The Coker Experimental Seed Farms National Historic Site, Hartsville, S.C.,
LW Franklin, MA, University of Leicester

South Carolina’s agricultural history is rapidly disappearing. The cotton and tobacco fields that were once the center of the communities are being buried under malls and housing developments. We are at risk of losing our past. The Coker Farms National Historic Foundation was formed to preserve South Carolina’s agricultural history by saving what remains of the Coker Farms from development, preserving South Carolina’s only agricultural National Historic Landmark for future generations.


Page: 2. 4. 5 6. 7. Introduction. Description and explanation of the layout. Issues relating to preservation or restoration. Provisions made for public access. Presentation of the site, displays/ information, special resources for children. 8. 9. 9. 13. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 17. 18. 18. 19. 19. 20. Representation of men and women, other social categories. Factors likely to affect the site in the future. Long-term management plan. Illustrative material. Fig.1 Fig.2 Fig.3 Fig. 4 Fig. 5 Fig. 6 Fig. 7 Fig. 8 Fig. 9 Site Building Landscaped site with parking Interpretive panels Memorabilia Murals Sound domes Video presentation National Heritage granite marker

Fig. 10 Entrance Fig. 11 Timeline




THE SEEDS OF CHANGE An essay based on The Coker Experimental Seed Farms National Historic Site, Hartsville, S.C., USA by Lonnie W. Franklin, MA, Univ. of Leicester

Today is all we have. Yesterday, gone forever, is but a memory. Tomorrow when it comes is just today. Our memories, our hopes Are but a part of now. Today, Today! Great God, ‘Tis all thou gavest me. And yet, ‘tis all I need. This hour holds the lore of every age, And hope of future years. And instant action, instant love. David R. Coker (date unknown)

There is a great deal of history in the story of the Coker family and the Coker Farms. The Cokers were among the earliest settlers in the area, starting a plantation on lands long occupied by some of the earliest American Natives in the United States (Allen, 2008, personal communication). Cokers served in the War Between the States, were instrumental in the development of the town of Hartsville; with father and son serving as mayors; and in the State House of Representatives (Asbury, S., Semmes, R., 1998, intro.).


South Carolina’s agricultural history is rapidly disappearing. The cotton and tobacco fields that were once the center of the communities are being buried under malls and housing developments. We are at risk of losing our past. . The Coker Farms National Historic Foundation was formed to preserve South Carolina’s agricultural history by saving what remains of the Coker Farms from development, preserving South Carolina’s only agricultural National Historic Landmark for future generations. This site is to be an educational facility, teaching the citizens of South Carolina the agricultural history of the State. The Coker Farms were begun by Major James Lide Coker, in the early 1800’s. He was educated at The Citadel, and prior to starting his career in agriculture, he attended Harvard for a year to study the scientific principles of farming. Following in his father’s footsteps, David Coker, became mayor of what had become the town of Hartsville in the early 1900’s, built around what had once been the old plantation’s commissary. He was closely associated with the farming population through his work at the family’s store, where he came in contact with needy farm families with whom he closely identified. When health problems caused him to leave the store in 1897, he turned to the task of scientifically improving crops, convinced that the way to improve the lot of the southern farmer was with improved crops and modern farming methods. In 1898 he planted four plots of cotton near his home, fertilizing each at a different rate. The results of this experiment were published by Clemson University. From this simple beginning, the Coker Experimental Farms were destined to play a role in Southern agriculture and beyond (Allen, 2003, 1). Over the years, the research work in cotton, corn, tobacco, wheat, oats, and soybeans was led by a group of plant breeders who developed varieties that adapted to the Southeast and beyond. As the work broadened to include other crops, hundreds of farmers and others interested in agriculture came each year to get a broad range of agricultural advice. D.R. Cokers son, Dr. Robert Coker, became the company’s third president. He served for many years as a trustee of Clemson University, and was one of the major forces in organizing the Farm Bureau in South Carolina, becoming its first president. The Coker Seed Company established research stations in Mississippi, Texas, Indiana, and Arkansas, as well as conducting tests in Mexico. The Company remained


