north carolina highway historical marker program
North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program
 

 
 
 

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     Among soil conservationists and agronomists, Hugh Hammond Bennett, nicknamed “the Chief” or “Big Hugh,” is a legend. Widely credited with selling the benefits of soil conservation to a dubious public, Bennett is known as the “father of soil conservation.” Born on a 1,500-acre farm in Anson County, in the drainage basin of the Pee Dee River, Bennett at the age of ten realized the woeful effects of erosion and benefits of conservation. Armed with a B.S. in chemistry from the University of North Carolina, Bennett in 1903 secured employment with the Soil Survey Division of the Department of Agriculture, beginning a fifty-year career. Widely respected for his expertise, Bennett advised on projects in Alaska, Brazil, Cuba, and South Africa, among other places, and over the years received delegations from over eighty countries. He published five major books on soil conservation.

     Sheet erosion, he reasoned, was the problem and preservation of the topsoil was the key. Soil conservation could be pursued through terracing, strip cropping, contour plowing, grassed waterways, and crop rotation, among other means. Bennett promoted the planting of covers such as kudzu and lespedza grass. Soil conservation districts, the first of which was established in his home county, were grassroots efforts predicted on local participation by farmers and landowners. In the 1930s district organizers drew upon members of the Civilian Conservation Corps for assistance with demonstrations and drainage projects. In 1935 Bennett headed the new Soil Conservation Service, a position he held until his retirement in 1952. Owing largely to his influence, the Brown Creek Soil Conservation District, the first of its kind in the nation, was established in his home county in 1937.

     For his efforts Bennett received numerous honors, including several honorary degrees. In 1946 the town of Wadesoro held a “Welcome Home” program where the day’s guest speaker, Jonathan Daniels, coupled Bennett with Thomas Wolfe as the two North Carolinians “who in our times have made the greatest impress on the mind of the world.” In 1951 the News and Observer wrote of Bennett that “When history finally sets up the measure of the contributions of the men of our times, it may very well be that so far as North Carolina is concerned Hugh Bennett of Wadesboro will be recognized as the most important North Carolinian of this generation.” Bennett, who lived in Virginia following retirement, is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His Anson County birthplace burned in the late 1960s.

     Books by Hugh Hammond Bennett include The Soils and Agriculture of the Southern States (1921), The Soil of Cuba (1928), Soil Conservation (1939), This Land We Defend (1942), and Elements of Soil Conservation (1947).


References:
Wellington Brink, Big Hugh: The Father of Soil Conservation (1951)
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, I, 137-138 –sketch by Charles W. Eagles
Howard E. Covington Jr. and Marion A. Ellis, eds., The North Carolina Century: Tar Heels Who Made a Difference, 1900-2000 (2002)
Tuesday Letter (newsletter of the National Association of Soil Conservation Districts), July 12, 1960, and August 1, 1962
The Hugh Bennett Lectures (North Carolina State College, 1959)
Santford Martin, “And History is Already Shining on Him: Some Impressions of Hugh H. Bennett, Father of Soil Conservation” (1959)



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