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History of the Rock Springs Facility

When Russell Larson started searching for suitable land for Penn State's horticultural farm in 1956, he had no grand vision for a huge agricultural research facility. He was just looking for a place to grow good fruits and vegetables. "I was the department head in horticulture," recalls Larson, who would eventually serve as dean of the college and University provost. "Even if I'd wanted to, I didn't have the authorization to buy anything more than a farm for the department. I was simply looking for a spot close to campus with good soil and water."

Larson had been authorized by President Milton Eisenhower to seek land for a new research farm because the University needed more classrooms and housing to serve the huge influx of students in the decades after World War II. In 1950, students could stand at the University Creamery and look east and see a large dairy barn, followed by greenhouses, pasture plots, a turfgrass facility where the McCoy Natatorium now stands, and vegetable, small fruit and other horticultural crop plots. From Park Avenue, they could see cropland where Beaver Stadium now stands. "As University buildings expanded to the east, agricultural land was pushed further and further out," says Jim Starling, senior associate dean emeritus. "The horticulture and agronomy departments had to find suitable land away from central campus."

In 1955, the agronomy department purchased a 285-acre farm in Old Fort near Centre Hall, moving its growing trials and research work well beyond University Park. The following year, Larson started the search for farms in the Spruce Creek Valley, about 15 minutes from campus. He found three contiguous farms owned by two sisters, Maude and Gertie Miller. "They were proud of their place and weren't in the market to sell, but they were willing to talk," Larson recalls. Over the next 18 months, he visited the Miller sisters many times, bringing candy, flowers, and books. Maude Miller agreed to sell the 150-acre main farm in 1958. In 1965, she agreed to sell the family's two adjoining farms, bringing the total farm land up to 450 acres.

By the 1960s, Larson, now dean of the college, was in negotiations with five additional farmers who owned surrounding property. He spent much of his time sipping coffee around farm tables, allowing the farmers to get to know him and his vision for the University. "By pure coincidence, most of these farmers were considering retirement, and either had no children or children who were not interested in farming," Larson says.

The agronomy department still operated the Old Fort farm, but lack of a dependable water source for irrigation made research problematic. "I was often out there every summer during the four or five years of drought we had in the '60s, and it was pretty dismal," Starling says.

From 1965 to 1972, the college acquired two more farms in Spruce Creek Valley: the 174-acre Parsons farm-now the Ag Progress Days site-and the 120-acre Gibboney farm. Oliver Lake, a local dentist who owned an adjacent 215-acre farm, traded it for the agronomy farm in Old Fort in 1972. The University purchased other farms in the 1990s, including the Millie Kepler farm and the Harper farm. In 1998, the University bought a final parcel, the 162-acre Peters farm, expanding the land to more than 2,000 acres. Collectively, the farms were dedicated by the University Board of Trustees as the Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center in 1990.

"Although plant scientists at land grant universities across the country are now doing more research in labs and greenhouses, field-scale research and demonstration still are important," Starling says. "I am delighted to see the various holdings at the Larson Center finally unified into a single unit."

As needs have changed, however, so has the research farm mission. These days, extension agents and faculty use the facilities for educational field days and seminars. Many of the cooperative growing trials once held on local farms have been discontinued in favor of plantings at Rock Springs or outlying research stations.

Larson, who retired from the University as provost emeritus, considers the creation of the research farms that bear his name as a great addition to Penn State, but he prefers to share credit with others. "I'm just a plant breeder," he says. "By the time the farm came together, I could have become a real estate expert, but I relied on faculty members from nearly all of our academic departments to make certain these properties were suitable. The owners of the farms also took pride in their properties, and I'm sure they felt better knowing their farms will continue to be utilized for further advancements in agriculture."
-John Wall