a premier seed company during the entire time of its existence, until its purchase and dissolution in 1988 by a Swiss pharmaceutical company. In 1964, the US Department of the Interior designated 220 acres of the remaining Coker Experimental Farms as a National Historic Landmark attributed to its being the first successful commercial cotton improvement program in the United States based on scientific plant breeding. Subsequently he founded Coker’s Pedigreed Seed Company and through this organization extended his efforts with equal success to include most of the principal southern field crops. With his crusading zeal for improved agricultural methods, Mr. Coker’s inspiring example of selfless devotion to the welfare of southern farmers resulted in his becoming widely acclaimed as the south’s foremost agricultural statesman (National Register of Historic Places, 1964). A museum and interpretive center was erected on 35 acres of the site and opened in 2003. It is the only agricultural national historical landmark in South Carolina, and one of only six in the U.S (Bruton, 1998, 1).In the opening ceremonies, guest speaker Dr. Mark Barnes, senior archaeologist with the Southeastern Office of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Park Service explained Coker Farm’s national, and even international significance, “The scientific breeding of hardier, more disease resistant strains of food and commercial plants giving increased yield is at the center of the agricultural revolution of the early 20th century. On this very plot of land, David R. Coker conducted the experiments to produce hardier and greater yielding plants, which would have an enormous impact upon southern and later international economy”.

Description and explanation of the layout

The Center has been developed on the remaining 35 acres of the 220 placed on the National Register of Historic Places, near Hartsville, S.C., where David R. Coker began his experiments. The site is on abroad open stretch of a fertile plain within a historically agricultural region. A multi-purpose interpretive learning center has been developed approximately where the first experiments were conducted (Fig 1, page 13).


The interpretive center has a barn-like appearance, with a gambrel roof, capped with a central cupola. It is a tall, wooden-sided, single-storied building modeled after one of the dairy buildings still standing on a part of the old Coker Farm (Allen, 2008, personal communication). It measures 27’ by 45’7” with a completely open “barn-like” floor plan. The open structure lends itself easily to changeable exhibits, or can be set up with chairs and tables for meetings or presentations. The building prominently displays the “red heart” that was the company’s logo at the entrance (Fig. 2, page 14). The interpretive center is on a landscaped site with ample parking for visitors (Fig. 3, page 15). There is a sidewalk circling the building with two three-sided kiosks and eight interpretive panels (fig. 4, page 16) – all with picture and wording that lend them to self conducted tours. Inside are shadow boxes and display cases containing memorabilia illustrating the scope of the Coker farms activities (Fig. 5, page 17). Large murals with pictures of individuals that were important to the Farm through the years, and the farm’s activities, are on the walls (Fig. 6, page 17), and there are three “sound domes” that give short explanations of the pictures (Fig. 7, page 18). There is a television with a visitor-activated DVD presentation that gives a precise explanation of hybrid corn production and the steps taken in the process (Fig. 8, page 18). A “timeline” of murals and descriptions circles the Center at the ceiling (Fig 11, page 20). A large granite marker in front of the building has the official US Department of the Interior plaque designating the site as a National Historic Landmark (Fig. 9, page 19), and surrounding the interpretive center are several acres of land used as experimental agricultural plots, continuing the Coker Farms tradition.

Issues relating to preservation or restoration

Most of property of the original Coker Pedigreed Seed Farms has been sold and developed for other uses. The acquisition, restoration, or preservation of the few remaining buildings or property would not appear to practical, nor financially realistic. Their acquisition would probably not appreciably benefit


the appeal or the educational value of the site, particularly in sight of the increased cost. They were for the most part, simple utilitarian structures, built for use, not longevity, with no unique or novel features. It is fortunate that a number of the buildings have been adapted for modern use, one of the best ways of ensuring long-term preservation (IPAH, 3.3). Inside the Center, the display cases and shadow boxes are not hermetically sealed or ultra-violet light protected. Significant fading is observable in many of the artifacts and insect casings can be seen in the display cases. The display cases are made of high-impact plastic for protection from vandals, so putting ultra-violet film directly on the cases would probably not be as effective as putting film on the windows where the cases, murals, and photos are exposed to sunlight. Spraying for insects will be of course necessary routine maintenance.

Provisions made for public access

The site, although surrounded by the ubiquitous retail landscape of modern development, has been described as “An oasis amidst the fast food (Osteen, G., 2004, 4a). It is clearly visible and appealing, easily accessed from South 4th St., across from Hartsville Crossing, one of the major retail areas in Hartsville; near shopping, restaurants, and lodging. The interpretive Center, already described as a large diary-barn replica with double doors on all sides and a clear open single-story interior is easily accessible to handicapped. The circular sidewalk around the building makes access through any side of the building easy (figs. 2, page 14, and 3, page 15). It is on a landscaped site with ample and adequate parking (fig. 3, page 15). Lack of restrooms or water fountains is a serious drawback at this point. This problem is overcome temporarily by bringing in portable toilets during events at the Center, but a more permanent, albeit expensive solution is going to be necessary for continued future use. Access is convenient, with the site is being open seven days a week from 9 in the morning, until 6 in the evening for self-guided tours. Provisions can be made easily for access at other times. A sign at the beginning of the drive lets visitors know that they are welcome and the hours the building is open.


