• Professor Emeritus George Vane's speech from the Honors Day Luncheon

    You cannot have escaped the fact that this year Hamline is celebrating its 150th anniversary, nor that it has taken as its motto “Looking back, Thinking forward.” So perhaps it is fitting that we also look back to that period when some early Minnesota Methodists were themselves thinking forward.

    But first, let me set the scene. The year is 1854. The treaties of Traverse des Sioux and Mendota have made possible the purchase of land which can be opened to land-hungry easterners and foreigners. Minnesota is still a Territory, and will not become a state until 1858. Down river from Fort Snelling, St. Paul, already the Territorial capital, has 6000 residents; upstream, the town of St. Anthony and the village recently named Minneapolis are growing apace.

    That the time is right for the influx of settlers was to be made clear by an event to be recreated this coming month—the Grand Excursion of 1854. With the completion of the rail line from Chicago to Rock Island, Illinois, one could now travel in comfort from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, and to celebrate, an excursion of some 1200 dignitaries, journalists, business leaders, scholars, artists, including President Millard Fillmore, rode by rail from Chicago to the Mississippi, there to board a flotilla of five steamboats for St. Paul—an extravagant sightseeing tour that heralded the opening of the West.

    And farther down the Mississippi, also ready to greet the Grand Excursion, was Red Wing, a village of 300 where, it was said, teepees were still more plentiful than houses. With the Indians being pushed back, speculators and settlers were being drawn by the promises of free land. And, like other towns, Red Wing was competing to increase its population by inducing organizations to plant churches and schools within its town limits.

    As it became clear that the Minnesota Territory was about to explode with the new arrivals, thoughtful Methodists recognized the coming need for educated citizens. Some first envisioned opening an academy, a kind of special high school that would send its graduates east to college. In fact, a group submitted to the Territorial legislature a proposal for just such an academy, but fortunately for us, others, especially William Pitt Murray, lawyer, St. Paul Methodist, and territorial legislator, had a broader vision—of a university that would prepare ministers, teachers, lawyers, and others for public service. Murray buried the proposal in committee, and when presented for action, his redrafted version was for a university, not an academy. So it was that a charter, signed on March 3, 1854, established Hamline.

    The charter was significant in several ways: first, it affirmed that no religious tenet would be required, and second, that the school would be co-educational, revolutionary for the time when major eastern universities were exclusively male. The charter also stated that the university should be located along the Mississippi between St. Paul and Lake Pepin. After all, students, like freight, it was said, were more cheaply transported by water than land.

    Believing that it would be a future metropolis, early Trustees chose Red Wing and local businessmen pledged $10,000 and donated a block in the center of town for the new school.

    Interestingly, the university was named for the distinguished Methodist bishop Leonidas Hamline even before he gave land in New York City and Chicago worth $25,000. And so Hamline University opened its doors to 30 women and 43 men on the second floor of Smith and Hoyt's store (the first college building would open in 1856)—with a faculty of three—Jabez Brooks as principal, instructor, and librarian; Louise Sherman, teacher of modern languages and drawing, and Frances Dunning, teacher of music.

    If this scarcely suggests a college program, you would be correct, for in 1854 there was little public education, and high schools were almost unknown (one of the first would open in Belle Plain in 1860). So Hamline's first task was to set up a preparatory department to ready students for college courses that would eventually be introduced. Tuition ran from $4.00 to $6.66 per term, and board was $2.50 per week, including a furnished room. But money was scarce, and we learn that students often paid in kind. Hay and corn worth $4.00, ½ sack of flour $1.00, four pounds of butter at 10 cent a pound helped cover tuition. While most students were from the surrounding area, at the beginning a few journeyed to Hamline from Iowa and Michigan. 

     And there were rules of conduct: Here are a few:

    1) Students shall rise in the morning at the ringing of the first bell.
    2) Each student is required to attend church twice on Sunday
    3) No student shall attend balls or dancing parties, nor any gentleman and lady walk or ride together without permission.
    4) No lady shall receive calls from gentlemen at her room in the institution or elsewhere.
    5) During study hours no student shall be unnecessarily absent from his room.

    So Hamline began, its aims high as it started its experiment in higher education. Succeeding years, however, were often so traumatic for presidents that they must have wondered whether the college would endure. Health problems would cause President Brooks to resign in 1857, and succeeding president Benjamin Crary would stay only until 1861.

