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The Scottish American History Club Newsletter
October 1998

James Wilson

Some historians consider James Wilson the greatest of all U.S. secretaries of agriculture. In tenure and accomplishment, he set records that have never been equaled. Wilson was born August 16, 1835 in Ayrshire, Scotland, near the farm rented by Robert Burns 50 years earlier. He was one of 14 children. His parents came to the U. S. in 1852, settling in Connecticut before moving to Tama county, Iowa three years later.

He attended Grinnell College, farmed, taught school, and was elected to the Iowa state house (1867-71), serving as speaker (1870-71). He was a state university regent and from 1891 to 1897 was a professor of agriculture at what is now Iowa State University. In 1897 he joined the McKinley administration as secretary of agriculture and was retained by Presidents Roosevelt and Taft until 1913. Wilson was know as “Tama Jim” to distinguish him from Iowa Senator James Wilson, no relation. Tama Jim was an unusual combination of accomplished educator, shrewd politician, and gifted organizer. President Warren Harding once asserted that except for his Scottish birth he would almost certainly have become president of the United States.

He revolutionized American agriculture by extending the U.S. Department of Agriculture into many areas. He established the extension service, began U.S. world leadership in agricultural science, inaugurated programs in agricultural economics, farm credit, soil conservation, and reforestation. He expanded facilities for research in plant disease and insect control and began a complex of experimental fields and laboratories at Beltsville, Md., that is known as one of the world’s greatest research facilities.

Wilson never forgot his Scottish heritage. He was well indoctrinated, mostly by his father, in the Bible and the poetry of Burns and Scott which he often quoted to make a point. He was a good friend of Andrew Carnegie, the industrialist, a friendship made closer by their common Scottish heritage. He was also very close to other prominent Scottish Americans like Governor William Hoard of Wisconsin, founder of Hoard’s Dairyman magazine and Henry Wallace. Wallace was the father of Secretary of Agriculture Henry C. Wallace.

All three men Wallace, Hoard, and Wilson were excellent speakers and writers. They were all about the same age and tried to meet annually. They would meet, sip a little scotch, quote Burns, and plan next year’s meeting. As a staunch Republican, Tama Jim never wavered. He would sometimes admit there was some good in a Democrat, but would add that he had never found it. When President Woodrow Wilson, a democrat, came to power in 1912 the 16-year tenure as Secretary of Agriculture came to an end. He was 78.

During his tenure, he expanded weather forecasting, mapped soil types, and pushed for all weather rural roads and food inspection. Wilson began building the hug
e complex that houses the U.S.D.A. The classic colonnades stand as his memorial. James “Tama Jim” Wilson died August 26, 1920 in Traer, Iowa.

President William McKinely said of Wilson, “He was a most valuable public servant.” General Wickersham said, “He was typicallly Scottish, poised, reserved, competent.” President William Howard Taft said, “He was a canny Scot, a delightful associate, thoughtful, genial, and thoroughly loyal.”


Allan Carpenter
* Someone You Should Know *

John Allan Carpenter was born in Waterloo, Iowa in 1917 and traces his family directly to the “Wilson Clan” of Traer, Iowa. Mr. Carpenter now lives in Chicago and “is one of the most respected non-fiction authors in American publishing history.” He is a prolific writer with more than 225 books to his credit. By 1990 his four “enchantment series” were approaching 10 million copies printed.

Among his accomplishments is the founding of the national magazine The Teachers Digest. At the age of 21, he was the director of public relations for Popular Mechanics, a position he held for 19 years. His writings are too many to mention in this article but here are just a few: author of the sixteen-volume Popular Mechanics Home Handyman Encyclopedia; fifty-two volume Enchantment of America state series; and his thirty-eight volume Enchantment of Africa series. His book: Illinois: Land of Lincoln, was the official book of the Illinois Sesquicentennial Celebration. In 1993 he co-authored World Almanac of the U.S.A.

“For more than twenty-five years, intermittently, he served as clerk of Session of the Second Presbyterian Church in Evanston, Illinois.” He has been a member of many non-professional symphony orchestras including the Chicago Business Men's Orchestra. He served as founder and president of the Music Council of Metropolitan Chicago. In 1988, Mr. Carpenter received a Life Achievement Award from the University of Northern Iowa. He served as president of the Society of Wilson Descendants for more than forty years. Mr. Carpenter is a Life Member of the Illinois St. Andrew society.


cotch in America

“The first notable Scotch arrivals in America were shipped as prisoners of war, sentenced to be transported to American plantations and sold into service. No men ever came under such discouraging conditions. Yet the Scotch have probably cut deeper into the history of the United States than any other nationality, though they have not been the most numerous or boastful.”

“The Scotch in American have shown practically the characteristics of their mother country. They are persons of few words, dislike of display, quiet and undemonstrative in behaviour, but more firm and determined in spirit: cautious and reserved, but energetic and tenacious with a capacity for hard work which with patience, courage and endurance is liable to result in success. ‘Vigourous initiative’ is a phrase especially fitting the Scotch.”

