James "Tama Jim" Wilson

James Wilson (1835-1920) was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, the first of 14 children. The family emigrated to the U.S. in 1851, settling in Connecticut, but moved to a farm near Traer in Tama County, Iowa in 1855. During his early years in Iowa, James attended Grinnell College, began farming, married Esther Wilbur in 1863, and edited the Traer Star-Clipper. He was elected to the Iowa legislature, then to three terms in the U. S. House of Representatives. In Congress he served on the Committee on Agriculture and the Rules Committee, and acquired the nickname "Tama Jim" to distinguish him from Senator James Falconer Wilson ("Jefferson Jim") also from Iowa.

After his congressional career, Tama Jim returned to farming, and wrote for the Iowa Homestead and other farm journals. In 1891 he was appointed Professor of Agriculture and Director of the Experiment Station at Iowa State College where he placed agricultural instruction on a scientific and practical basis. During his six years at Iowa State he established a very close relationship with George Washington Carver, often discussing the possibility of applying the principles of plant genetics to improving livestock.

From 1897 to 1913 he served as Secretary of Agriculture under three presidents (McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft). During his supervision the department extended its activities, established experiment stations in all parts of the U.S., inaugurated farm demonstration work in the South, began cooperative extension work in agriculture and home economics, and sent experts and scientists all over the world to gather information for the promotion of agriculture. Also under his tenure, legislation dealing with plant and animal diseases, insect pests, forestry, irrigation, conservation, road building, and agricultural education was enacted.

After retirement from the cabinet he returned home to Tama County and was appointed by the governor to investigate and report on agricultural conditions in Great Britain together with his longtime friend "Uncle" Henry Wallace.

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James A. "Tama Jim" Wilson

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Resources available online


James Wilson Papers

RS 9/1/11
University Archives, Iowa State University Library