Friday, November 17, 2017

Exactly When Was CMU Founded

by Frank Boles

Through the kindness of a donor the Clarke Library recently received an early Central class ring, proudly emblazoned with the School’s founding year – 1891. Considering we are celebrating the 125th anniversary of Central’s founding this year, in 1892, the ring is something of an inconvenient artifact. It was hard to imagine, however, that someone would get something like the date the school was founded wrong in bronze.

As it turns out Central has used a variety of dates regarding when the school was founded. Among the earliest documents in the CMU Archives it states clearly and repeatedly that the institution was founded in 1891. However in 1949 the State Board of Education, which at the time had administrative control of the School, decided that the institution was actually founded in 1892.

The argument for the change was likely quite straightforward. Central had claimed it was founded in the fall of 1891 when a group of four of Mt. Pleasant’s leading citizens met informally and agreed in principle to a scheme to create a private teaching school in Mt. Pleasant. The State Board likely pointed out that it is one thing to sit around in an office and decide something should be done, and quite another to actually go out and do it. And in point of fact these leading citizens, along with other community leaders, did not get around to legally organizing an entity to undertake the project until the spring of 1892. On May 24, 1892 sixteen people organized the Mt. Pleasant Improvement Association, with the purpose of creating a “Normal University.”

But in solving one puzzle a new one is created: why does Central celebrate its birthday on September 13, rather than May 24?

Although the Improvement Association’s stated goal was to found a University, the mechanism was not straightforward. It was, instead, a speculative real estate scheme. The Association bought a farm near the south end of Mt. Pleasant, set aside a portion of the farm to be the site of the new University, and divided the rest of the farm into 210 lots which it intended to sell. The founding of the University, or more properly the construction of a building to house the University on the land set aside for this purpose, was dependent on income received from the sale of the lots. If the real estate scheme didn’t work, there would be no building, and without the building “Normal University” would largely be an imaginary creature.

The lots did, however, sell, and during the spring and early summer several milestones were met. One important milestone was signing a contract in June 1892 with Charles Bellows, who agreed to become principal of the new University and also recruit both faculty and students. However, much like selling lots to fund a University, hiring someone who agrees to find faculty and students is not exactly the same thing as having either of those essential components of any school. There was clearly a good deal of work to do during the summer months, and a lot that might go wrong.

Bellows, however, was good to his word. September 13, 1892 was the first day of classes. The faculty had been assembled, as least a few students showed up on a rainy morning, and the business of education was begun. The choice of September 13 as CMU’s birthday is a bit arbitrary, but also very logical.

And for the record, the Association held the groundbreaking ceremony for the promised building on September 19, 1892. Classes, which had begun a week earlier, had been convened in rented space located in downtown Mt. Pleasant. Groundbreaking was the capstone of the Association's work. It had raised the money needed to fund the school, recruited Charles Bellows to find faculty and students and run the new institution, and made good on the promise to construct a building for the school’s use. Classes moved to the new building when it was completed in 1893.