Shoulders of Giants: Hugh Hammond Bennett

This is the first of a series of posts I’m planning for this blog that focus on scientists that paved the way for the current research in soil science, wetland science, and soil and water conservation. 

Most of the following was paraphrased from a biography of Hugh Hammond Bennett written by Dr. Maurice Cook, Emeritus Professor of Soil Science, North Carolina State University 

Hugh Hammond Bennett is a proud son of the state of North Carolina. Hugh Hammond Bennett was born on April 15, 1881, in Anson County, North Carolina where he grew up on his father’s 1,200-acre plantation in the Carolinas (Cook, 2012). He later received a degree in chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (I think if he was around today he would have enrolled in soil science at NC State, but  maybe I’m biased). His intentions were to follow a career in pharmacy, but instead fell into a position with the USDA as a chemist with the Bureau of Soils, and eventually started with the soil survey.

Through his experience in the soil survey, Bennett realized the effects of soil erosion and the negative impacts it had on agriculture. This lead him to eventually publishing Soil Erosion, A National Menace which, through Bennetts political connections, eventually lead to some federal funding approved for erosion research. This funding Bennett established a network of ten erosion stations in various problem areas of the country: Clarinda, Iowa; Hayes, Kansas; Bethany, Missouri; Statesville, North Carolina; Zanesville, Ohio; Guthrie, Oklahoma; Temple, Texas; Tyler, Texas; Pullman, Washington; and La Crosse, Wisconsin. Through the affirmative data found at these research sites, Cook states there were finally “positive tangible results of [Bennett’s] efforts to arouse the American public to act. The soil erosion peril was, for the first time in the nation’s history, an official concern.

This was occurring during the great depression, and right before the peak of the dust bowls in the southern Great Plains. As part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Civilian Conservation Corps was established. With that, the Soil Erosion Service was also created within the US Department of the Interior with Bennett in charge to lead the fight for soil conservation. Cook states that “The CCC was established ‘to carry out reforestation and other conservation projects in the national forests and national parks.’ A five-million-dollar appropriation was made available for erosion control on private and public lands, with work to be administered by the Bureau of Agricultural Engineering in the USDA.” At the request of the secretary of agriculture, the Soil Erosion Service was later moved from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture.

Shortly thereafter, huge dust storms swept across the Great Plains that carried Midwestern soil thousands of miles to the east coast. Soil erosion was now of national concern. The following is a direct quote from Cook:

In March 1935, a bill was introduced in Congress to set up the Soil Conservation Service as a permanent agency of the government. It was one of many dropped in the hopper under the urgency of the Dust Bowl and its accompanying consequences of depression, unemployment, and hunger. Bennett was called by a Senate committee to argue the case for the proposed legislation. His appearance and what followed it are now legendary. A Bennett biographer, Wellington Brink, graphically describes the event:

“The witness was not cheerful, but he was persistent, informed, and courageous. He told a grim story. He had been telling it all morning. Chapter by chapter, he annotated each dismal page with facts and figures from a reconnaissance he had just completed. . . . The witness did not hurry. He did not want to hurry. That extra ace he needed was not yet at hand. Well he realized that the hearing was beginning to drag. Out of one corner of his eye, he noted the polite stifling of a yawn, but Hugh Bennett continued deliberatively. . . . Bennett knew that a dust storm was on its way. He had newspaper items and weather reports to support this knowledge. But it seemed mighty slow arriving. If his delaying tactics were successful, the presence of the swirling dust—material evidence of what he was talking about—ought to serve as a clincher for his argument. Presently one of the senators remarked—off the record—’It is getting dark. Perhaps a rainstorm is brewing.’ Another ventured, ‘Maybe its dust.’ ‘I think you are correct,’ Bennett agreed. ‘Senator, it does look like dust.’ The group gathered at a window. The dust storm for which Hugh Bennett had been waiting rolled in like a vast steel-town pall, thick and repulsive. The skies took on a copper color. The sun went into hiding. The air became heavy with grit. Government’s most spectacular showman had laid the stage well. All day, step by step, he had built his drama, paced it slowly, risked possible failure with his interminable reports, while he prayed for Nature to hurry up a proper denouement. For once, Nature cooperated generously.”

Hugh H. Bennett in a field about four miles south of Haskell, Okla., in May 1943. It was estimated that about 75 percent of the topsoil had eroded from this field. (J.W. Hammett, SCS.)

Shortly thereafter, the Soil Conservation Act was passed by congress without a dissenting vote and signed by congress on April 27, 1935. The act established the Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service), as a permanent department of the USDA.  The departments first chief – Hugh Hammond Bennett.

Bennett was crucial in the development of science studying soil conservation. He was also vital to the implementation of conservation practices, and the development of local soil and water conservation districts. He was also a founding member of the Soil and Water Conservation Society.

Hugh Bennett officially concluded his career of distinguished public service on April 30, 1952, when he retired from the SCS. He died on July 7, 1960, after a long battle with cancer.

If you would like to find out more about Hugh Hammond Bennett, here are some very informational resources:

Hugh Hammond Bennett: the Father of Soil Conservation by Maurice G. Cook, Emeritus Professor of Soil Science, North Carolina State University

Profiles in the History of the US Soil Survey by Douglas Helms, Anne B. W. Effland, Patricia J. Durana

Soil Erosion: A National Menace by Hugh Hammond Bennett

Biography: Hugh Hammond Bennett from the PBS American Experience Series

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