Happy Birthday Dear Central 150 150 years of photography
 

Central's History

Note: Credit for much of the research for the years 1853-1953 must go to Josephine E. Thostenson for her brochure, published on the occasion of the centennial of the college, One Hundred Years of Service.

By Christine Mak, Central Archivist
Edited by Patrick Roland ’97

The history of Central College, like so many other academic institutions, is intimately tied to the town that houses it. In later years, Kenneth J. Weller, president of Central from 1969-1990, would say of his predecessor, president Irwin J. Lubbers, “Had there been no Irwin Lubbers, there would be no Central College.” In the same spirit, Central owes its 150 years of accomplishments, triumphs, seasons of change and spirit to the people who populated its campus along with the town which fought so hard for its birth.

In 1835 the land that was to become Pella, Iowa, was a rolling stretch of prairie populated by Sac Indians and Midwestern wildlife. The landscape of waving tall grass was relieved by scattered stands of pine, maple and oak timber following the Keokuk River. By 1846, the state of Iowa had been carved out of the Wisconsin Territory and the future site of Pella was split between approximately 20 families.

One year later, these original founders were living side by side with Dominie Hendrik Pieter Scholte and 800 of his Dutch Reformed Church followers in the new city of Pella. Pipe clamped firmly between his teeth, Scholte was able to purchase the land for a mere $0.14 an acre, a bargain price even for the time. Having fled Holland in search of religious freedom, the settlers arrived in Pella — marked by a hickory pole driven into the ground with the name painted on a wooden shingle nailed to the top — eager to build a community that nurtured education as well as religious freedom.

The new city of Pella thrived over the next six years. During that same time, the Iowa Baptist Education Society worked toward founding a college in the new state. At a meeting of the educational convention in Iowa City on April 13, 1852, the members unanimously agreed:

That it is the deep and settled conviction of the Baptists of Iowa, that the time has now come when an institution of liberal and sacred learning, under the control of the Baptist denomination, should be established in this state.

Even though a limited number of delegates were able to attend in Iowa City due to poor road conditions that muddy spring, the enthusiastic members present voted that Burlington would be the home of the new school. In September of that year when a more complete educational committee met in Marion County, the former location of Burlington was decided to be too far to the east to serve the whole state and the search for a permanent location began again. Friends of Burlington, feeling that the previous vote was valid, pushed forward and built Burlington University anyway, opening its doors on Jan. 4, 1854, and continuing until 1901.

Yet for the Baptists of Iowa, the question of where to put the new school was still unsettled. A meeting in Oskaloosa on Nov. 10, 1852, resolved only to ponder the matter further and meet once again in the summer to decide.

The heat of summer had fully descended on the bustling town of Pella when the Baptist education convention met there on June 2, 1853. Among its elected delegates from Baptist churches across the state were noted Pella citizens Dominie Scholte, A.E.D. Bousquet and Professor L. Dwight.

Foremost in Scholte’s mind was securing Pella as the future site of the Baptist college over its most imminent threat — Oskaloosa. A graduate of the University of Leyden, Scholte believed in the power of higher education and showed commendable open-mindedness by campaigning so strongly to establish a school outside his own denomination. Both Oskaloosa and Pella were centralized in the state, which would provide more equal access to all Iowans, and both had willing, supportive communities eager for the chance to educate their children plus provide a temporary home for young scholars away from their own families.

It was at this point that Scholte presented an offer in favor of Pella that the Baptists could not refuse — free land and money. When the votes were counted, Pella came out the winner.

The final motions of the 1853 meeting chose two committees to begin establishing the new Central University of Iowa. The first was to draft a constitution and articles of incorporation, and the other to nominate a board of trustees. The first CUI board of trustees consisted of 30 members with an executive committee comprised of H.P. Scholte as president, W. Nossaman, vice-president, Rev. I.C. Curtiss as secretary and J. Smeink, treasurer.

June 1854 saw the first annual CUI board of trustees meeting in Pella. Plans were made to commence classes of the academic department in the fall of that year. In a stroke of great fortune, Dr. Emanuel H. Scarff of Dayton, Ohio, a Baptist Rev. and a graduate of Denison College, was secured as principal for the department. Scarff had contracted malaria in Indiana and his doctors advised him that the “stable” climate of Iowa would ease his weakened lungs. In this way, Central found its next steadfast friend.