Presentation of the site, displays/ information, special resources for children

The site itself is a flat agricultural field, accessed down a short road lined with live oaks, with cultivated fields to either side, very scenic, evoking the pastoral settings of the past. There are no features to wonder about, no old structures to explore, the site is remarkable only for the experiments conducted there, and the industry that developed from them. The straight unpaved drive leads directly to the only structure, the barn-shaped interpretive center; a very appropriate first impression for an agriculturally oriented site. A granite slab bearing the landmark plaque is slightly offset in a circular drive fronting the building, so that it does not obscure a clear view of the building’s front with the Coker Farm’s trademark. It is an impressive entrance reminiscent of the antebellum plantations (fig. 10, page 19). The story of Coker Experimental Farms and the people who worked there are told on eight interpretive panels and four, three-sided kiosks placed along the sidewalk circling the interpretive center. The signs are in no particular order, and a “self-guided tour” can start at any point. Signs have been criticized as being the least successful in meeting the interpretive goals of making the past accessible and empowering the audience, with little connection between what he visitors are experiencing and what they are reading (Davis, 1997, 95), and in this instance, with the panels expressly designed to tell the Coker Farm story, the interpretations create an exclusive past. Inside the center, a “timeline” of murals and descriptions circles ceiling telling the story of the development of the town and the Farm; beginning with settlement of Thomas Hart in 1817 (fig. 11, page 20). One of the objectives of the Coker Farms Foundation, stated in their brochure, Seeds of History, is to teach South Carolinians about our agricultural history. Given that, the timeline could appropriately and favorably be extended to acknowledge the settlement of the area by Native-Americans thousands of years


earlier (Fagan, 1997, 422), and the possibility that agriculture was likely practiced by them on that very site, based on artifacts discovered there (Allen, 2008, personal communication). Even tobacco, corn, and cotton that the Coker Farms is justifiably proud of were discovered and raised by the early Americans long before European settlement (Brandon, 1984, 41). No permanent special provisions of any sort have been made for children in the Center. There are no restrooms, water fountains, or child-sized seating. Signage is placed at adult eye level, and the wording, while avoiding industry jargon, is not “child friendly.” The buttons that activate the audio and visual exhibits are placed too high for small children to use. The low placement of display cases makes viewing easier for children, but perhaps more difficult for adults that have to bend down to see the bottom shelves. During special events a corn-field maze, free ice cream, sugar cane slices, and exhibits placed outside and around the building are designed to appeal to children, or at least occupy them.

Representation of men and women, other social categories

Pictures on the interior walls clearly represent the contribution of black men and women in a variety of roles. Two prominent pictures of black women in the Center show them transplanting tobacco in experimental plots, an important part of the Coker Farms. Another woman, Caucasian, is shown nonstereotypically driving a farm machine and using a new piece of experimental equipment. I admit concern that the pictures and the presentations were too “sanitized,” that sweaty labor, and racial divisions were regarded as reminders of working conditions that many people prefer forgotten (IPAH 5.4), after all this is on a former pre-civil war plantation, begun with slave labor. One of the main criticisms of private heritage ventures is that their interpretations ignore problems such as racism, poverty, etc., and “aim to please (IPAH, 3.2).” However, conversations with former employees and residents have convinced me that the pictures adequately represent the advanced industrial practices and social awareness of the Cokers. For example, Mr. David Allen, former employee, and the last farm manager, remembers,


that “Mr. Coker believed that agriculture had been carried on a man’s shoulders as far as it could, that modern machinery and production methods was the way to go;” and that he never had any trouble persuading him to buy a new piece of equipment. Mary Joslin recalls that “The Ku-Klux clan could never take hold in Hartsville, because “Major Coker would not stand for it, he believed that the old south was a region, not a way of life.” Perhaps Major Coker’s philosophy could best be summed up by his grandson, Charles Coker, “His strongest principle, was an absolute inflexibility between what was right and what was wrong. He believed very strongly in the dignity of human beings.”

Factors likely to affect the site in the future and a long-term management plan


Factors likely to affect the site in the future:


As land value and population pressure increases, there is likely to be pressure and temptation to sell the property.


