisingly, Frederick Watts was named the first president of that board, a position he held until 1874.

By 1855, the board had been offered several tracts of land on which to locate the new school. The first such offer had been made by none other than Judge James Miles of Erie County, a member of the Miles family, with whom young Frederick Watts had spent his early formative years. Ulti­mately, it was the two hundred acre Centre County site, of­fered by Gen. James Irvin, that was approved. Irvin’s offer had been enhanced by the pledges of trustees Hugh N. McAllister and Secretary of the Common­wealth Andrew G. Curtin, both of Bellefonte, to join with the donor to raise ten thou­sand dollars for the school from local citizens. The closest railroad connection at the time was at Spruce Creek, a twenty­-two mile, thrice-weekly stage coach ride away. For this rea­son, foes of the institution criticized the site selection. In later years a university presi­dent would call the location, “equally inaccessible from all parts” of the Commonwealth. Yet Watts, never a man to waiver in the face of criticism, contended that the site pos­sessed “the most essential advantages of soil surface, exposure, healthfulness and centrality.” He also saw the isolation as a means of ensur­ing that students kept their minds on their studies. While Watts could not have imagined it, the site seems to have played a significant role in the development of the special college spirit that thrives in Happy Valley today. The Penn­sylvania State University and its related services continue to make tremendous contribu­tions in the field of agricultural education, contributions which are equally as famous as the Nittany Lions, the school’s celebrated football team.

The mood at the school was anything but happy during the early years because of inade­quate financial resources. In September 1857, the board of trustees met in the first com­pleted building on campus, “a large commodious barn;’ de­signed by Watts. On that occa­sion he gave his famous “Barn Speech,” eloquently setting forth the objectives of the school and personally pledg­ing one thousand dollars to­ward the completion of the buildings. Inspiring his col­leagues, twenty-five thousand dollars were pledged that evening alone! Unfortunately, the financial panic that year, along with a widespread crop failure, prevented most of the pledges from being collected and the school continued in dire financial straits. During the next few years enthusiasm for the school waned and, had it not been for the continued support and lobbying of Watts and a few others, the institu­tion would surely have failed. Watts’ letters from that period offer a touching testimony to the deep personal sacrifices he made in an effort to keep his idea alive. In later years, one of Watts’ children noted the idea for The Farmers’ High School came, “not only from my fa­ther’s brain but from his pocket.”

The school finally opened in 1859 and, in keeping with the objective of affordable education, charged an all­-inclusive fee of one hundred dollars per student, which was about one-third the average fee for other colleges. It was obvious from the start that significant aid would have to be secured from the state legis­lature. Several appropriations did come about, during the next few years, initiated by the lobbying efforts of Watts and McAllister and expedited by Centre County Representative Duncan, Colonel Gregg and Governor Curtin – all vocal advocates of the school. They managed to keep the fledgling – and admittedly experimen­tal – school functioning dur­ing a time when the nation was at war, an era when other schools were being forced to close their doors.

A turning point in the his­tory of the school was the signing of the Morrill Land Grant Act in 1862 by Pres. Abraham Lincoln. Ironically, fellow Pennsylvanian and Dickinson College graduate James Buchanan had vetoed the original bill in 1859. Once again the powerful lobbying machine of the board of trust­ees played a major role, report­edly receiving assurances from Lincoln, then presidential candidate, of his support. In an 1866 report, Watts himself noted, “The Board of Trustees looked upon this act of Con­gress as almost the work of their own hands.” Yet their work was still far from finished since the state legislature had to accept the provisions of the Morrill Act. It was in the best interest of the Farmers’ High School to be named sole bene­ficiary of the funds, although other institutions suddenly came forward claiming to be agricultural schools. To better meet the language of the Mor­rill Act, the school’s name was changed to the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania in 1862. In addition, Watts and two individuals were ap­pointed to present the claims of the college before the state legislature, where they ulti­mately succeeded in having their institution reap all the benefits from the act they had worked so hard to secure. The intense lobbying effort was only one more step in Watts’ intimate involvement with the school, an association which literally ranged from its con­ception, to site selection and to whispering in the ear of Abra­ham Lincoln.