Arthur MacDonald

Please note that the above is a direct quotation from Mr. MacDonald. He uses the word “Scotch” as a reference to people and not as we do today for something one drinks. His writings are from the early 1900's.

Few Other Wilsons

Sam Wilson - His parents were from Greenock, Scotland. During the war of 1812, he lived in Troy, N.Y. where he ran a food business. One of his customers was the U.S. Army and when he shipped beef to the army he stamped U.S. on the wooden barrels. His employees gently derided him and call these barrels Uncle Sam’s beef. The soldiers, however, did not know Sam Wilson and thought Uncle Sam was new slang for the U.S. Government.

Thomas Wilson - In 1818, he regularly ran his Vulcan on the Forth and Clyde Canal. This was the world’s first passenger vessel made of iron.

Robert Wilson - invented the screw propeller in 1827, but it was patented by John Ericsson in 1827.

John Gordon Wilson - born in 1866 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Came to Chicago in 1901 as a member of the faculty of the University of Chicago. He was also a professor at Northwestern University Medical School beginning in 1908 and author of numerous articles on neurology and other medical subjects. His resident was at 5221 Hibbard Avenue and his office was at 15 E. Washington St. in Chicago.

Charles Wilson - Founder of Holiday Inns. An American of Scottish descent, he was left fatherless at an early age. Holiday Inn is now the largest hotel chain in the world with hotels on every continent except Antarctica

Ronald Reagan - Mr. Reagan was the 40th President of the United States. He is the great-great grandson of the weaver and radical, Claud Wilson, and his wife, Peggie Downie. During his tour of Scotland in 1991, Mr. Reagan wore a Wilson family tartan jacket.


Scottish Societies

Chicago has had many Scottish organization in addition to our own Society. A Caledonian Club was organized in 1865 with 100 members. They held what we now call highland games in September, 1866, with 5,000 present. Later a Caledonian Society was formed in 1883 with 50 members and they held games in 1884.

By 1887, there was at least 13 societies in Chicago. They united in what was called the United Scottish Societies in 1901 and by 1911 a total of 17 societies were in a Central Council. These groups were active in erecting the Robert Burns monument located in Garfield Park on Chicago’s west side.

The history of these societies has regretfully been lost in time. The only surviving member has been The Illinois St. Andrew Society. Perhaps the last to dissolve was the Orkney and Shetland Society sometimes know as the O & S. It appears they ceased to exist in the early 1970s. Our Society Newsletter No. 28 published July 1, 1984, speaks of Jim and Clara Manson of Long Beach, California, who had been active in the O & S. When the O & S ceased to function, the money left in the treasury bought a memorial table for the entry of the Scottish Home. We have apparently lost track of that memorial table. Does anyone remember? Please call if you remember the table and have a description.

Scottish Surnames

Jim Thompson once wrote that the three most common surnames in Scotland were Smith, MacDonald and Brown. They were followed by Robertson, Thomson, Stewart, Campbell and Wilson.

The Scottish-American Hall of Fame at the Scottish Home lists six Wilsons as members. They are:

James Wilson, signer of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. constitution;

Woodrow Wilson, U. S. President and Nobel Peace Prize winner;

William B. Wilson, labor leader and first U. S. Secretary of Labor;

Henry Wilson, U. S. Vice President, U. S. Senator and abolitionist politician;

Alexander Wilson, ornithologist; and

James Wilson, U. S. Secretary of Agriculture for 16 years.

From the Editor...

On August 1, Mary and I drove to Waterloo, Iowa, and the next day attended the Wilson family reunion in Traer, Iowa. The Illinois St. Andrew Society was honored at the reunion and was given the Tama Jim Award for 1998.

This Wilson family history begins “with John Wilson who was born about 1750 on the family farm known as Kilpatrick, Ayrshire, Scotland.” Around 1770, he married Janet Murdock and eight children were born to the union.

James, the second son, married Jane Lusk and 11 children were born to this union. Eight of the eleven came to America and seven of the eight became residents of north Tama County, Iowa. “It is from these seven children that the descendants have established the seven branches of the ‘Wilson Clan’ who gather annually for a family reunion in Traer, Iowa. The current president of this group is Randolph W. Lyon and he was kind enough to present the Society with a copy of The Wilson Family History, 75th Anniversary Edition 1921-1995. They believe the annual meeting is the oldest of any family group in America.

The book contains 287 pages, 138 pages devoted to tracing the descendants of this “Wilson Clan.” Over 4,000 family names are traced back to the original seven children who came to Iowa. The book will be donated to our Genealogy Club and placed in their library. We certainly enjoyed the day and express our thanks to Allan Carpenter and Randolph Lyon for their invitation.


Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society
Scottish-American History Club
2800 Des Plaines Avenue
North Riverside, IL 60546