By Mary Giorgio

Dubbed the “Queen of American Agriculture,” Virginia Claypool Meredith is recognized as a pioneer in the development of agricultural education. The famed Hoosier spent decades working to professionalize women’s roles on the farm during a time when it was uncommon for women to run farms or manage most agricultural processes. Meredith’s influence eventually extended internationally and led to her appointment as the first female Trustee of Purdue University in 1921.

Born on November 5, 1848, Virginia Claypool Meredith grew up on a farm near Connersville, Indiana. Her father, Austin Claypool, served as an early trustee of Purdue University. At her father’s encouragement, Meredith enrolled in a 4-year course of study at the Glendale Female College near Cincinnati, Ohio, at the age of 15. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1866, at a time when few women had the means or opportunity to attend a program of higher education.

After returning to Indiana, Virginia became engaged to Henry Clay Meredith, a livestock breeder who ran a nationally recognized breeding program on his Cambridge City farm. Oakland Farm, as it was nicknamed, was famous for its shorthorn cattle and Shropshire sheep. After marrying in 1868, Meredith immersed herself in learning about her husband’s business. She especially enjoyed coordinating the farm’s large public livestock sales, events that drew farmers from across the United States.

At the age of 33, Meredith was unexpectedly widowed when her husband died from pneumonia. Faced with a choice to manage the farm herself or sell the business, she made an unconventional decision for the time. Meredith decided to run the farm herself. Over the next decade, she grew her husband’s business and eventually became known as one of the best stockbreeders in the country. At livestock exhibitions, Meredith showed her own animals, even though there was no precedent for a woman’s participation in these events.

As her renown as a livestock breeder grew, Meredith began to receive requests to speak at breeders’ conventions across the country. In 1889, the State of Indiana developed a speaker’s bureau to travel across the state and lecture at Farmer’s Institutes (the predecessor to today’s Agricultural Extension Program managed by Purdue University). Meredith was one of the first people – and the first woman – asked to join the staff. For the next 25 years, she educated Hoosier farmers on a variety of important topics.

An engaging and personable speaker, Meredith soon became one of the most requested speakers on the circuit. One of her most popular presentations, titled “Privileges and Possibilities of Farm Life,” encouraged rural youth to pursue careers as farmers. Her words describing the important and meaningful work undertaken by farmers were so moving that the speech was eventually published and distributed widely in all 50 states and internationally.

In addition to her lectures on agriculture, Meredith also became a contributor to the Breeder’s Gazette, a national livestock journal. After contributing occasional articles for several years, she was promoted to editor of the magazine’s home department. The appointment gave Meredith a wider platform for an issue of great importance to her – championing the professionalization of rural homemaking.

Meredith believed that the domestic skills required of a modern homemaker required a scientific approach that could best be learned by attending a collegiate institution. Meredith pitched the idea to Purdue University but was turned down. Still, she continued to advocate for her plan.

World’s Fair Congress of Women (VCM second from bottom, full right)

In 1890, Meredith was appointed by Indiana’s Agriculture Commission to serve as Indiana’s representative to the National Board of Lady Managers of the World’s Columbian Exposition (more commonly known as the World’s Fair). The event was scheduled to take place in Chicago in 1893 but was such a massive undertaking that it required years of planning. Meredith was later given additional responsibility as chairperson of the exposition’s awards committee. Tasked with selecting and managing a group of 100 diverse judges, Meredith found herself spending more and more time in Chicago between 1890 and 1894.

Despite her commitment to the World’s Fair, Meredith continued to deliver lectures for the Farmer’s Institute on agriculture and animal husbandry throughout the early 1890s. At an Interstate Farmers’ Institute in Mississippi in 1895, event organizers bestowed upon her the title of “Queen of American Agriculture.” Although Meredith was, undoubtedly, the most prominent woman working in American agriculture at that time, the designation was remarkable because it was awarded by a state that generally refused to allow women to speak in public.

In 1896, Meredith reached an agreement with the University of Minnesota to organize a program in household management. For six years, she taught courses in household economics, budgeting, meal planning, shopping, food preparation, sewing, entertaining, cleaning, childrearing, and more. Still, her heart was in Indiana and she never stopped advocating for Purdue to adopt a similar program.

While teaching in Minnesota, Meredith sold Oakland Farm. She later bought a farm south of Cambridge City which she nicknamed Narborough Farm. After returning to Indiana in 1902, Meredith resumed her lecturing activity in the Farmers’ Institute and took up residence at her new farm. An avid club woman, Meredith twice served as president of the Indiana State Federation of Clubs. She was also influential in founding the Indiana Home Economics Association in 1913 and served as the organization’s first president.

In 1905, Purdue University finally began to offer home economics classes. Meredith’s adopted daughter, Mary Matthews, was hired to teach some of the new courses. Matthews was a graduate of the University of Minnesota’s program in household management.  Meredith moved to Lafayette in 1916 to be near Matthews.

In 1921, Meredith became the first woman appointed to the Board of Trustees of Purdue University. She ultimately served as a trustee for 15 years and became an influential and well-respected member of the board. Under her influence, Purdue finally took the steps to establish a dedicated household management program in 1926. Mary Matthews was appointed the founding dean of the Purdue School of Home Economics.

Virginia Claypool Meredith died at the age of 88 on December 10, 1936. During her lifetime, she earned a reputation as an international leader in agricultural education and an advocate for rural women. Whether lecturing for Farmer’s Institutes, serving as a college professor, or supporting students as a Trustee of Purdue University, Meredith devoted herself to improving the lives of others. Two years after her death, the Indiana Federation of Clubs planted a forest in Meredith’s honor. Located near Shoals, Indiana, today the Virginia Claypool Meredith Memorial Forest sits within the Hoosier National Forest. A dormitory at Purdue University is also named in her honor.