A special event was held in Traer, Iowa, on July 20 to commemorate the life of former U.S. Agriculture Secretary James Wilson. Dignitaries attending alongside current USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack included U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey. The event was held at the Traer Historical Museum where Vilsack helped cut the ribbon opening a new exhibit honoring Wilson.
What makes Wilson unique is that he is the longest serving cabinet member in history and served as secretary of agriculture under three presidents – McKinley, Roosevelt and Taft.
During the ceremony Grassley recounted the life of Wilson, who was born in Scotland. His family immigrated to Connecticut in 1851, but moved to a farm near Traer, in Tama County, Iowa, in 1855. Wilson kick-started his political career when he was elected to the Iowa House of Representatives in 1867. Then he went on to serve three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was given the nickname "Tama Jim" to distinguish him from Sen. James Falconer Wilson, also from Iowa.
Wilson returned to Iowa after his congressional career to farming, writing and teaching at Iowa State College, now Iowa State University. Wilson retained his position at Iowa State until 1897 when President McKinley asked him to serve as U.S. secretary of agriculture, continuing in that role until 1913.
Grassley noted Wilson was always looking for ways to help farmers and that he was a strong leader at USDA – helping expand new markets for farm products and establishing agricultural research stations, for example.
"Tama Jim was always looking for ways to bring science into agriculture," added Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.
"Tama Jim took over as secretary of agriculture at age 62 and served for 16 years," noted Vilsack. "The average term for a secretary these days in 2.5 years," he quipped. He went on to say that Wilson established the infrastructure still in place today at USDA.
"He also laid the groundwork for rural development. There was a 200% increase in the value of ag products during his terms.
"Probably the greatest thing he did was underscore the importance of agriculture to the rest of the country. I've attempted to continue that," declared Vilsack.