Frederick Watts’ profound devotion to the agricultural college, and his reluctance to accept a later president’s call to service, are clearly, and amus­ingly, evident in a letter he wrote to a fellow trustee in July 1871. Watts wrote that it was necessary for him to cancel a trip to the college because, “the President persisted that I should take the Head of the Ag. Bureau at least for a time and he and my friends have prevailed upon me to accept that appointment very much against my inclination …. I am really distressed that I can not be with you …. My son Fred goes up to attend the meeting of the Alumni and he knows how perplexed I am about not going with him.” Indeed, at the age of seventy, Watts was more than a little hesitant to leave Creekside, his farm near Carlisle, for the rigors of Wash­ington, but once in office his characteristic devotion to the task before him became evi­dent.

Throughout his tenure as U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture, Watts pursued his dream of education for farmers by strengthening ties between his department, land-grant col­leges and agricultural soci­eties. For the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, he exhibited the most valuable trees of the country and then secured an appropriation for a forestry investigation, thus paving the way for the establishment of the forestry Division. At his sug­gestion, Congress also made an appropriation to collect and publish meteorological infor­mation for the benefit of agri­culture. In addition, the Division of Microscopy was established during his admin­istration and so many exhibits were added to the agricultural museum that “the space allot­ted to it had to be nearly dou­bled.”

In the nation’s capitol, as elsewhere, admirers were drawn by Watts’ integrity and sense of mission; it was said that “the ablest men there soon recognized his ability and sought his companionship and advice.” Finally, after six years of impressive service, Watts went home to Cumberland County. It was there that most of his agricultural experimen­tation took place, including the construction of a model tenant farm. In 1857, at the same time that he was devel­oping the Farmers’ High School, Watts purchased a 116 acre tract just west of Carlisle. Since the western half of the farm had not been improved with buildings, the property gave Watts the opportunity to directly implement his ideas on the design of farm build­ings. This farm would incorpo­rate his ideals of convenience, saving time and labor for the farmer.

It was no accident that Watts chose this plot of ground with nearly level fields in the heart of the fertile, limestone Cumberland Valley. The house and barn were placed facing south within the center of the farm, looking onto the Carlisle and Chambersburg Turnpike, while the Cumberland Valley Railroad ran along the north­ern boundary of the farm. Ancillary buildings sur­rounded the house and barn, complementing each’s func­tion.

Apparently the original buildings were erected soon after the land was purchased. An arsonist torched the barn in 1866, but the undaunted Watts constructed another the following year. This tri-gable bank barn was designed to accommodate the stabling of animals, storage of grain and hay, and to provide a wagon shed and com crib all under one roof.

The design of this barn follows closely one which Watts advocated in his essay, “The Pennsylvania Barn,” which appeared in The Report of the Commissioner of Agricul­ture, 1864, published before he had been appointed commis­sioner. Accordingly, the usual ramp to the threshing floor was extended and built upon to house corn at each side, with room for storage of the farm machinery in the center. Underneath the ramp there was to be room for additional wagon storage, a root cellar and cistern, a compact design to “economize the work of the hands, since the business of a farmer consists of bodily la­bor.” The extension over the ramp allowed the threshing operation to be entirely cov­ered by a roof. Another princi­ple used in Watts’ barn design was to create the most efficient means to produce manure since farmers believed, “barn­yard manure has no substitute of equal value.”

Other features outlined in the 1864 report were also found on his property, such as the placement of the hog pen facing into the barn yard to allow beneficial rooting in manure (both beneficial to the hogs and to the development of good manure), the gallows underneath the cantilever (which would allow feeding racks to be raised and lowered, depending on the height of the accumulated manure), and the water trough “in the barnyard immediately in front of the stables,” gravity-fed from the cistern under the ramp.

Like other agricultural re­formers of the nineteenth century, Frederick Watts’ improvement on the form and function of the barn was the refinement of traditional types of farm structures. Not only was this particular barn built for function, but its exterior appearance was most pleasing to the eye; the lines of the ramp extension were reminis­cent of a Greek temple.

The farm house was also the work of an agricultural reformer trying his hand at designing an efficient, practical residence. The building was small, economical in its use of interior space and provided ready access to the dependen­cies (out kitchen and washhouse/woodhouse) lo­cated to the rear. In fact, there was a nearly straight path from the back kitchen door of the main house, beneath the canti­lever along the east side of the out-kitchen, to the washhouse/woodhouse. The general placement and orienta­tion of the house indicate a well-thought-out scheme; the benefits of a long southern exposure, allowing for light and warmth in the winter but shaded in summer, were obvi­ously understood by the de­signer. The house was also convenient to both the barn and fields.

