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Sylwester, Erhard Paul

Published onOct 15, 2021
Sylwester, Erhard Paul

(January 16, 1906 - December 15, 1975)

Quick Facts

Erhard Sylwester was best known for his work as Iowa State Extension Weed Specialist from 1935 to the 1970s and the extension program “The Dutch and Tiny Show”.

E.P. “Dutch” Sylwester was a strong advocate for weed control, recommending not only cultural techniques such as clean plowing, mowing, and crop rotation but also the new chemicals such as selective, growth regulator herbicides that gained popularity after World War II. Along with Extension Entomologist Harold “Tiny” Gunderson, he was the face of Iowa State for many of the state’s farmers. For decades, Sylwester and Gunderson traveled across the state every winter for to conduct pest control meetings. Their annual program, delivered at high school gymnasiums or other public facilities became known as “The Dutch and Tiny Show,” reflecting the nicknames farmers gave them.

Sylwester was born on January 16, 1906, at the family farm near Gaylord, Minnesota. He attended Winthrop High School in Sibley County, Minnesota, where he graduated in 1926. He earned the BA at St. Olaf College in 1930, graduating cum laude. From 1928 to 1930 he was a teaching assistant in the St. Olaf biology laboratory. Sylwester entered the Master’s program at Iowa State College in 1930 and was employed as a research fellow on the United States Department of Agriculture’s Crowngall Investigations in 1930-1931. He earned his MS in 1931 and commenced PhD studies at Iowa State College (now University) later that year. For the next two years he worked as a seed analyst at the Iowa State College Seed Laboratory while continuing his studies. In 1933-1934 he worked as a field foreman for the Civilian Conservation Corps and in 1934-1935 continued working for the CCC, this time conducting soil conservation work.

Slywester authored many extension publications, numerous articles in conference proceedings and the farm press, as well as editorials and letters to the editor. He gave countless speeches, conference presentations, and radio messages. He carried on extensive correspondence with Iowans and people around the country about weeds and pest control. His files of correspondence reflect the deep interest of Iowans and people in weeds and chemicals and Sylwester’s clear prose and no-nonsense approach to problem-solving.

Sylwester served the people of Iowa, fellow extension faculty members, and his academic field through several professional organizations, including the North Central Weed Control Conference, a group he helped organize in 1944. He served as president of that group in 1950. He was a member of the American Botanical Society and the Association of Regional Weed Control Conferences. Sylwester was a founding member of the Weed Science Society of America and served as its president in 1952-1953, the group that eventually replaced the Association of Regional Weed Control Conferences.

Sylwester was also the recipient of numerous honors and awards during his career. He was a member of Epsilon Sigma Phi, the honor society for extension professionals, and received that organization’s award for outstanding extension work in Iowa. He received the USDA Superior Service Award in 1953. Iowa State University awarded him the Distinguished Faculty Citation in 1969. In 1973 the Weed Science Society of America named him Outstanding Extension Worker.

Sylwester married Alice Brogan in 1936. They were parents to three children; John Frederick Carlyle, Judith Lee Justine, and Helen Roberta.

Sylwester died on December 15, 1975, after an extended illness compelled him to take partial retirement.

In a letter written shortly after Sylwester died, Clarence Hill, a farmer from Minburn, Iowa, wrote that “To him [Sylwester], weeds were a SIN, a foe to be fought relentlessly. Herbicides were not the tool, but an accessory to good old fashioned hard work and sensible tillage.” Several of Sylwester’s ISU colleagues paid tribute to his commitment to extension and the people of Iowa recalled a statement that Sylwester was known to repeat: “Public service is a privilege not a right.”

Selected Sources

E.P. Sylwester Papers, RS 9/18/51, University Archives, Special Collections, Iowa State University Library, Ames.

Anderson, J.L., Industrializing the Corn Belt: Agriculture, Technology, and Environment, 1945-1972. DeKalb, Northern Illinois University Press, 2009.

Anderson, J.L., “The Dutch and Tiny Show,” in Tradition and Transformation: A Sesquicentennial History of Iowa State University, eds. Dorothy Schwieder and Gretchen Van Houten. Ames and London, The State Historical Society of Iowa and Wiley-Blackwell, 2007.

Anderson, J. L. “War on Weeds: Iowa Farmers and Growth-Regulator Herbicides.” Technology and Culture, vol. 46, no. 4, [The Johns Hopkins University Press, Society for the History of Technology], 2005.

“We've come a long way” by Bob Hartzler, online.

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