Two interlocking stories form the beliefs and motivations of Lloyd Noble one of a man who defined the world around him, the other of the place that defined the man.
Together, these motivations propelled Noble to create an organization able to solve agriculture's most pressing challenges for generations to come.
And all of it began in a train-depot town called Ardmore in Indian Territory.
Born in 1896, Noble grew up in a region still relatively untamed. Noble's father and uncle, Samuel and Edward, followed their pioneering spirits and entrepreneurial inclinations from New York to the land-rich prairie in search of new opportunities.
The Noble brothers opened a hardware store the same year Lloyd was born, providing wares to the agricultural producers who were the area's primary economic engines. As a young boy in the 1910s, Lloyd Noble swept floors, stocked shelves and delivered goods for the store, where he came in frequent contact with agricultural producers.
Noble admired the diligence and humility that farmers and ranchers displayed. He also saw how these early farmers succeeded in generating their prized commodity cotton but did so with little regard for the conservation and vitality of the soil.
Noble left his junior year of high school and spent a year living alone on a family farm, working the land. "From family accounts and biographical writings, we know Mr. Noble was a quiet and thoughtful boy, mature beyond his years and able to grasp complex issues quickly," said Bill Buckner, president and CEO of the Noble Research Institute. "These early experiences with agriculture undoubtedly shaped his perspective and began the formation of his allegiance to the soil and the land."
Noble left the farm and became an educator, earning a teaching certificate from Oklahoma State Teachers College, Southeast, (now called Southeastern Oklahoma State University) in Durant. He briefly served in a pair of one-room schoolhouses before enrolling in the University of Oklahoma, but Noble's sense of duty interrupted his education. World War I raged overseas and, eager to serve his country, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Peace was restored before the conclusion of his training, and Noble returned to the red clay soil of Oklahoma and the OU campus in 1919 but only for a few months.
The first oil drilling rig owned by Lloyd Noble in 1921. From this beginning, Noble became one of the most respected oilman in the U.S.
Six years earlier, oil had been discovered at the Healdton Field in Healdton, Oklahoma, and revitalized Oklahoma's economy. Noble found the oilfield an irresistible opportunity, and, in 1921, the 24-year-old armed with a $15,000 loan cosigned by his mother, Hattie purchased his first drilling rig.
Noble helped revolutionize the oil and gas drilling industry through the next two decades, becoming a leader in the adoption of innovative technology. He capitalized on new ideas and equipment to drill deeper and faster than his contemporaries and quickly became one of the most successful and respected drilling contractors in the United States.
While Noble found continued opportunity in energy production, the poor agricultural practices he had observed as a youth began to take a toll on Oklahoma. Failure to return nutrients to the soil resulted in a barren land that was unproductive and susceptible to erosion. A decades-long drought compounded the problem.
The winds that swept through the Great Plains in the 1930s carried off precious topsoil literally blowing away Oklahoma's economic lifeblood. Agriculture and other industries were stifled, and those whose livelihood depended on the land fled for an elusive financial sanctuary in the American West. Oklahoma was in dire need of solutions, and Noble provided them.
"Noble believed that Oklahoma and his country had afforded him the opportunities to find success," Buckner said. "He felt it was his responsibility to support his fellow man and his home state. He demonstrated time and again that he was a remarkable man of character and compassion."
Noble had established himself as a respected oilman, but he knew that the revitalization of agriculture was the linchpin to Oklahoma's future prosperity. "We believe that while at times we have felt the overshadowing presence of oil," Noble said, "we are living in an area that is essentially agricultural. ... The land must continue to provide for our food, clothing and shelter long after the oil is gone."
While Lloyd Noble found his success in the oil industry, he saw the land and soil as our most prized resource. Noble once said, "We believe that while at times we have felt the overshadowing presence of oil, we are living in an area that is essentially agricultural. ... The land must continue to provide for our food, clothing and shelter long after the oil is gone."
Armed with his convictions, Noble focused his energy and resources on bolstering land management and soil conservation. In May 1943, Noble addressed these issues when he contributed a column to the 50th anniversary edition of his hometown newspaper, the Daily Ardmoreite. He wrote: "What are we in the present generation going to do with this heritage? Are we going to encourage the terracing, conservation and up-building of our soil so it will support a growing, healthy and prosperous livestock and agrarian industry, or are we going to allow our soils to be depleted and our population shifted to other areas as we read about it in the newspapers?"
Noble provided a permanent resource for the agricultural community and helped spark an agricultural renaissance when he established Noble Research Institute on Sept. 19, 1945. He named the organization after his father, citing him as the most charitable man he had ever met. Noble charged his new institution with "benefiting mankind by assisting agricultural producers" and "safeguarding the soil for future generations."
The Noble Research Institute's early efforts focused on educating and encouraging area farmers and ranchers to practice land stewardship and resource conservation. Noble knew that proper soil management would help prevent another Dust Bowl and ultimately secure the land for future generations.
One original service of the organization was soil testing for farmers in two southern Oklahoma counties. Soil testing was underutilized at the time. The practice became a fundamental component of successful land stewardship and continues, on a much broader scale, to this day. Initial programs also included contests for the improvement of cropland as well as the establishment of productive pastures and demonstration farms to illustrate innovative practices.
Noble suffered a fatal heart attack on Feb. 14, 1950 Valentine's Day. He was 53.
Less than three months before his death, Noble was still advocating soil conservation, saying during a speech in the fall of 1949: "No civilization has outlived the usefulness of its soils. When the soil is destroyed, the nation is gone."
While Noble passed away less than five years into the Noble Research Institute's existence, his vision had been cemented. Throughout the ensuing seven decades, the stewards of the Noble Research Institute largely comprised of his descendants have stayed true to Noble's original edict to benefit agriculture.
In the decades following Noble's death, the organization conducted biomedical research, yielding important discoveries for the treatment of cancer and aging; bred new varieties of agriculturally significant crops; and established a producer relations program that directly assists farmers and ranchers in the Southern Great Plains.
In the late 1980s, the Board of Trustees seized a new opportunity to support agricultural producers and branched into fundamental plant science research. The Noble Research Institute launched its Plant Biology Division to study the basic genetic and molecular workings of plants with the goal of increasing plant productivity and hardiness.
Less than a decade after initiating its plant research program, the Noble Research Institute expanded again to establish the Forage Improvement Division, which advances the organization's plant breeding and crop management research. The group's work focuses on forages grasses and legumes consumed by livestock. Forages underpin current regional agriculture, which is dominated by cattle production.
Today, the Noble Research Institute continues to provide solutions to key agricultural challenges that affect not only Oklahoma and the Southern Great Plains but also the world.
"Our mission has been and always will remain focused completely on benefiting farmers, ranchers and land managers through education and research," Buckner said. "Noble established this organization with that specific vision but gave each generation the latitude to shape the programs and projects to meet the challenges of the specific era."
While Lloyd Noble could have never foreseen the global impact of his organization, he believed in the limitless ability of his fellow man. In January 1948, just two years before his death, Noble wrote, "As I look around at the strides that have been made in our research laboratories, as I look at the things undreamed of a few years ago ... the only degree to which we have reached the end of the road of opportunity is the degree to which we have exhausted the imaginative capacity of the human mind."