The house appears to have been built as a tenant house; census records indicate that Frederick Watts lived in Car­lisle or at Creekside. As in the case of the barn, the house was not only functional, but also handsome. Combining Greek Revival form and Gothic elements, the house featured pediments over the windows and doors, as well as barge-board decorating the eaves and gable ends. The windows were placed through­out the house to command the greatest use of natural light so that all the rooms were light and airy no matter their size nor location.

Soon after he built the second barn, Watts sold the farm to George Waggoner, and it continued to serve as a ten­ant farm until 1986 when it was purchased by Arkansas Best Freight. In February 1987, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Bureau for Historic Preserva­tion, as a result of the Cum­berland County Resource Survey, determined that the Watts farmstead met the crite­ria for nomination to the Na­tional Register of Historic Places. The completed nomi­nation was submitted during the summer of 1988, but one month before the final state determination on the nomina­tion, the owner ordered the farm destroyed.

Ironically, when Frederick Watts developed the utilities and railroad in Carlisle, he set the wheels in motion to estab­lish the area as a major trans­portation hub. Although he was fascinated with technol­ogy and certainly looked to the future, he could never have imagined the dizzying speed with which technology would become the driving force in society. Nor could he have foreseen the destruction of natural resources that such progress would leave in its wake. Watts could not have known that a day would come when farmers, finding them­selves in desperate straits, would sell out with such fre­quency that preservation of farmland itself would become a critical issue. Now more than ever, when the best fertile land in Cumberland County and elsewhere is being developed, farmers on less productive land will have to become more resourceful, ever more effi­cient, to sustain a growing population. Perhaps even more importantly today, farmers need to regain the sense of pride and stewardship that Frederick Watts, the tire­less champion of the farmer, sought to instill.

Although he addressed the following words to a group of Cumberland County farmers in 1870, his message is univer­sal and transcendent.

With regard to our occupation we should rather look upon this lovely earth as the beautiful land­scape of God’s creation, imbued with the powers of life, to breathe and feed, yielding its elements and products to the delicate and nurs­ing operations of our hands.

Frederick Watts’ daughter wrote that, when her father died one hundred years ago this past August, “his mind was clear, his facilities good. He was simply worn out, and went quietly to sleep.” Little wonder he was worn out. He was powerful enough to leave such an impressive imprint, to have made such a difference. Because Watts did all that he did without the aid of mass communications and on a limited budget, his accom­plishments seem even more impressive. Yet, in still another ironic twist in his life, the world knows very little about him. This was as he desired, for he was not about praise and plaudits. What he was about was a dream. A dream to which he devoted his life.

Rest assured, Judge Watts, the dream lives on.


For Further Reading

Batis, Samuel P. History of Franklin County, Pennsylva­nia. Chicago: Warner, Beers Co., 1887.

Bezilla, Michael. Penn State: An Illustrated History. University Park, Pa.: Penn State University Press, 1985.

Dunaway, Wayland Fuller. His­tory of the Pennsylvania State Colleges. Lancaster, Pa.: Lancaster Press, 1946.

History of Cumberland and Adams Counties, Pennsylva­nia. Chicago: Warner, Beers Co., 1886.

Malone, Dumas, ed. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1977.

Mairs, Thomas I. Some Pennsyl­vania Pioneers in Agricultural Science. State College, Pa.: School of Agriculture, 1928.

Pugh, Evan. The Agricultural College of Pennsylvania. Phila­delphia: William S. Young, 1862.

Watts, Frederick. “The Pennsylva­nia Barn.” Report of the Com­missioner of Agriculture, 1864. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1865.

Westhaeffer, Paul J. History of the Cumberland Valley Rail­road 1835-1919. Ephrata, Pa.: Science Press, 1979.


Jerry Clouse, a native of Cum­berland County, is a graduate of the University of Kentucky, and is currently completing a master’s of arts degree in American Studies at the Pennsylvania State Univer­sity. Before joining the Bureau for Historic Preservation, Pennsylva­nia Historical and Museum Com­mission, where he works with the National Register program, he served as architectural researcher for the Cumberland County His­toric Resource Survey. In addition to co-authoring Perry County: A Pictorial History and Briner Family History, he has written articles for The Perry Review and Cumberland County His­tory.


Kate Kauffman, a resident of the Carlisle area and a former staff member of The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg, is a graduate of York College of Penn­sylvania. A devoted environmen­talist and sometime avocational archaeologist, she has written for Susquehanna Monthly Maga­zine and Harrisburg Magazine.