Beaver Dam — This year marks the centennial of the passage of the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, the federal legislation that established vocational agriculture in high school classes across the nation.
Preserving a century of Vocational Agriculture memorabilia has become a passion for David Laatsch, of Beaver Dam, a retired agriculture teacher and FFA advisor.
“Collecting began in earnest when the National FFA updated symbols for officer’s use at chapter meetings,” Laatsch explained. “Our chapter ordered the new set and began using them. My last officer team brought out the old set that we had used for years, including the owl, rising sun, plow, hands of friendship, flag and George Washington, for my retirement banquet.”
At the end of the program, each officer signed their respective symbol, dated it, and presented it to Laatsch as a retirement gift.
More than just tokens
“It was then that I realized that agricultural education memorabilia and FFA paraphernalia are more than just tokens. They are symbols that remind us of the learning experiences, the good times and the hope for the future of agriculture.”
Local “Ag Clubs” started almost as soon as agriculture classes were adopted by school districts. In 1928, local clubs met in Kansas City, MO and formalized the Future Farmers of America.
Laatsch’s collection of FFA materials now number into the hundreds. Degree pins, banners, ties, signs, books, photos and FFA jackets make up the majority of items in his collection.
“I started scouring estate sales, garage sales, auctions and online markets for items related to FFA and ag education. People call me to tell me that their grandpa died and say ‘Are you interested in his FFA memorabilia?’”
The 'hunt' for memorabilia
“The ‘hunt’ is fun. And piecing together the chronological order things were made is a challenge,” said Laatsch, adding that the FFA Jacket is the most identifiable and personal symbol of the organization. "The first jackets were recorded at the 1933 National FFA Convention when the Fredericktown, Ohio chapter. Each corduroy blue jacket was individually chain-link embroidered on the back with the FFA emblem—lacking the eagle, which was to the official emblem in 1934.”
Jackets continued to be manufactured by various athletic and work uniform companies until FFA took over the sole production in the 1950’s.
“This led to slight variations in design such as snaps instead of zippers. In the 1940’s some jackets were made with yellow liners around the pockets or “arrows” as they are referred to as.”
Laatsch is honored to have the jacket worn by Louis Mueller of Clintonville, WI. Mueller was State FFA secretary 1938-39. He says the jacket has all the memories of a time gone by.
On a recent visit with his friend and neighbor Russell Maurer, Beaver Dam FFA president, 1935-36, Laatsch shared the Mueller jacket.
“Stories of the Depression era started flowing, including memories of his ag teacher, camping trips and showing livestock. Maurer did not have a jacket because times were ‘tough” back then,” Laatsch said.
Very few members had jackets in Wisconsin until after WWII.
"The very first Beaver Dam FFA member to purchase an official jacket, in 1948, was Orville Muhle Jr., the son of one of our chapter’s charter members," he said. "Earlier than that, members received a felt emblem that was safety pinned to the back of their Sunday suit coat or stitched to a sweater for official events, like the Father/Son Banquet.”
“During the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, some chapters recognized a special girl with a white corduroy ‘Chapter Sweetheart’ jacket. After girls were admitted to regular FFA membership in 1969, the “Sweetheart” fell out of favor and regular blue member jacket was designed for female members. In 2004, the jacket was redesigned to accommodate the body structure of modern teenagers—a longer torso and larger sizes.”
“But my main goal has become safeguarding a segment of agricultural history! A pin, sign, jacket or plaque meant the world to the FFA member! It was kept in a jewelry box, the attic or closet for 50, 60, 70 or more years!”
“As time goes on, the next generation has no idea the significance of these items. My fear is that the items get pitched in the trash. If a scrap gold buyer finds a 10K gold award pin on an estate sale, it gets melted down and is lost forever!”
For the first 60 years of the organization, nearly all jewelry and pins were made exclusively by the L.G. Balfour Co. Attleboro, Massachusetts, a company that today specializes in class rings and yearbooks. Laatsch notes that the craftsmanship of these pins is "exceptional.”
The early FFA signs and pinbacks were made by the St. Louis Button Company. The FFA emblem became a registered trademark after WW II and much of the production and distribution of FFA equipment was brought “in house” when the FFA Supply Service moved into the National FFA Center Alexandria, VA in 1953.
Today, an entire division of the FFA Organization called ShopFFA.org provides members with paraphernalia. Profits from the sales fund the FFA and educational programs.
“I doubt that the National FFA Organization realizes that when they make a slight change to the FFA emblem, as they did two years ago, all previous jackets, signs, plaques and pins are obsolete — and collectible!”
Laatsch says he always try to find out who the item belonged to, what that person was involved in while an FFA member and through life. I know the excitement and feeling of accomplishment a member has at time that an award medal was received. I record the provenance and keep it with the item.”
Laatsch currently serves as the president of the ‘Twenty-year Club,’ the committee of the Wisconsin Association of Agriculture Educator (WAAE) that involves retired teachers into the professional organization. Laatsch stays in touch with teachers across the state. He is also a member of the state and national committees for the celebration of the Smith-Hughes Act Centennial.
“I was fortunate to have taught my entire career in Beaver Dam, where three teachers served the program for nearly 80 years. Our program has detailed scrapbooks that cover the entire chapter history," he said. "I would use the historical materials to give the students a connection to the past and a starting point from which to build their future.he nature of Ag Education is such that teachers understand the importance of the history of the program."
However, Laatsch says it's officials who go into the classroom and throw everything away.
"The history, the awards, the plaques, the memories all go in the trash! I realize that a school’s mission is focused on the future and can’t be a museum," he said.
Laatsch says he hopes to preserve as many historical artifacts as he can before they're lost.
"I want to display it at FFA and other organizations’ conventions during the Smith-Hughes Act Centennial year. 2028 will be a big year—and it’s not that far off—the FFA Centenniall," he said. "Until then, the collecting and preserving goes on!”
“Perhaps someday, Wisconsin FFA has a permanent state headquarters and these things will make a great start to telling the history of agriculture education.”