Scarff arrived in Pella on Sept. 3, 1854, on the stagecoach that made daily runs between Oskaloosa and Pella. Classes were scheduled to begin two weeks later, yet to his surprise, Scarff found no building, no desks, no books, and no space rented to even temporarily hold his future students. Used to adverse conditions with limited resources, Scarff wasted no time in delaying the opening of classes from the advertised Sept. 17 date to that of Oct. 8. He used his additional time to acquire rented space for classrooms at 1109 Washington St., the present site of the Strawtown Gift Shop, and to hire carpenters to build benches and desks for the fledgling school. In later years Scarff wrote: “The school furniture was still growing in the Des Moines (River) timber, yet in three weeks after our arrival in Pella the timber was cut, drawn to the mill, sawn into lumber, made into two-seated desks and placed in the school room.”

Enrollment on the first day of classes was 37 students, made up entirely of children from the nine “American” families then residing in Pella before Scholte and his followers arrived, and the rest from the Dutch settlers themselves. At the end of the term that number had risen to 73.

In 1854 the foundation stones for the building known as “Old Central” were laid. Once again the citizens of Pella rose to the occasion and donated valuable time, labor and materials to the new structure. Deacon Wellington Nossaman donated the first white oak timber off of his own land to build the frame of the three-story, 50’x 70’ brick building. In 1856 enough of the new building was completed to move the school from its Washington Street location to the site that would remain its home until the present day.

Things looked very bright for the fledgling school at the opening of the second annual board of trustees meeting in 1855. Knowing that if Central was going to survive, the ever-pressing need of an endowment had to be addressed. Board President Scholte proposed an endowment of $50,000, the interest of which would provide for the salary of a college president at $1,000 yearly, two professors at $750, two tutors at $500, one female principal at $500 and three female “assistants” at $333.33 yearly.

A fundraising campaign was launched at the end of 1855, which progressed well until the beginning of 1857. J.K. Hornish of Keokuk pledged $10,000 — a sum equal to $201,725 today — provided that the Rev. Elihu Gunn, D.D., be appointed as the first president of Central. Gunn was installed as the first president of the collegiate department of Central at the June 1857 board of trustees meeting amidst the rising financial panic that swept the United States in the five years leading up to the Civil War.

As the panic tightened its grip on the nation, Gunn took the reins of Central only to find his salary was not available in the amount he had been promised. Despite the reverse in economic conditions, Gunn faithfully began his presidential duties as the first collegiate-level classes commenced in the fall of 1857. By 1860, Central University of Iowa saw its first three college graduates accept their diplomas.

As Central’s first graduates were preparing to take their final examinations, the United States was rushing headlong into the most trying period of its short history. The guns of Fort Sumter had barely begun shooting before the Civil War that was raging in the East began to draw young men into its desperate clutches. For the five years leading up to the war and during the five years that it was being fought, economic conditions in the United States were in a desperate state. Gunn, Scarff, principal of the ladies’ department Drucilla Stoddard and professor Amos Currier had found themselves on shortened salaries from 1858 to the outbreak of hostilities.

Due to never receiving the salary he had been promised, Gunn resigned the presidency in 1861 just as 122 male students at Central exchanged their books for guns and rushed off to make their mark fighting for the Union. Going with them was professor Amos Currier. This left the school with only two male students — one born with a withered hand, the other missing an arm — and Scarff, Stoddard, two professors and approximately 40 female students to struggle on as best they could until the end of the war.

It would be a grave oversight to underestimate the degree of commitment shown by these teachers and students during this time. Funds were essentially nonexistent, as most students could not conceive of paying full, or sometimes even partial tuition. Endowment pledges had been halted since American citizens were reduced to concentrating on survival as the fighting raged on in the East. Emanuel Scarff and his associates closed Old Central and began teaching classes out of their homes so that they would not have to heat the large school building. Whatever monies the school did bring in through tuition or the occasional endowment pledge went towards running expenses with the remainder split between Scarff, professor Stoddard, Mrs. Druscilla Stoddard and music teacher Miss Noble.

Despite the hard times, any student wishing to continue their education was not turned away. Promises of future payments after the student was able to secure employment were accepted in good faith, and collegiate students were put to work assisting the teaching of academy students in lieu of tuition.

