Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Celebrating CMU's 130th Anniversary

by Magdelyn Gipe

As we embark upon a new academic year, Central Michigan University celebrates the 130th anniversary of its founding. On September 13, 1892, the Central Michigan Normal School and Business Institute (it wouldn’t be known as Central Michigan University until 1959) opened its doors for the first time. Of course, the doors that were opened were in downtown Mt. Pleasant, about one mile north of the current Central campus. 31 students were in attendance that day, with classes taught in rental rooms upstairs in the Carpenter Building, which sat on the southeast corner of Main and Michigan streets. Work on the first campus building started six days later, on September 19, 1892. The building, known as “Old Main,” opened in 1893, when students first attended classes on what is now the Central campus. 

Central's "Old Main" Groundbreaking, September 19, 1892

From the beginning, Central largely existed to train and educate teachers. As such, Principal Charles Bellows organized the school into five departments: Normal (training teachers), Academic, Commercial, Industrial, and Music & Art. The Commercial Department is what gave the school the name, “Central Michigan Normal School and Business Institute”; at that time, “business” often meant basic accounting, ledger-keeping, stenography, and penmanship. Bellows is personally responsible for the Music & Art Department, using his own funds to organize a Conservatory for Music. 

Most students who attended Central that first year were from rural areas in and around Isabella County, and often were eighth-grade graduates. In the early days of the institution, it was not uncommon for students to attend for a short time before obtaining a teaching certificate by taking a county teaching exam that allowed students to fill teaching jobs in rural one-room schoolhouses throughout central and northern Michigan. Whether some of those in the first class of students left Central because they passed a county teaching exam or because of another reason, twenty of the original 31 students graduated from Central that first year.

In the 130 years since that historic day, Central Michigan University has substantially changed. Instead of 31 students on the first day of classes, there are over 15,000 students at Central this fall. Classes aren’t held in rental rooms in downtown Mt. Pleasant anymore, but in any of the more than 25 academic buildings. Campus has grown from an initial investment of ten acres and $25,000 to a world-class university sitting on nearly 500 acres with an annual operating budget of over $400 million. What has not changed over the course of 130 years are the fired-up attitude, the can-do spirit, and the genuine kindness Central’s students bring with them each fall.

CMU Students in Kelly/Shorts Stadium at Leadership Safari, 2022