Public interest in agriculture is likely to wane as the area becomes more urban, likely resulting in reduced interest in the center.


The prime motivation for the development of the center and the focus of the center appears to be based on the current aging population’s affection for, and gratitude to the Coker family for their contributions to the area. As this generation’s influence diminishes, the present support for the center may dwindle.


Increasing expenses may outpace the revenue from current funds.


A long-term management plan:

1. 2.

Take steps to make the Center more valuable to the community than real estate. Broaden the scope of the Center to appeal beyond agricultural educational interests.



Engage the community in the Centers endeavors, developing community “ownership” and illustrating the relevance to their current lives.


Continue to seek tax-exempt contributions, City, State, and National sources of funding, avoiding user admission fees.

The best protection would seem for the Center to become such a valued part of the community that the public and leaders in the future would wish to protect and support the site, valuing it more for its heritage contribution, and perhaps tourist value than for retail development. One might think that being on the National Historic Register would offer protection, but let us not overlook the fact that 220 acres were recorded, and only 35 remain. Engaging the public in the Center, as opposed to allowing them to visit, gives them a sense of ownership and a wish to protect what the site represents. Charging admission would counteract that sense of ownership and should be avoided. The adjacent fields offer an excellent opportunity for “hands on education,” engaging elementaryage students on field trips; perhaps using authentic artifacts, such as a hand plow, as stimuli for learning, rather than simply visiting “treasures” under glass. Former employees of Coker, and particularly local farmers, and senior citizens are ”stakeholders” in the site could be engaged as excellent sources of instruction, injecting what they feel is valuable about the area, thereby creating a feeling of ownership and enhancing area support for the Center as well (Zimmerman, 2006, 50). Having students participate in plowing a furrow by hand, then perhaps by mule, and then tractor, would leave a lasting impression of the beneficial impact of advancing technology. The educational process could be enhanced and return visits promoted by allowing the students to actually plant and later harvest, even eat, crops that they participated in producing. Maybe follow in the Coker’s footsteps with crop experiments: planting using the (legendary) “old Indian” method of dropping a fish in the hole with the seed, or Mr. Coker’s first experiments with fertilizers. Some studies of the advantages of teaching such a “hands-on” method have failed to make a direct comparison between their success and more didactic methods (Stone, 1997, 31); but we are trying to create community-wide value for the site as well.


My own observations of the attendance and interest exhibited in the use for authentic artifacts by grade school visitors at a Civil-War living history event (Franklin, 2008, 3), convinces me that an event where children might actually grow an ear of corn that they then can take home for their mother to cook would create such a lasting impression that as adults they would return with their own children. The Center should communicate with and develop connections with the areas educational institutions; engaging them. They should promote and cooperatively develop educational programs that include the Center. There are few subjects that cannot somehow be related to it, from the obvious –history, geography, and anthropology, to the less evident: geology, physics, chemistry, biology, nutrition, and even physical education (Heath, 65). Activities of this sort have even been found to be beneficial to hyper-active children, and the physically challenged (Smardz, 103). Teachers should recognize its potential as a learning tool. To draw visitors with broader interests, it would seem to be beneficial for the Center to expand its educational role beyond presentation of the Coker process to perhaps show the impact of the Coker led improvements to the way of life of the South. A native-American presentation would certainly be appropriate. Artifacts are found in large numbers throughout the Coker farms, including at least one Clovis point (Allen, 2008). Then, the early settler’s farming methods and life could be demonstrated, followed by the Coker presentation, showing how the way of life was improved. Maybe even prepare a forecast of future farming methods and products, perhaps biofuel development. To capture the attention of the audience the display must relate to them and their life (IPAH 2.9). The fields adjacent to the Center that are still being cultivated embody the very spirit of the National Historic Preservation Act, that “the spirit and direction of the nation are founded upon and reflected in its historic heritage, “and this heritage should be “preserved as a living part of our community life in order to give a sense of orientation to the American people” (Jameson 1997, 13).

