He was born in Schroon Lake, N.Y., in December 1833, and grew up working on the family farm. He went to a backwoods one-room school and later attended the Crown Point Center School, where the schoolmaster inspired him to go to college although his father and brother discouraged him because there was no money for that sort of thing.
His sister Mary finally gave him the money she had saved for her hope chest and he attended one of the best colleges of the day, Union College in Schenectady, N.Y.
After graduating in 1856 with Phi Beta Kappa honors, he married Maria Hotchkiss and they taught at a girls' school at Poultney, Vt., where he ruined his knee in an accident that threatened to leave him a cripple for life.
His doctor advised him to go west and follow an outdoor life that might help to restore his damaged knee.
In 1865 the Knapps sold the farm Maria's father gave them as a wedding present and moved to Vinton, Iowa. Destitute, crippled, with a wife and two children, he started preaching for a small Methodist Episcopal Church and farming as best as he could on crutches.
Seaman then became the Superintendent of the Iowa School for the Blind in Vinton. Although confined to a wheel chair for much of the time, he read avidly about modern farming techniques that were being tried all over America and foreign countries. He also worked to eventually regain use of his knee and to walk without crutches.
The first seeds of what would later become an abiding interest in farm demonstration were planted after he became active in an organization called "The Teachers of Agriculture."
Knapp was so impressed with this teaching method that he drafted a bill to set up experimental research stations, which was introduced in Congress in the 1880s, laying the foundation for a nationwide network of agricultural experiment stations.
Knapp was convinced that demonstrations carried out by farmers themselves were the most effective way to spread good farming methods.
Starting in 1887, Congress funded the experiment stations and other farm and veterinary research under the direction of land-grant universities.
Congress later recognized farmers and homemakers would not go to the colleges and that the colleges had to go to them.
The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 started federal funding of cooperative extension, sending agents to virtually every county in the nation.
Knapp came to Louisiana in 1884, settling near the town he named for his beloved Vinton, Iowa, to direct the development of a huge hunk of southwest Louisiana that had been bought up by fellow Iowan J. B. Watkins, who wanted to turn marshlands into rice fields.
In that capacity Knapp became a leader in developing the rice industry here and elsewhere, drawing enough notice that he was asked to become a special adviser for the South in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In this capacity he went to the West Indies, the Philippines, Japan, and India to study rice culture, bringing back new strains of rice to be cultivated here.
In the early 1900s, Knapp was invited to Washington to take charge of the farm demonstration work in the Department of Agriculture.
A General Education Board, founded in 1902 by John D. Rockefeller, supplied the funds to pay and supply demonstration agents.
By 1912 there were thousands of agents across the South and by 1914 there were agents in every county in America.
In 1908, Knapp began to organize boys' corn clubs and two years later, in 1910, he began to set up girls' canning and poultry clubs. These became the basis for the 4-H Clubs that continue today.
Knapp did not live to see his work come to full expansion. He died in Washington, D.C. on April 1, 1911. He is commemorated in Washington by a bridge linking the Department of Agriculture Administration Building to the Department of Agriculture South Building across Independence Avenue.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.