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Spotlight: Student news since 1915

Weekly Agricola

The early years: Covering the University Farm

The University Farm was starting its eighth year, offering courses to about 300 mostly male students, when the Weekly Agricola was born Sept. 29, 1915. The paper derived its name from the campus yearbook, then the Agricola, which is Latin for farmer, though both publications would opt for more modern titles within a decade.

The fledgling newspaper was, according to a description in the 1916 yearbook, the "dream of the students and the alumni."

In its first four-page issue, the paper introduced both itself and the school in grand terms with a front-page "Greeting": "I am the Agricola of the University Farm School—that institution so recently sprung from the folds of time. … I am the voice of the institution, seeking to enlighten socially, morally and educationally. Progress is my warder; achievement is my slogan."

Duffy saves the day

Fulfilling those lofty goals apparently proved harder than anticipated. Founding Editor Casper Zwierlein lasted just three issues, though Assistant Editor William Duffy stepped up to "save the day," according to a two-part series that ran in the paper Nov. 17 and Dec. 1, 1916, "Agricola History Full of Stirring Incidents: University Farm Weekly Publication Grows in One Year from Local to State Wide Importance."

According to that account, the paper was launched with the go-ahead of the Associated Students Executive Committee and plenty of how-to advice from student managers of the Daily Californian, which had been publishing at "our mother" UC Berkeley since the 1870s.

Among leading stories in the first issue of the Agricola were rules for freshman dress and behavior (including requirements that first-years wear bib overalls, tip their straw hats to upperclassmen and keep the swimming tank clean); a list of short courses open to farmers; and the return of American football, which had been banned after a number of player deaths nationwide and replaced for several years by rugby.

A letter Jack London wrote to the editor—about his success in using Chinese methods to restore the soil at his Sonoma County ranch—appeared on the front page of the Oct. 13, 1916, issue, less than six weeks before the author died at age 40.

Surprisingly broad circulation

While quaint by modern standards, the paper mirrored newspaper styles of the times and claimed a surprisingly broad circulation. Two-thirds of its 1,200 copies went to off-campus readers statewide, according to its 1916 account. It aimed to cover both student news and topics of interest to farmers and the "country-life enthusiast."

Novelist Jack London, a passionate farmer and advocate of scientific agriculture, was among the Agricola's earliest readers. A letter he wrote to the editor—about his success in using Chinese methods to restore the soil at his Sonoma County ranch—appeared on the front page of the Oct. 13, 1916, issue, less than six weeks before London died at age 40.

The paper relied on advertising from the beginning, though it received subsidies from the student government for years.

Following the athletic name

In fall 1922, the Agricola called for changing the campus athletic name from the Davis Farmers to the California Aggies—"Hasn't it a fighting twang about it?"—and soon after changed its own name, as well, to The California Aggie.

As the voice of the Associated Students, the young paper devoted much of its space to promoting participation in student events and publicizing the campus's achievements. While it strongly advocated for student facilities, such as a gymnasium and Quad landscaping, the Aggie contained little criticism of student body leaders, faculty members or administrators in its early years.

In November 1919, a tongue-in-cheek story about a farm-management lecture apparently drew such heated reactions that the paper apologized, saying "neither discourtesy nor criticism was intended" to the professor.

Kathleen Holder is associate editor of UC Davis Magazine.