Biography of Foster Dwight Coburn

It is no disparagement of the rank and file of that host of Kansas militant farmers who bore the heat and burden of the day and by their aggregate efforts raised Kansas to front rank among American agricultural states, to say that Foster Dwight Coburn is the distinguished leader of them all. He has long held secure a place as “one of the really great men of Kansas.” And like other Kansas great men, his achievements and influence have translated him to a place among the nation’s great men. His position in life is the more interesting because it is due not to political prominence, not to the accident of birth or fortune, but first and last to the splendid service he has rendered his state and the cause of agriculture. Undoubtedly he is and has been for years one of America’s foremost authorities and experts on this subject.

His great work, and that in which he has most pride, was rendered during his more than twenty consecutive years as secretary of the agricultural department of Kansas. Yet, again and again Mr. Coburn has spoken with enthusiasm and praise of the men. who shared before him the responsibilities and honors of that office. He often says that Alfred Gray, who organized the State Board of Agriculture in 1872, was the most useful man Kansas ever produced. It was the successor of Alfred Gray, Major J. K. Hudson, who became secretary in 1880, who first brought Coburn into the work of the board as office assistant. In the forty-four years since the Board of Agriculture was established, and among its seven different secretaries, F. D. Coburn filled the office for nearly twenty-one years, almost half the entire time of its existence.

To describe the work of Mr. Coburn, even while secretary of the Kansas State Board of Agriculture, would require a volume. So far as the present generation is concerned, everyone in Kansas and many thousands outside the state know who he is. The purpose of this sketch is to give a running outline of his career, the positions he has held, suggestive only of his real work and influence–a record that may properly be included in the Standard History of Kansas.

Mr. Coburn was born in Jefferson County, Wisconsin, May 7, 1846, a son of Ephraim W. and Mary Jane (Mnlks) Coburn. Spending the first thirteen years of his life on a farm, and gaining a primary education in the district schools, he was still a boy when the Civil war broke out, but he served in the Union army, first as corporal of Company F of the One Hundred and Thirty-fifth Regiment, Illinois Volunteer Infantry, and later as private and sergeantmajor of the Sixty-second Illinois Veteran Volunteer Infantry, being mustered out of the service in March, 1866.

It was in the war time that Mr. Coburn acquired his desire to be identifled with Kansas. In Franklin County, where he located in 1867 and afterwards married his wife, he worked as a farm laborer, taught school, and was a successful farmer and breeder of improved live stock on his own account. He was not by any means exclusively a book farmer, and it is said that when he first became connected with the agricultural department of the state in 1880 he had little of the book or laboratory knowledge of agriculture now taught in colleges. From the first he had, however, been breeding stock of a superior grade, and he thus early showed the intelligence and qualities which marked him for preferment.

On July 1, 1880, he became connected with the office of the State Board of Agrleniture, and soon afterwards, following the resignation of Secretary K. Hudson, he was unanimously elected secretary and held that office until January 11, 1882. During the next five and a half years, while still maintaining his Kansas residence, he was president of the Indicator Publishing Company at Kansas City, Missouri, and editor of the Live-Stock Indicator.

In January, 1894, although not seeking the position, he was again elected secretary of the State Board of Agriculture, and filled that office continuously for twenty years until January, 1914, having been re-elected by acclamation of ten successive biennial elections, resigning to take effect July 1, 1914.

Mr. Coburn not only made his office a direct adjunct to the Kansas farmer, but he also reached a constantly enlarging circle of readers through the many official reports and volumes of which he successively became author. Although he is author of about thirty volumes on agriculture published by the State of Kansas. His private works on “Swine Husbandry,” “Alfalfa,” “Swine in America,” and “The Book of Alfalfa” are considered standard not only by farmers and colleges of America, but in other countries. His reports entitled “The Helpful Hen,” “Cow Culture,” “Corn and the Sorghums,” “Railroads and Agriculture,” “Short-Horn Cattle,” “Hereford Cattle,” “Polled Cattle,” “Pork Production,” “Wheat-Growing,” “Forage and Forders,” “The Beef Steer,” “The Horse Useful,” “Modern Dairying,” “Silos and Silage,” “Profitable Poultry,” “The Modern Sheep,” and others are considered as unequalled on these topics.

At the New Orleans Exposition in 1884 he was sole judge of swine, and was one of the judges of live stock at the Columbian World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. For many years he has been called to serve as judge of live stock and agricultural products at the principal fairs and expositions in the United States. He served as president and vice president of the Board of Regents of the Kansas State Agricultural College, having had four different appointments as a regent. He was chief of the department of live-stock at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition at St. Louis in 1904. Mr. Coburn was strongly recommended to President McKinley for the office of secretary of agriculture in his cabinet, and tentatively invited to the same position in the cabinet of President Taft but would not consider it.

A great many people will recall the fact, which was the subject of much comment throughout the United States at the time, that Mr. Coburn refused to give up his pleasant and agreeable task as secretary of the Kansas Board of Agriculture to accept the appointment tendered him June 4, 1906, by Governor E. W. Hoch, as United States senator to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Joseph R. Burton. Mr. Coburn served as treasurer of the fund raised by Kansas people for the India famine sufferers. He was elected but declined to serve as president of the Kansas Semi-Centennial Exposition Association. For four years he was president of the State Temperance Union and treasurer of that organization for four years, and for ten years ehairman of its executive committeo. He was ehairman-exofficio of the Kansas State Dairy Commission during the entire period of its existence, 1907-08. He twice served as chairman of committees, appointed by Governors Hoch and Stubbs to investigate the Kansas penitentiary system, and has been chairman exofficio of the Kansas State Entomological Commission, and in numerous other ways has been honored by his state, nation and fellow men.

In politics he has been a republican and progressive. In 1898 he was strongly pushed as a candidate for governor and likewise in 1906 and 1914, but declined to enter a political campaign. He is an honorary life member of the Kansas State Horticultural Society, an honorary member of the State Editorial Association, and for many years has served as a director of the State Historical Society, of which he is a life member. Baker University in June, 1909, gave him the honorary degree Master of Arts, and in the following November he received the degree LL. D. from the Kansas State Agricultural College. At the present time Mr. Coburn is a director and is vice president of the Prudential Trust Company, a director in the Bank of Topeka, and vice president and director of the Capitol Building & Loan Association, all Topeka institutions.

On September 8, 1869, in Franklin County, Kansas, Mr, Coburn married Miss Lou Jenkins. They have two daughters and a son: Mrs. Frank Davis Tomson and Mrs. Theodore Jessup and Dr. Clay E. Coburn. The home of Mr. and Mrs. Coburn is in Topeka.


Connelley, William E. A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans. Chicago : Lewis, 1918. 5v. Biographies can be accessed from this page: Kansas and Kansans Biographies.

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