The philosophy, hard work, and civic spirit of the Cokers that created an agricultural and economic legacy and even more, built a community, were perhaps a reflection of the antebellum plantation


paternalism. It is passing from public awareness; largely replaced by the anonymity of larger towns and cities. The The Coker Farms National Historic Landmark Interpretive Center seems to be as much

a monument to the affection and gratitude that the current community has for the Coker family as it is the tourist attraction and educational center that the city of Hartsville hopes it to be. The experiments conducted there that developed southern agriculture are contemplative not tangible. People are more likely to learn and accept new information when they are having fun (IPAH 2.9). Visitors that did not know of the Coker Farms in previous decades may find little entertainment reading the signs or listening to the audio presentation about how crops were improved. Although considerable effort has been taken to make the process visible to visitors, it will probably be difficult to sustain interest into the next decades as the generation that remembers the Cokers, or grew up on nearby farms passes away. As the population at large moves farther away from the agricultural heritage the early pioneering efforts may seem less meaningful. Cotton is no longer king, tobacco has become a pariah, and food comes in recyclable bags from the grocery store. Future success for the Center will depend upon the Coker Farm’s history being woven into a larger story and given a meaning relevant to the future, to predominantly non-farming visitors, a story that includes them. We’ve tried today as ne’er before. Oh Lord! Our burdens and our problems ore Require the Utmost of our strength and will To carry on –Be with us still Nor let our weary feet that treat the mill Falter before the grist to save Thy world Be ground. Let not thy flag of truth be furled Which led us and we trust will lead until Thy purpose we fulfill. Amen David R. Coker (Date unknown)


Illustrative Material


Fig. 2

Coker Farms Multi-Use Building (after Goodson, R., 2001, unpublished.)


Fig. 4

Interpretive Panels


Fig. 5



Fig. 6


Fig. 7

Sound Domes

Fig. 8

Video Presentations


Fig 9

National Heritage Marker

Fig. 10

Tree-Lined Entrance




Allen, D., 2003, The Coker Farms National Historic Landmark Interpretive Center, AgriBiz, S.C. Agricultural Magazine, April/May/June quarterly issue, Columbia, FFA Public Affairs. Allen, D., 2008, personal recollections, Hartsville. Asbury, S. and Semmes, R.(eds), 1998 ,The James L. Coker Papers, Columbia, Manuscripts Division, Caroliniana Library, the University of South Carolina. Balme, J., Paterson A., (eds.), 2006, Archaeology in Practice, A Student Guide to Archaeological Analyses, Oxford, Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Brandon, W.,1984, American Heritage Book of Indians, NY, Dell Publishing Co. Bruton, W.,1999, Save America’s Treasures, Washington, U.S. Dept. of the Interior. Davis, K., 1997.Sites without Sites, in Digging for Truths, Jameson, J. (ed), London, AltaMira Press. Fagan, B., 1997, Ancient North America, London, Thames and Hudson limited. Franklin, L.,2008, To See the Elephant, unpublished essay, Leicester, Leicester, School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester. Gathercole, P. and Lowenthal, D. (eds), 1990. The Politics of the Past. NY and London, Routledge. Goodson, R., 2001, architectural designs, Hartsville, unpublished Hartsville Centennial Commission, Milestones, 1991, Hartsville Centennial 1891-1991, Hartsville Centennial Commission. Heath, M. A., 1997, Successfully Integrating the Public into research, in Digging for Truths, Jameson, J. H. (ed.), London, AltaMira Press, IPAH, Module 4, Presentation and Interpretation of the Archaeological Heritage, Leicester, School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester. Jameson, J. H. (ed.), 1997, Presenting Archaeology to the Public, Digging for Truths, London, AltaMira Press. Joslin, M.C., 2008, growing up in the Brown House, memories of old Hartsville, Hartsville, Coker College Press.


McManus, M. (ed.), 2000, Archaeological Displays and the Public, London, Archetype Publications. National Register of Historic Places, Nomination Form, 1964, Statement of Significance, United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Osteen, G., 2004, Editorial, (date unknown), Hartsville, Hartsville Messenger. Rogers, J., and Nelson, L., Mr. D.R., 1994, Hartsville, Coker College Press. Seeds of History, 2001, author unknown, Hartsville, Coker Farms National Historic Landmark Foundation. Simpson, G.L. 1956, the Cokers of Carolina: a social biography of a family, Chapel Hill, UNC Press, Smardz, Karolyn E., 1997,The Past Through Tomorrow, in Digging for Truths, Jameson, J.H.(ed.) , London, AltaMira Press. Stone, Peter, Presenting the Past, 1997, in Presenting Archaeology to the Public, Digging for Truths, Jameson, J.H. (ed.), London, AltaMira Press. Zimmerman, L., 2006, Consulting Stakeholders, in Archaeology in Practice, A Student Guide to Archaeological Analyses, Balme, J., Paterson A., (eds.), Oxford, Blackwell Publishing Ltd. .


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