County agricultural societies played an important role in rural affairs in the period before the Civil War. Local leaders formed the organizations for the purpose of exchanging information and promoting agricultural improvement. The first of these, the Cumberland Agricultural Society, appeared in Davidson County in 1819; the second, the Washington Agricultural Society, was formed in Washington County five years later. Gradually other counties followed these early examples, and by the 1840s a number of societies were in operation.
The organizational movement waned in the late 1840s, in part because many farmers came to view societies as elitist in their membership and dilettante in their activities. But the legislature’s establishment of the State Agricultural Bureau in 1854 breathed new life into the movement. The bureau subsidized the formation and operation of county societies that met certain membership and financial conditions. In addition, the bureau actively encouraged their creation, arguing that the advancement of agriculture in the state depended upon cooperation and union among farmers, beginning at the local level. The agency’s involvement also instilled a more egalitarian and practical orientation in the movement, which attracted the support of a wider portion of the rural community. The bureau’s activities invigorated existing societies and stimulated the formation of more societies. By the end of the 1850s, organizations operated in many counties.
The early county societies were primarily discussion groups. They met, often at the farm of a member, to discuss a predetermined topic, review a piece of new equipment, or observe the results of an improved farming technique. Sometimes they sponsored guest lectures or stock shows to which the entire community was invited. With the proliferation of societies in the 1850s came a shift in focus. Several agricultural societies had held county fairs in the 1840s; a decade later, fairs became the primary activity of all the organizations. The main purpose of the fairs was to demonstrate improved farming methods and to encourage their adoption. Expert judges evaluated samples of crops and livestock produced by local farmers and equipment displayed by manufacturers and awarded prizes for the top entries. Most importantly, those in attendance had the opportunity to inspect the best of the county’s produce and the latest in farm technology. The county societies also cooperated with the State Agricultural Bureau in organizing fairs at the three divisional levels and at the state level. A few of the larger ones, like that in Davidson County, held their own conventions and exhibitions. All of the activities emphasized conveying useful knowledge to practicing farmers.
The county societies disappeared during the Civil War and were not revived. The legislature’s failure to renew subsidies to the organizations doubtlessly contributed to their demise. But the major factor was that other agencies usurped their role of providing information to farmers. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the organization of divisional farmers’ institutes and conventions, the work of the state agricultural experiment station and extension service, and the greater availability of national farm publications rendered the county societies obsolete. Moreover, local governments and commercial groups took over the county fairs, and the divisional fairs were discontinued. In 1893 the state commissioner of agriculture suggested restoring subsidies for resurrecting the county societies, but legislative support was apparently lacking, as the recommendation went unanswered.