Biography of Geo. W. Owens
I was born Jan. 21, 1875 on a farm near the small town Alma Kansas some 40 miles west of Topeka the State Capital. Both of my parents were ex slaves and immigrants from central Tennessee and who came to Kansas by steam boats up the Tennessee river to the Ohio and down the Ohio to the Mississippi thence up that river and the Missouri to Westport Landing now Kansas City. From Westport Landing they went overland in covered wagons called prairie schooners to Fort Scott Kansas and settled for a while on the Marais des Cygnes River.
Later in search of free homestead they emmigrated by wagon train to Wabunsee County Kansas (named after a Pottowatmie Indian chief), and settled there with many other colored people from Tennessee. Here I was born and grew up on a western prairie farm.
When my father first emmigrated to Kansas like many other colored farmers with few or small funds he found it necessary to rent land and hence he looked around for public land to homestead. He finally secured 80 acres (school land 7 or 8 miles N.W. [approximately 5 miles] of Alma on some wild, hilly land with a rather clayey subsoil. Here he built a crude home of native stone and moved his family with the same. Here in the intense heat of summer and bitter cold of the western winters I spent my early years working on my fathers farm or hired to work by our neighbors, many of whom were foreign emigrants from Western Europe come to America to get homes and more freedom. In winter we attended the local district school (for some time the only colored pupils in that community). Living conditions were rather harsh and primitive with cold winters and much snow and very hot in the open prairies in the summer. The annual rain fall along the 100th meridian (where we settled [Alma is actually located at approximately the 96th meridian] was from 10 to 20 inches annually and most of this in winter snow. There were very few trees and these along the small creeks bottoms (these bottom lands were highly prized. Many of the settlers were veterans from the Union armies who took up homesteads and raised corn, wheat, horses beef cattle and hogs.
The colored children attended the district schools with the children of the white settlers. Many Germans, Danes, Swedes and other foreign immigrants from the Eastern States. We grew up to-gether, played and worked together. We made fair
records in the public schools, and I became to be quite a local celebrity on account of my ability as a winner in spelling contests all over that region. I was also very good in history of all kinds. I attended school whenever possible especially in winter. I attended school during the day in winter and worked on the farms caring for stock and crops after school hours. I was up very early in the morning and working after school. Finally I graduated from the common schools and worked for several years on a farm owned by some thrifty white settlers and during the time I had the good fortune to meet a young man (who boarded with the family) who was a teacher in the local high school and whose home was in Manhattan Kansas and where the Kansas State Agricultural College is situated. He was a graduate of same. He became interested in my desire to study and encouraged me to apply for permission to work my way through the college course.
Meanwhile I took the local examination for a teachers certificate (I was still working as a hired hand on a local farm) and passed with good grades, but I had no school to teach, in fact I had only seen one group of all colored children up to that time. I had never seen a colored doctor lawyer or other professional man until I went south years later. There was a small school for colored pupils in Manhattan taught by a Mrs. De Priest. She was a niece of the Congressman afterwards from Chicago, but then lived in Salina Kansas.
As a boy I was very apt and ambitious eager to learn, ready to read any literature I could find even old books, newspapers or journals. I was particularly good at spelling and I won most of the spelling bees I participated in around the community. I also read all the histories I could secure, ancient, medieval or current.
Meanwhile I worked on a large stock ranch owned by a rancher named Miller near St. Marys Kansas and following the advice of my old friend (the teacher from Manhattan) Chas. Smith. I decided to try to enter and work my way through the Kansas State Agr College.
So in Jan 1-1896 I went to Manhattan (25 or 30 miles from my old home and enrolled as a student. I found to my surprise that I was the only colored student enrolled in the college, and that they had never had a colored graduate so I resolved to be the first. I finally succeeded, but suffered much hardship.
I entered the Kans State Agr College in Jan 1896 and graduated in June 1899, completing the course in 3 1/4 years meanwhile working at various jobs at the college to pay my expenses, working on the school farm, in the dairy, and as a janitor during the school term and for two summers. Other summers were spent in labor on farms, railroads, shoveling coal and working in harvest. In the summer of 1899 I made a trip to Oklahoma as a laborer and worked in the harvest fields and with threshing crews. Later in August 1899 I spent 2 or 3 weeks in the creamery at the Iowa State College at Ames Iowa to take special work in butter making, cheese making and dairy management and organization before going to Tuskegee Inst, Tuskegee Ala to teach.
Early in 1899, I received a letter from Mr. Booker T. Washington Founder of Tuskegee Inst offering me a position as assistant to Prof. G. W. Carver, and I was also to have charge of the creamery at Tuskegee Inst. I accepted the offer ($48.00 per month and board). My journey to Tuskegee was full of interest as I had been raised in the plains or prairies and never seen so much fine wood lands and timber.
