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Donald's "Educational" Marbles

Jar of marbles used in Wisconsin fair exhibits by Professor John Sweet Donald of the University of Wisconsin during the 1920s.
(Museum object #1953.663)

While today people tend to flock to the Wisconsin State Fair for attractions like rides, animals, and the legendary cream puff, before 1900 the Fair primarily existed to teach farmers about the latest agricultural methods and equipment. Not until the early decades of the twentieth century did amusement began taking precedence over education. This simple jar of marbles dating to the 1920s is a reminder of the Fair's more educational roots. Used by John Sweet Donald, Assistant Professor of Agricultural Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the jar was one of many props Donald used in his informational booth to demonstrate the importance of accurate accounting for successful farming.

This jar was originally paired with another jar also filled with marbles, one standing for expenses, the other for income. Donald would ask visitors to guess how many marbles were in each jar, then challenge them by asking if this was the same way they kept track of their finances—by guessing. His traveling display presented sayings like "Stop Guessing-Keep Records," and "Facts are the keystone to success." The slogan "Running a business without records is like running a clock without hands" was further driven home by a handless clock mounted on the wall in his display.

Since joining the University faculty in 1920, Donald's goal had been to inform farmers of the merits of good record keeping. Aside from merely advocating these proper accounting techniques, Donald also devised a system of simple farm record forms. He also composed two sets of books on the subject, one specifically for teaching courses in farm accounting.

Revolutionizing the way farmers kept track of their finances was only one of Donald's many notable accomplishments during his lifetime, and one that actually happened relatively late in his life. Before working for the University, Donald had already done everything from graduating dental college in 1897 to serving as a state assemblyman (1903-1906), state senator (1909-1912) and Wisconsin Secretary of State from 1913 to 1917. After returning from a stint in France at the end of World War I, where he had worked with the Army Educational Corps to organize classes in agriculture, further pursuit of educational work back in Wisconsin seemed a logical step.

It appears both education and farming were important issues for Donald throughout his life. Born on a farm in 1869 in Springdale, Wisconsin, Donald's father had died shortly before his birth, leaving him and his mother alone during his early childhood. While his mother later remarried, Donald's stepfather passed away in 1897, the same year Donald graduated from the Chicago Dental College. Donald returned home to work the three farms the family had acquired rather than pursue a dental career.

As Donald entered state politics in the early 1900s, he championed a variety of causes, though he is best known for those involving pure food legislation, improved educational facilities, and a better state highway system. He may be most famous for his 1911 "Good Roads Bill," which offered State funds for a highway system to take the burden off of the farmers who had previously maintained their own roads. With improved highways, farmers' products could be delivered to market faster.

At the same time, Donald's family's acreage continued its growth as an innovative and revered farm. The family integrated new practices like 50/50 cooperative sharing and lime application to their soil, as well as setting crop-growth milestones like production of the first field of alfalfa in the area to yield three cuttings in one year.

John Donald died in 1934. The landmark Donald family farm went on to be listed on the National Historic Register and is currently part of the much larger Donald Park recreational area.

[Sources: "John Sweet Donald" biography from the Mt. Horeb Area Historical Society online at and "Donald Park will gain 125 Acres" in The Wisconsin State Journal, 11/11/2006, online at]


Posted on July 26, 2007

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