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 Iowa History

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Our Iowa, Its Beginning and Growth

Herbert L. Moeller and Hugh C. Mueller

New York, Newsom and Company


Transcribed by Debbie Gerischer & Kaylee Bopp




Three state institutions for higher learning are supported by Iowa:  the State University of Iowa at Iowa City, the Iowa State College at Ames, and the Iowa Teachers College at Cedar Falls.  If you should visit any of these you would be impressed with its fine buildings and campus.  Perhaps you would say that it must have required the mind of a great genius to plan such an institution.  But if you read the history of these schools you will learn that they are not completely planned as they now are, and then built according to that plan.  Instead, each one is much as was Topsy in Uncle Tom's Cabin who said that she "just growed."

Iowa's institutions of higher learning have passed through many trials and hardships.  It took years of patient waiting and persistent asking to get the money that was needed to build them.  The funds had to be voted by the legislatures and oftentimes the legislators were slow to see the needs of the institutions.

For many years each of the three schools was managed by a board of its own.  This meant that three separate boards appeared before each meeting of the legislature to ask for money.  It also meant that there was danger of an overlapping of work and, in some cases, jealousy among the institutions.

In 1904 the "Whipple Commission" was appointed for the purpose of making a thorough study of the problem of higher education in Iowa.  The commission visited other states to learn how they dealt with the problem.  In 1905 and in 1907, bills were introduced in the legislature to put the three institutions under ne State Board of Education.  Each year the bill was passed in the Senate but defeated in the House of Representatives.  In the session of 1909 the bill was again presented.  This time it passed both houses and on July first of the same year the new board took over the control of the three institutions.

The Whipple Bill says:  "The state university, the college of agriculture and mechanic arts, including the agricultural experiment station, and the normal school at Cedar Falls, shall be governed by a State Board of Education consisting of nine members and not more than five of the members shall be of the same political party....  The said Board of Education shall appoint a Finance Committee of three from outside its membership and shall designate one of such committee as president and one as secretary."


Iowa's pioneers were interested in higher education.  The territorial legislature of 1840 voted for the establishment of an Iowa university at Mount Pleasant.  It did not, however, vote funds for it.  In the same year the United States Congress passed a law granting seventy-two sections (two townships) of land for the purpose of establishing a university in Iowa when the territory would become a state.

The State Constitution of 1846 required the legislature to "protect, improve, or dispose of lands for the purpose stated."

An act of the first legislature of the State of Iowa in February, 1847, established the State University of Iowa at Iowa City, which was then the state's capital.  But it took several more years for the institution to actually get started.  The first classes were taught in 1855.

There seems to have been much sentiment, in early days of statehood, for more than one university.  This was, no doubt, largely due to the difficulties of travel in those days.  In 1849, two branches of the university were voted to be established at Fairfield and Dubuque.  Grounds were secured and a building erected at Fairfield but, since no funds for maintenance had been made available, it was abandoned.  The branch at Dubuque was never started.  In 1857, bills were introduced but not passed, to establish branches at Glenwood, Fort Dodge, and Delhi.  The Constitution of 1857 settled the entire discussion by stating that there should be but one university and that it should be located at Iowa City.

When the university was opened, women were permitted to attend but in 1858 the Board of Trustees refused to let them do so.  Later, during the same year, the Board permitted them to attend the Normal department.

The State University today consists of a number of colleges, such as the College of Medicine, the College of Law, the College of Liberal Arts, and others.  The first to be started was the Liberal Arts college.  The others have been added from time to time as the demand for them grew.

For many years the University was greatly handicapped for want of funds.  Its building were crowded, equipment was poor, and the instructors received small salaries.  A committee of the legislature in 1874 recommended radical reductions in the then small salaries and said, "those who labor with such love of their profession as will make them content with less remuneration than can be obtained in ordinary business."  As late as 1892 it is said that in one instance three professors used during the year the same room.  It was nineteen by twenty-one feet in size and was lighted by one window.

But better times were ahead.  Mr. C. R. Aurner says: (Volume IV, History of Education in Iowa.)

"With the construction of new buildings, which still continues, the University presents a far different prospect than under the conditions which had prevailed for so many years.  The continued agitation, or one might say begging, for a fair share of the state's funds for what was absolutely essential for respectable accommodations finally bore fruit in the rapid changes which have taken place since 1898."


The pioneers of Iowa realized the possibilities for developing a great agricultural state.  As early as 1848 the legislature asked the Congress of the United States that the site and buildings of Fort Atkinson in Winneshiek County, together with two sections of land, be given to Iowa for the establishment of an agricultural college.  This request was unusual because such colleges were then practically unknown.  In fact, Iowa was the second state to establish an institution of higher learning for the purpose of teaching agriculture, Michigan being the first.