    Nevertheless, in 1857, a collegiate curriculum was introduced and in a few years Hamline would have its first graduates, the Sorin sisters, Emily and Elizabeth. 1857 was also the year of the great Panic. As with the depression of the l930's, the wealthy became poor, and the poor became destitute. On one occasion, the faculty had to divide a sack of flour; each carrying his or her share home after dark so students would not know the truth of their circumstances. No wonder President Crary wrote, “Hamline is in a precarious position. We shall not have many students. We have a huge debt…and we are very poor.” 

    By 1860, however, the effects of the Panic were fading. Harvests were good, Minnesota was expanding, and Red Wing was becoming a center to which hundreds of steamboats arrived to exchange immigrants and grain. With a growing population, schoolteachers, lawyers, and ministers were needed, and Hamline was now ready to produce them.

    Crary was optimistic: “Hamline is doing well,” he wrote, “better than I hope. We have 75 men and 55 females. We will have three graduates and perhaps four. Our school is exerting a vast moral power.” But the next year he wrote. “It is very difficult to get enough money here for the ordinary necessities of life, and it is impossible to secure anything for the payment of my debts.” And so he resigned, to become Minnesota's first Superintendent of Public Instruction, and later chaplain to the 3rd Minnesota Regiment during the Civil War.

    Jabez Brooks then returned to again become President of the university—and face a new crisis—for the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861 hit the country much as the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor did in 1941. The call to arms was immediate and the men of Red Wing and Goodhue County answered the call. Of these, one-third were Hamline men. A local company was formed, officers chosen. William Colville, the 30-year-old editor of the Red Wing Sentinel became Captain; Ed Welch, a 23-year-old Hamline law student was made 1lst lieutenant, and Hamline student Mark Hoyt, second lieutenant.

    As they awaited their call, the company began drills. When the call came, the Hamline men gathered in the university chapel for a farewell reception given by remaining classmates and teachers. As the company boarded the steamboat that would take them to Saint Paul, the crowd cheered and the Red Wing band played “Annie Laurie.” Once in Saint Paul they marched the five miles to Fort Snelling where they were put in old barracks unused for years, their bunks shallow boxes filled with straw covered with blankets. And they learned eventually that their three-month enlistment had been changed to three years. Off to battle, they fought at Bull Run, Fredericksburg, Antietam, Gettysburg.

    With the loss of so many men from the college, there were no graduates in 1862, and only 16 students remained in the collegiate program. Indeed, before the war was over, 119 Hamline men served in the Union army, and Ed Welch and Mark Hoyt were among those who died in battle.

    Despite Hamline's indebtedness and other problems, school went on. Students moved from preparatory to college classes. Men gave declamations every two weeks, and everyone submitted an essay every two weeks. Students formed literary societies ---the Sigourney for women, and the Adelpian for men. In free time, there were baseball games, sleigh rides in winter, debates, music recitals, and walks in the Red Wing hills.

    “Hamline's atmosphere,” a student wrote, “is so genuinely Christian that one feels lonesome if he does not take an active part or interest in religious life and service.” 

    Still, students were not averse to having fun. One day a prankster put a cow in the college chapel. “The president was so touched by the injured look in her eyes,” wrote an alumnus, “that after he had caused her to be led down and out into pastures green, with unruffled voice, he conducted the morning devotion.” 

    By 1868, there were already stirrings to move Hamline from Red Wing. Bishop Hamline's gift of real estate had brought in only $7,000; the Red Wing pledge of $10,000 was never fully paid. The block on which Hamline set was too small for expansion. Red Wing had not become the anticipated big city. And despite the college's improving finances and an increasing enrollment, the Trustees decided it was time to close the school and re-open in another place.

    When it closed in June 1869, Hamline could look back on all it had accomplished. As a frontier college, it had furnished a well-rounded education to students in the upper Mississippi valley; it had given the state teachers, ministers, lawyers and other professional people—and it had done this as an coeducational institution. Over the years, it had taught over 800 students, had prepared over 200 teachers, and had graduated eight college classes.

    Hamline trustees would now think forward as they planned a new university in Saint Paul. And despite grasshopper plagues and another recession beginning in 1873, their vision became a reality when the university re-opened in 1880.

    If “the past is prologue,” Hamline's Red Wing years were her prologue to the school we now celebrate: a true university with undergraduate and graduate programs that perhaps not even William Pitt Murray would have imagined when he changed that charter proposal for an academy to that of a university. Now, 150 years later, Hamline continues to “Think Forward.” 

    By Professor Emeritus George T. Vane.