Thus, through perseverance and an unflagging devotion by its teachers and administrators to keeping Central College alive, the struggling school found itself still in operation when the “Boys of ’61” came marching back to take up their studies at the opening of the fall semester, 1866.

During the war years, the citizens of Pella and the Central community spent their time glued to whatever war news they could get and helping out as much as possible with the war effort. During classes in the homes of Stoddard or Scarff, students would often roll bandages or knit socks and other articles of clothing while listening to lectures. Sewing circles created to make quilts, organize donation drives and letter writing to friends and family were a common pastime for those left behind.

With the resignation of Gunn in 1861, Scarff took over as acting president of the college even though he maintained, “I am a teacher, not a president.” Scarff remained president for 10 years while still fulfilling his teaching duties and serving as pastor of the Baptist Church of Pella.

By 1864, creditors were pressing for payment. At the June 1864 meeting of the board of trustees, the school found itself in debt to the tune of $12,000 — $134,483 in today’s currency — an amount equal to the entire value of all the college’s property. Not satisfied with the college’s state of indebtedness, Scarff, I.J. Stoddard and the recently returned professor Currier began fundraising to pay off the $12,000 debt and secure a lasting endowment for the school. When spring rolled around in 1866, Central found itself completely debt-free, a happy condition that lasted for four years.

The early social life of students from this time period is difficult to trace. Lack of personal letters and diaries makes the everyday actions of students hazy at best. However, it is known that music concerts were given on an almost weekly basis by professors and students of the school. With the beginning of collegiate classes, degrees in vocal or instrumental performance were some of the earliest a student could get. Visiting musicians were not as common, but did make their way to Pella on occasion. Stage plays, usually of a religious nature, were organized by churches, the YM/YWCA on campus or by one or more of the literary societies.

Literary societies reach back to the beginnings of Central itself. Participation in one of the societies was required of students up until the beginning of the 20th century. Their main purpose was to offer members a forum for practicing the art of public speaking during a time when most lessons were recited to professors in the classroom, not written down and handed in. Members chose a topic to research, prepared a speech about the topic and then delivered it at their society’s meeting.

The literary societies weren’t all work, though. Scholarly pursuits were enhanced by the societies’ participation in presenting dramas and other forms of entertainment along with providing a place for socializing. Announcements for dinners, picnics, ice cream socials and other sorts of “get-togethers” hosted by one society or another appear in the Central College Ray from the early 1870s until their demise between 1943 and 1946.

The first literary society on campus was “The Young American Society,” founded in 1854. This society eventually led to the founding of the second, and longest-running society on campus, the all-male “Philomathians” in 1873, the same year that Central’s Alumni Association was started, making it the oldest in the state. Just two years later the women of the college decided that a society of their own was in order and founded “Advansonia” in 1875.

In later years other societies followed including the co-ed “Chrestomathian,” the “Delphi” and “Lambda Epsilon Phi.” Eventually the purposes fulfilled by literary societies were supplanted by the Greek system of sororities and fraternities along with specialized clubs geared specifically towards academic majors, such as drama and speech. Still, one must remember that in the early years, the literary society was considered to be one of the social epicenters for students. While members were required to study and learn, they were also responsible for theatre productions, musical entertainment, dinners and general camaraderie.

Societies maintained chosen colors, mottos, and of course, the all-important “cheer.” The following is the cheer used by the Philomathians from 1876 until they disbanded in 1945:

Wi! Wic! Wo!
Ble! Blo! Blam!
He! Hi! Ho!
Philomathian!

The final three literary societies on campus, Alpha Kappa Alpha, Alethia and Delphi all voted to disband in October of 1946.

In 1871, the board of trustees freed Emanuel Scarff from his duties as college president with the hiring of Rev. Lewis A. Dunn, D.D. of Fairfax, Vt. Scarff continued to teach until 1878 when his failing health forced him into full retirement. For his 24 years of self-sacrificing service, the sidewalk from the front door of Old Central to the corner of the lawn was laid in a giant “S.” Dunn retired in 1881, and was replaced by Rev. George W. Garner, D.D.

The new president immediately saw that the lack of a suitable endowment was the school’s most pressing challenge. With Chancellor T.E. Balch in charge of financial interests, Garner began a $100,000 fundraising campaign. Before the full amount could be secured, Garner retired in 1884.

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