I arrived in Tuskegee in Sept 1899 and was very much pleased to meet Dr. Washington, Prof. Carver and others for whom I formed life time friendships. The next year I also took charge of the Dairy Herd and conducted same for 8 years. Having had much experience with cattle in my native state, I was able to introduce many new features in the management, feeding, and breeding of live stock. I figured out and used more balanced and economic feeding, also in the manufacture and utilization of diary products. I also introduced and increased the use of ensilage as a dairy feed, cotton seed meal was used as a nitrogen base for concentrates.
When I began work at Tuskegee (some 46 years ago), I had never (except for a brief visit to Oklahoma) been in the South before. So everything was new and interesting, especially the differences in the physical conditions of the soil, trees, vegetation and crops. For instance after growing up on the wide open prairies of my native west, the great forests of pine and other trees in the lower South were a constant source of wonder, also the way in which wood, lumber and trees were wasted was painful to a Westerner who cherished even an individual tree.
Also as stated above, the crops were new and interesting and to a person who had never heard much of cotton, rice, tobacco, and who had never seen such crops it was all new and interesting. The methods of planting, cultivation & harvesting and use were always interesting experience. Also the scarcity of gardens vegetables, and fruits in such a warm climate was a surprise and wonder.
As an Instructor in charge of the Dairy Herd we cared for and had the boys milk from 100 to 125 cows daily. There were several breeds of [milk] cows, such as Jerseys, Guernsey, Ayshire, etc. I endeavored to keep the different breeds separated and improve each by breeding and management. We found that the chief source for protein for stock feed as well as nitrogen for crops in the South was cotton seed meal. Beef came of common or mixed ancestry were also raised by the school for butchering. During the 8 or 9 years I was in charge I tried hard to improve the herd by breeding up the best animals. As the soils in Alabama in Macon County were very poor it was difficult to raise the necessary corn, etc. for silage to feed the Dairy Herds. We learned by practical experience many helpful things about Southern Agriculture, use of legumes especially corn, peas and such crops. Also the value of such crops in the care of livestock. We had fair success in the development and use of siloes in the South.
During my earlier years at Tuskegee it was my good fortune to work under Dr. Geo. W. Carver as he was then Director of Agriculture. However as his scientific work increased he could not give the necessary time to the various technical operations on the school farm, but served as Advisor in all phases of the agr work. Dr. Carver also operated the experiment station and carried out many useful and helpful experiments on cotton, peanuts, corn and other crops. He also built up a splendid agricultural laboratory where he gradually increased his experiments with soils, sweet potatoes, peanuts, corn, and other products. Other professional men served as leaders in the technical operations of the large school farm among these was Prof. Atwell and Prof. Geo. R. Bridegforth as Director of Agr Dept. We will not attempt to write a history of the many successful experiments of Dr. Carver’s work with soils and other farm products, as this data can be found in the history of his life and scientific research and achievements. We were very fond of him as a friend and fellow worker, one for whom we had the highest respect and admiration.
At this point in our narration of some of the important events in my life, I will speak briefly of my marriage and domestic life at Tuskegee.
In the summer of 1900 I returned to my native west for a visit and in Sept 1900 I resumed my work at Tuskegee. That fall I had the good fortune to meet a very beautiful and accomplished young woman, a native of Georgia by the name of Miss. Waddie L. Hill. She was a graduate of Clarke University in Atlanta Georgia and a young woman of very pleasing personality and very attractive appearance. Her native home was La Grange Ga. After a very pleasant courtship we were married Aug 29, 1901, and enjoyed our married bliss until her death in Va in 1921. During our married life of over 20 years we were very happy and enjoyable, she was the ideal wife, mother and house keeper. Being a very intelligent woman of high spiritual ideals and character. By this union we had four children, one boy who died as a baby in 1902, my oldest daughter Emma (now Mrs. Moore) Supervisor of Fairfax Co Va. My son George A. Owens now in the U.S. Army since June 1941 now in New Guinea. He spent 20 months abroad in 1942-43 at Trinidad in the Greater Antilles (British possessions) with the 99th Coast Artillery Anti Air Corps Batteries. My youngest daughter Miss Elnora Owens is now a teacher of Home Economics at the Va State College. All my children are graduates of Va State College and my two daughters hold M.S. degrees from Iowa State College at Ames Iowa and Pa. University at Phila.
During the years of World War I there was a disease that was very prevalent known as the Spanish Influenza, that not only caused the illness and death of thousands of soldiers, but also civilians. In 1919-20 my wife had a severe attack which finally turned into T.B. On my return from Cornell in 1920 we sent her to the sanitarium in Brookville Va, where she remained from Aug 1920 to Apr 1921 and she seemed much improved. She returned home, and at first did very well in her recovery, but the disease gradually weakened her and finally in the fall of 1921 we decided to send her back to the sanitarium at Brookville, but the evening before she was to leave she passed away Nov 23-1921 leaving her family grief stricken & sad.
We will now go back and take up my career in an Agriculture education, and my change of position from Tuskegee Inst Ala to the V. N. I. I. [Virginia Normal and Industrial Institute], Petersburg Va. I began my work at the V. N. I. I. in June 1908.