The first professional history society, the American Historical Association (AHA) was formed in 1888. It was later followed by others such as the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (MVHA), which eventually became the Organization of American Historians (OAH). The Agricultural History Society (AHS) was among the very first specialized historical groups. A small meeting, convened by J. F. Jameson of the AHA met at the Cosmos Club in Washington, DC on February 14, 1919. The distinguished botanist, Rodney H. True, was chosen as chair and later elected the first president of the Society. Professor William J. Trimble presented the very first paper that evening, entitled "The Great Surplus Period 1862 to 1902," and was elected vice president.
The original members of the AHS were a diverse lot -- not only historians from the Land Grants, the Ivies, and the normal schools, but also sociologists, scientists such as Rodney True, and economists such as O. C. Stine. What drew them together was a belief that they could better understand their individual fields through an understanding of the history of agriculture.
In many ways the driving force behind the Society was the pioneer agricultural economist, O. C. Stine, a member of the original executive committee. Stine, who had received his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, was a firm believer that economics could never be fathomed without an understanding of history, and he had done part-time historical research for the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) as early as the summer of 1915. He came to work full time for USDA in 1916. Stine was for many years in charge of statistical and historical research for the Bureau of Agricultural Economics within USDA. He retired in 1951. Stine served for a considerable period as the Secretary-Treasurer of the Society. He was the first editor of the Society's journal, Agricultural History, and was also an early president. Stine also established the custom that one of his employees devote as much time as necessary to the business of the AHS.
In 1927 Stine hired Everett E. Edwards, a Minnesota farm boy and an M.A. from Harvard. Edwards became assistant editor of Agricultural History and succeeded Stine as editor in 1931. He was, before his early death in 1952, the quiet mentor of the next generation of agricultural historians.
The Society grew more slowly than the founders had hoped, and it faced almost constant financial crises. The journal was well respected, but by 1939 it was about $1200 in debt to its printer -- a very significant sum in those days. Dr. Arthur Peterson succeeded Stine in that year as Secretary-Treasurer and through economy and a drive to enroll new members brought the Society back into the black within four years. The financial crisis of the journal came ironically at a time when agricultural history reached something of an apex. In 1938, Dr. M. L. Wilson, the Under Secretary of Agriculture served as president and convened several meetings with distinguished participants including Secretary Henry A. Wallace whose father, Secretary Henry C. Wallace had addressed the AHS more than a decade earlier.
In the years after World War II, the Society grew slowly but steadily. USDA continued to hire historians such as Wayne Rasmussen and the political scientist Gladys Baker. Rasmussen succeeded Edwards as Secretary-Treasurer and served for over forty years in that position with time out for a year as president. Agricultural History became an increasingly respected journal under a succession of able editors, although its financial situation was often precarious as correspondence scattered throughout this collection indicates. NAL has a file of Agricultural History in its periodical collection.
In the early years the AHS held its annual business meeting in Washington where the bulk of its membership was then located. It maintained close ties with the American Historical Association and often arranged to have joint sessions at the annual meetings of the latter. It also established early ties with the Mississippi Valley Historical Association and also held joint sessions at its meetings. By the 1960s when the MVHA changed its name to the Organization of American Historians in order to reflect the growth of its scope, the AHS began to hold its annual business meeting with it. Occasionally it also held meetings with the American Farm Economics Association with which Stine and others of the founders had close ties.