The State Agricultural Society took up the cause for the people who were interested in securing such a school.  Many petitions were presented to the legislature urging the establishment of a college where information in regard to farming could be obtained

A bill to establish a "State Agricultural College and Farm" became a law March 22, 1858.  It provided for a board of eleven trustees and made an appropriation of $10,000.  The Board of Trustees was to decide upon a location for the school.  In June, 1859, it chose a site near Ames, in Story County.

In 1862, the United States Congress passed a measure which was to play an important part in promoting the study of agriculture throughout the nation.  It is known as the Federal Land-Grand College Act.  Through this law the United States Government gave to Iowa's agricultural college 204,000 acres of land.  Iowa's legislature promptly accepted the provisions of the law but it was too busy during that time with the Civil War to give further attention to organizing and developing the college.

The Iowa Agricultural College and Farm was first opened for students on October 21, 1868.  It had about seventy men and women enrolled during the first term.  By a vote of four to three, a committee of the board of trustees had decided to admit women.

The Federal Land-Grant Act said that the main purpose of the new college "shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the states may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life."

Iowa was a pioneer in introducing the subject of home economics.  The "Ladies' Course," offered in 1871, listed "Domestic Economy" as one of the subjects which women might take.  Benjamin F. Gue, president of the Board of Trustees, in an address at the formal opening of the college said:  "In this the People's College, dedicated to the encouragement and promotion of industry, we must aim to make labor attractive, not only to the boys who are seeking knowledge in their department, but to the girls, who can never  become accomplished and thoroughly educated women without a knowledge of the art of housekeeping and the best methods of conducting every household occupation with system, intelligence, and womanly grace."

One of the most important factors in the growth and development of Iowa State College has been the establishment of the agricultural experiment station.  Here  valuable information for farmers is discovered and collected.

But the farmers who had worked to get an agricultural college and farm were not satisfied with having teaching and experimental work done on the campus alone.  They asked that the information which they needed on their farms be brought to them.  To meet this demand, the legislature established the Extension Service in 1906. The act provided that Iowa State College should "undertake and maintain a system of Agricultural extension work.  Under this the said college shall be authorized to conduct experiments in the various portions of the state, and in giving instructions wherever, in the judgment of the college authorities, it shall be advisable."

A bulletin of the college says concerning its campus and buildings "One hundred and twenty-five acres, that were once rolling prairie, have been made into a vast garden, dotted with beautiful buildings.  About the central plaza are grouped in a great rectangle the main buildings of the college, constructed of white stone, classic in their architecture.  And about them in turn are some seventy other buildings housing the many activities of Iowa's great technical school."


Professor D. S. Wright, who taught the first class in the State Normal School and continued as an instructor for half a century, says:  * "The cause of state-supported normal instruction in Iowa never lacked for earnest friends and able advocates, and it early received legislative consideration.  The second General Assembly divided the state into three normal school districts, and provided for the location of an institution for the training of teachers in each.  The centers selected for these schools were Andrew in Jackson County, Oskaloosa in Mahaska County, and Mount Pleasant in Henry County.  The legislative appropriation of $500 for the maintenance of these institutions proved absurdly inadequate.  In two of the towns, Oskaloosa and Andrew, through the enterprise of the citizens, buildings were erected and equipped, and some attempt was made to carry out the provisions of the act.  But the plan was a foredoomed failure and in 1855 the act creating the schools was rescinded by the General Assembly and a Normal Department in the State University was established in its place.  After a prosperous existence of seventeen years, during which time it graduated 185 students, this department was merged into the chair of didactics in 1873." * Fifty Years at Teachers College.  The way was now open for an institution devoted entirely to the training of teachers.

In 1876 a law was passed to establish a State Normal School at Cedar Falls.  The building and grounds which had been a soldiers' orphans' home were to be used by the new institution.  The school was opened September 6, 1876, with a faculty of four members and 27 students.

As in the case of the State University and the State College, so the State Normal School, too, had its early hardships.  Prof. Wright says:  "The attitude of the general public was one of indifference or at best of curiosity untouched with sympathy.  The average Iowa citizen stood ready to say. 'I told you so,' if it failed . . . . At home and abroad for terms and years the 'experiment' was at most a thing of doubtful utility and dubious success."

In 1893, President Seerley said that for three years it had been necessary to assign six classes daily to each teacher and that he himself met from three to five classes.  The classes included from fifty to seventy-five students each.  The enrollment was about 800 at the close of 1893; during the year 1898-1899 it had grown to over 1,600.  To meet the needs of the growing institution, appropriations for additional buildings have, from time to time, been made.

The name of the institution was changed, in 1909, to "Iowa State Teacher College" and a four-year college course, leading to the degree Bachelor of Arts in Education, was established.  In the same year, the college was placed under the management and control of the state Board of Education.  In its first report the new board said that the change in name was justified because the institution could no longer be considered as a normal school in the general meaning of the term.  It further said, "All must and do agree that the Iowa State Teachers College is a magnificent institution-honored at home and abroad.  it trains for all departments of the common schools, and if the interpretation of the constitutional provision establishing this college has been liberal it surely will be conceded that the work attempted has been nobly done."


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