(August 28, 1811 – January 21, 1886)
Farmer, grocer, nurseryman, horticulturist, writer, founding leader of the Iowa State Agricultural College and Model Farm.
Suel Foster was born at Hillsboro, New Hampshire, on August 28, 1811 and lived there until the age of ten. He then moved with his family to Unity, Sullivan County, New Hampshire, where he lived until the age of twenty. He was raised in a Quaker family and educated in local common schools. At age twenty he moved to Rochester, New York, where he worked as a farmhand for about a year and then went on the road as a traveling salesman for the next few years. In 1836 he traveled with his brother, Dr. John H. Foster, to Illinois. A few months later they traveled downriver from Rock Island to Bloomington (now Muscatine), Iowa, where they purchased an undivided one-sixth of the town site. Starting in 1842, Foster entered the wholesale grocery business and continued in this business until 1846. Foster married Sara J. Hastings in October of 1847. Two children were born to the Fosters: Charles, who died in infancy, and Adelle, who died at age seven.
Early in 1850, during the California gold rush, Foster joined his father-in-law, Judge Robert C. Hastings, on a trip to California. He lived there less than a year working as a clerk in the San Francisco Post Office and as an enumerator for the 1850 federal census. He returned to Iowa in the spring of 1851 and immediately returned to farming. He soon began a nursery which became known as “Fountain Hill Nursery,” where he raised fruit trees. Foster’s business flourished, and he became active in the county and state horticultural societies. He also began writing articles which, over his lifetime, covered subjects on horticulture and local Muscatine history.
Foster became interested in the idea of agricultural education, and he became the first known advocate for a state agricultural college in Iowa. To promote his idea, he wrote a series of letters to the Iowa Farmer and Horticulturist through 1856 and 1857. In 1856, he was able to get several members of the Iowa General Assembly to introduce a bill for that purpose, but it was defeated. However, two years later, on March 22, 1858, the 7th Iowa General Assembly did pass a bill for the establishment of a State Agricultural College and Farm. Foster was chosen to serve a two-year term on the board of trustees and served successive terms until 1899. In January, 1862, he was elected president of the board and chairman of the executive committee and continued in those capacities until his service ended in 1866. In effect, he was “president” of Iowa State during those years, according to Iowa State historian Earle D. Ross. According to Foster’s own recollection, he was the instrumental person for the selection of Ames as the site of the college over several other proposed sites. After his retirement, he led the fight against combining the Agricultural College with the State University in Iowa City.
In the following years, Foster remained active in operating his nursery, conducting many horticultural experiments and writing articles on them, serving as vice-president of the Iowa State Horticultural Society from 1869-1872 and then president for one year, and helping to found the Society of First Settlers of Muscatine County. He joined the Muscatine Academy of Science, the Muscatine County Agricultural Society, the Muscatine County Grange and Farmers Alliance, and he served as an officer of the Farmers’ Mutual Fire Insurance Company and as president of the Eastern Iowa Horticultural Society.
Foster was also politically active. He was founder of the Iowa Republican Party at its organizational meeting in Iowa City in 1856. He attended the state convention early in 1860 and was selected to be the delegate to the national convention where he cast his vote for Abraham Lincoln. Foster was also a staunch abolitionist. Both J.B. Grinnell and contemporary Civil War historian Samuel H.M. Byers mentioned him as a leader of the Underground Railroad in Muscatine in which he housed, fed and conducted fugitive slaves to freedom.
Foster died at his home in Muscatine on January 21, 1886. Memorial addresses were delivered during the next few days at the meeting of the State Horticultural Society in Des Moines and by a number of prominent Iowans, including J.B. Grinnell, former Iowa State President Adonijah S. Welch, and Iowa State professor Joseph L. Budd. Foster was laid to rest in Greenwood Cemetery in Muscatine.
In March, 1941, the State Horticultural Society, at its annual meeting in Ames, presented a memorial plaque honoring Foster, which was accepted by Iowa State President Charles Friley.
There is considerable documentation of the life and career of Suel Foster in the historical library of the State Historical Society of Iowa in Des Moines. Secondary sources include The United State Biographical Dictionary and Portrait Gallery of Eminent and Self-Made Men. Iowa Volume. Chicago. American Biographical Publishing Company, 1878, pp. 286-289; Samuel H.M. Byers, Iowa in War Times. Des Moines, IA. W.D. Condit & Company, 1888, p. 20; Edward H. Stiles, Recollections and Sketches of Notable Lawyers and Public Men of Early Iowa. Des Moines, IA. Homestead Publishing Company, 1916, pp 295-396; Transactions of the Iowa State Horticultural Society, volume 76, 1941. Des Moines, IA. Published by the State of Iowa, 1941, pp. 8-17, 27-29; Eleanor B. McCleary and Cheryl Juehring, Muscatine Early Settlers Cemetery Walk. Muscatine, IA. Muscatine Area Heritage Association, Inc., 1996, pp 14-15.
Journal articles include H.S. Lathrop, “Suel Foster,” Iowa Historical Record, volume 2, number 1, January 1886, pp. 233-234; Charles E. Bessey, :Laying the Foundations,” Annals of Iowa, volume 9, number 1, April, 1909, pp. 26-27; F.I. Herriott, “The Republican State Convention, Des Moines, January 18, 1860,” Annals of Iowa, volume 9, numbers 6-7, July-October, 1910, pp. 407, 414; David C. Mott, “Suel Foster,” Annals of Iowa, volume 20, number 7, January, 1937, pp 498-509; and A.T. Erwin, “Suel Foster,” The Palimpsest, volume 24, number 4, April, 1943, pp 105-115.
Newspaper articles include Ames Daily Tribune, November 12, 1941, p. 1 and November 14, 1941, p. 1.
Articles written by Suel Foster include a series of articles in the Iowa Farmer and Horticulturist; See volume 4, number 3, August, 1856; volume 10, number 10, April 1, 1857; and volume 5, number 5, August 15, 1857. Other articles by Foster include “A Politician of the Primary Days,” Annals of Iowa, volume 10, 1872, pp 22-23; “History of Muscatine,” Annals of Iowa, volume 10, 1872, pp. 95-99; “Origin of our Missouri War (1839) in a Land Grab,” Annals of Iowa, volume 11, 1873, pp. 444-447, 540-545; “Early History of Fruit Growing in the District of Muscatine, Iowa, and Adjoining Counties,” Proceedings of the American Pomological Society, volume 16, 1877, p. 69; “Catalpa Speciosa: Some Account of Its Introduction and Planting in Iowa,” Transactions of the Iowa State Horticultural Society, volume 18, 1883, pp. 187-191; and “Recollections of Early Times in Iowa,” Iowa Historical Record, volume 1, 1885, pp. 156-158.