A Homegrown Vision: Robert L. Smith and the Farmers Improvement Society

In the late 1800s, Robert Lloyd Smith came to Texas. Smith, a highly educated man and an advocate of Booker T. Washington’s  philosophy of education and economic improvement for African-Americans,  called himself a “practical sociologist.”  He was also an educator and a businessman.  In 1890 Smith founded the Farmers’ Home Improvement Society in Colorado County.

Smith created the F.I.S. as a self-improvement society to help tenant farmers out of a cycle of debt and poverty. The Society provided life insurance, financed a bank in Waco, operated an agricultural boarding school, and provided a social life in a religious and fraternal setting for African-Americans across Texas. At its high point in 1911, the Farmers’ Improvement Society claimed 12,000 members in 800 branches across Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.  Smith’s wife, Ruby Cobb of Waco, was instrumental in helping him run the F.I.S. 

A Homegrown Vision: Robert L. Smith and the Farmers Improvement Society was curated by Paul Fisher and Ann Payne and is made possible through the generous gift of materials from the Smith-Cobb family of Waco.

Stop by The Texas Collection from February 1 – March 20, 2012 to view the exhibit.


Click on images to enlarge.


  • Clytie Moran

    May 3, 2012 at 2:22 pm Reply

    I would like to get more information on Farmers Improvement Society of Texas. Family oral history relates that my grandfather, Professor M. W. Lawson of Montgomery County was president of the Farmer’s Bank somewhere around 1914 until his untimely death in 1917. Any information or regarding bank records/pictures would be extremely appreciated.
    Thank you
    Clytie Moran

    • Amanda Norman

      May 4, 2012 at 8:22 am Reply

      Thanks for sharing about your grandfather! We have many photos of the bank in the Farmers Improvement Society records here at The Texas Collection. For a general history of the F.I.S., we also have a master’s thesis, “Robert Lloyd Smith and the Farmers’ Improvement Society of Texas,” that was written here at Baylor in 1974 by Robert Carroll and is the best single resource on the society. I will put you in touch with our processing archivist who worked with these records–he’ll look to see if we have Professor Lawson’s membership card. We hope you can come visit us here at The Texas Collection!

  • this site

    August 2, 2012 at 8:12 pm Reply

    Where to get more information about farmers home improvement society.

  • don

    February 26, 2013 at 9:15 am Reply

    I viewed the site of the college near Wolf City yeasterday and would like to know if there is any additional information and photos available.

    Thank you.

    • Amanda Norman

      February 26, 2013 at 11:32 am Reply

      Both the Farmers Improvement Society records and the Smith-Cobb Family Collection contain records documenting the FIS school, and the Smith-Cobb materials includes photos of the school too. Please take a look at the finding aids (see the links provided above, and try searching for “school” within the document) and let us know if you’d like to come visit The Texas Collection and do some research in these records! You can email us at txcoll@baylor.edu

  • […] helped with several during my time at The Texas Collection. One of the most interesting was our spring 2012 exhibit, which featured the Farmers Improvement Society (FIS) and R.L. Smith. The society was founded by […]

  • Tracey Hughes

    July 16, 2014 at 10:54 pm Reply

    Thank you so much for making this collection of papers available! I was able to look at a good portion of the FIS papers earlier this week, and I’m still stunned & pleased with the records that are part of the collection. This is truly a treasure, and I hope that more researchers and family historians will find out about it…I know I’ll do what I can to get the word out! Thank you again!

    • Amanda Norman

      July 17, 2014 at 3:03 pm Reply

      Thanks for your kind words, Tracey! We’re so glad you enjoyed looking at the FIS papers–they really are a treasure trove.

      • Tracey Hughes

        February 15, 2016 at 9:38 am Reply

        You’re very welcome, Amanda! When I was there in 2014, I was allowed to scan a photo that was in the collection, because there was a possibility that my great-grandfather was in it as a member of the baseball team, and I wanted some of his children to look at it and help me determine which player may have been Grandpa Willie. It’s taken a little longer than I anticipated, but I think that I finally confirmed Grandpa Willie in the photo! 😀 At the time I made the scan, I had asked for, and received, permission to share the photo on my blog (http://traceystree.blogspot.com) with proper attribution, but I’ve misplaced my notes on the format for the citation. Is there any way that the citation format could be send to me, or posted here? I plan to continue telling anyone I can about this collection, and I’d love for the readers of my blog to know exactly where the photo was found. Thank you so much for your help!

        • Amanda Norman

          February 15, 2016 at 10:22 am Reply

          Hi Tracey, glad you’ve confirmed Grandpa Willie! How fun to find a photo of a family member from his younger days 🙂 Citation of archival documents and photos can be tricky. Every citation should include the following information, as available: Author/creator of item, (date if known). Title of item if applicable, description of item if no title. Collection Name (Where to find it: Accession number, Box number, File number, etc.). Name of Archives or Repository, Location.

          So, if you’re citing an image from the Farmers Improvement Society records, it should be something like this: Gildersleeve, Fred (1930). Photo of FIS baseball team. Farmers Improvement Society records #2126, box 13, folder 10. The Texas Collection, Baylor University.

          (Of course, adjust all of that as needed. If the photographer’s name isn’t indicated on the image, then you can skip that part, and if the image is undated, include that as part of the description of the image.) Thanks for asking about citing, and for telling people about the FIS records–we love for our materials to get good use!

  • Home improvement contractors

    July 22, 2014 at 12:41 am Reply

    At its high point in 1911, the Farmers’ Improvement Society claimed 12,000 members in 800 branches across Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Smith’s wife, Ruby Cobb of Waco, was instrumental in helping him run the F.I.S. Thanks for sharing all that great information ….

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