“Quiet, Modest, Competent” Kilgore Served as First Director
“Quiet, modest, competent — a man of vision with the consistent ability to achieve worthwhile goals”: This is how the N.C. Agricultural Hall of Fame describes Benjamin Wesley Kilgore, the first director of the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service at what’s now known as N.C. State University.
Today, most people familiar with his name think of the university’s Kilgore Hall, home of the university’s Department of Horticultural Science. But Kilgore’s legacy endures in other ways: He was not only our Extension Service’s founding director, he also served as director of the closely linked N.C. Agricultural Experiment State (now the Agricultural Research Service) and dean of agriculture. And he became known and loved as the south’s “greatest agricultural scientist.”
Born in 1867 in Mississippi and raised on a cotton farm, Kilgore received both his B.S. in science and M.A. in chemistry from Mississippi A&M College. He also studied at Johns Hopkins University. He came to North Carolina in 1899 to serve as an agricultural chemist, then was tapped as Experiment Station director in July 1901. He left that post in 1907, only to return in 1912.
In 1914, when Extension work that had been going on in the state began to come under N.C. State’s umbrella, the university’s Board of Trustees appointed Kilgore to lead that work. He served as Extension director from 1914 to 1924.
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ records show that during Extension’s first year, Kilgore’s staff included 18 full-time workers or specialists and 11 part-time workers who spent the rest of their time working for the experiment station or teaching students. The county force grew to 71 farm demonstration agents and 37 home demonstration agents. In addition, 137 women were in charge of local clubs for girls and women, and they received a small payment for their work.
Those workers conducted educational programs related to agriculture, including dairy, fruit and truck growing, agronomy, cotton grading and marketing, drainage, beef cattle, sheep, swine and plant diseases; home economics; and club work for white boys and girls as well as African-American boys.
In 1919, Kilgore founded once-thriving Pine State Creamery to provide the Army with milk. It soon filled demand for milk from other buyers and continued to operate until 1996.
When N.C. State’s Trustees reorganized the university, it created four schools, including one for agriculture, in 1923. Kilgore became the School of Agriculture’s dean, with I.O. Schaub filling the Extension director’s spot the following year.
Kilgore’s tenure as dean was short: He and N.C. State’s President E.C. Brooks reportedly clashed on matters pertaining to the agricultural teaching program, and Kilgore resigned in 1925. He left the school, but later came back as a consulting agricultural chemist.
Beyond Extension and the agriculture school, Kilgore served as the first legislative representative of the N.C. State Grange. He helped organize The Progressive Farmer magazine and served as a director for 42 years. He was active in founding the Southern Agricultural Workers Association and in advocating for cooperatives. He served as president both of the North Carolina and American cotton growers exchanges.
Kilgore was held in such high esteem that Davidson College and North Carolina State College awarded him the honorary doctoral degrees, and he was inducted in the state agricultural hall of fame in 1967, 24 years after he passed away. During that induction it was said that Kilgore, “never a man of great physical stamina, nonetheless … used skill and brain power to spark significant rural progress.”