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University Libraries - News, Events & Exhibits

"David R. Coker and the Campaign to Modernize Southern Agriculture"

South Caroliniana Library (Lumpkin Foyer)
Feb 3, 2014 - May 30, 2014


South Caroliniana Library’s new exhibit, “David R. Coker and the Campaign to Modernize Southern Agriculture,” introduces plant-breeding pioneer David Robert Coker (1870-1938). On display through May, the exhibit uses many items from the Library’s David R. Coker Collection. It is a large exhibit, filling the Lumpkin Foyer and continuing in glass cases located in the first-floor Reading Room.

“David Coker was a nationally- and internationally-known expert in testing and breeding plants to retain the best qualities of those plants, much like people had been doing with animals for years, but it hadn’t really been done with plants,” said University Archivist Elizabeth Cassidy West, who curated the exhibit.

“He applied a scientific approach and he was very open about the processes he used to grow experimental plants," she said. "He readily shared his knowledge with farmers by writing pamphlets and seed catalogs. He also served on the University’s Board of Trustees for 27 years, and Coker Life Sciences Building is named after him. He has been referred to as an ‘agricultural evangelist,’ and I think that is a perfect description.”

Incorporated in 1914, Coker Pedigreed Seed Company focused on helping Southern farmers grow superior cotton and, later, corn, wheat, oats, soybeans, tobacco and other crops. Beginning with 30 experimental cotton selections, Coker applied the latest techniques to the scientific breeding of crops. His family’s Coker Experimental Farms near Hartsville played a leading role in the South’s agricultural revolution.

But Coker was more than an early plant geneticist, and this exhibit introduces many sides of him: South Carolina son, businessman, scientist, and man of privilege and social standing who felt a duty to help create a healthy agricultural economy for the state’s farmers.

"The exhibit shows that the planting and shipping of cotton changed very little for about 150 years until there were advances of technology with mechanization of those procedures, particularly the harvesting,” West said. “Coker wanted to get away from the tenantry, or sharecropping, form of farming. That’s where a tenant plants crops on someone else’s land and they have to give some of their crop to the landowner. But if a tenant had total or nearly total loss of their crop, then that continued the tenant’s poverty. Coker believed that a system where just a few people owned large amounts of land was not a healthy or viable system because it left so many people in poverty. He wanted to diversify crops and make the tenant farmers enough money so they could buy their own land and lift themselves out of poverty. He felt that that small shift was an ideal situation.

“Coker and his entire family felt a responsibility with their wealth and their social position to improve the lives of those around them,” West said. “One example is boll weevil control. People growing up today don’t understand how devastating that one bug was to an entire agricultural industry. There was a method to control the boll weevil approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but it was expensive. Coker said it was too expensive for the tenant farmer to use, so he came up with a very inexpensive liquid method and he invented a spray mechanism that any small farmer or tenant farmer would be able to build and use. The Coker family was instrumental in ridding the South of the boll weevil.”

The Coker exhibit includes many items from the Coker Collection: numerous photographs of the Coker farm, its experimental fields and crops, and the various types of machinery used at the time; seed catalogs from the Coker Pedigreed Seed Company, such as the colorful one featured above; and pamphlets. To fully tell this multi-dimensional story, West has added photographs of South Carolina tenant farmers, real cotton plants courtesy of the South Carolina Cotton Museum in Bishopville, a cotton weight that was once used on her grandfather’s farm in Cassatt, South Carolina, and a cotton scale owned by the family of South Caroliniana Library Director Henry Fulmer.

South Caroliniana Library is located on the University’s historic Horseshoe. It is open 8:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. Saturday, and closed Sunday. For more information, visit