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The idea for an institution of higher education in the frontier country of eastern Iowa and the dynamic spirit that turned this dream into a reality belonged to the Reverend George Bryant Bowman (1812-1888), a native of North Carolina. Bowman began his ministry in Missouri and came to Iowa City in 1841 as pastor of the Methodist church. Six years later he was the Presiding Elder of the Dubuque District and in 1850 was appointed pastor of the Linn Grove Circuit. These last two assignments required him to travel through much of the territory along the old Military Road (now Highway 1) between Dubuque and the state capital in Iowa City. In his travel he visited the settlement of Mount Vernon, whose first resident had arrived in 1837, nine years before Iowa's entrance into the Union as the 29th state. Mount Vernon, platted in 1847, was considered by the early 1850s to be ``one of the most beautiful, healthy, and prosperous villages in the State,'' according to the 1857-58 college catalogue.
Mount Vernon was Bowman's choice for the location of the new school and on the Fourth of July in 1852 ground was broken on a hilltop site of 15 acres on the edge of this pioneering community for the Seminary Building, ``a fine brick edifice, seventy-two feet long, by forty wide, and three stories high.'' The Iowa Conference Seminary, as the new institution was called, opened in September 1853, even though the building was still unfinished. The first term was taught in the Methodist Episcopal Church until the morning of November 14, 1853, when the faculty and students, having assembled in the church, walked in procession through the village and took formal possession of the Seminary Building on the new campus. There were 161 students enrolled in one or more of the College's three terms, of whom 57 were women, and six faculty, four of whom were women. Samuel M. Fellows led the small school with his large title of ``Principal, and Professor of Mental and Moral Science and Belle Lettres.'' Bowman was President of the Board of Trustees for every year but one between 1853 and 1865.
In July 1855, the Board of Trustees resolved to organize the Seminary into a college and named it Cornell College. Elder Bowman had called upon a well-known Methodist philanthropist in New York City, received a small contribution from him, and decided that he was a gentleman worthy of having this nascent college named after him. William Wesley Cornell (1823-1870) was a prominent New Yorker and a partner with his brother, John Black Cornell (1821-1887), in the firm of J. B. and W. W. Cornell, one of the largest iron works in the country erecting fireproof buildings. Their distant cousin, Ezra Cornell, endowed Cornell University, which opened in 1868 in Ithaca, New York.
The Iowa Conference Seminary opened as Cornell College on August 27, 1857. It had 294 students, a faculty of seven, and one building. The Seminary Building, today known as Old Sem, contained the chapel, music and recitation rooms, a kitchen and dining room, and housed some of the faculty and students, the women occupying the second floor and the teachers and a few male students the third floor. The majority of the male students lived in private residences in town.
As the enrollment increased and the institution made plans for a full collegiate program, a second building, the Main College Building (today known as College Hall), was built in 1857 and the Seminary Building was converted to a Ladies' Boarding Hall. During the winter months the ladies paid an extra fee to have firewood cut and carried to their rooms. For more than 30 years Cornell's women continued to board and room in the building despite its lack of modern conveniences. To those young women who moved out of ``the old Sem'' and into Bowman Hall in 1885, this new dormitory must have seemed like one of the wonders of the world. Here were four stories capable of housing 100 women in comfortable double rooms illuminated by gas lights. Each floor had a bathroom and hot and cold running water. The dining room, where male students who roomed in town might take their meals, could seat 200 people at one sitting.
In the early years, the students and faculty dined in Old Sem, in the area now occupied by the Business Office. The College cows, whose milk was consumed at every meal, roamed the campus and were a continual source of annoyance for unwary students. From 1885 to 1930, most students who took their meals on campus ate in Bowman Hall. After Pfeiffer Hall was opened in 1930, half the students were assigned to eat there while the other half continued to dine at Bowman. This arrangement continued until The Commons opened in January 1966.
Although residence halls for women were the norm at Cornell, early attempts to provide the men with an opportunity to live on campus were less successful. When the Cornell Boarding Association Hall, now South Hall, was built in 1873, it was at first popular, but the dormitory style of life soon proved less appealing than that of the rooming houses which clustered around the campus, and the new building was gradually converted for academic use. It was not until 1929, when male freshmen were housed in Guild Hall, and 1936, when Merner Hall was built, that the College was able to interest men in living on campus.
Perhaps the most important place on Cornell's campus to generations of alumni has been its chapel. The need for a separate chapel building was recognized in 1874, the cornerstone was laid in 1876, and the present stone chapel was completed in 1882. The chapel served not only for religious services but also for all kinds of College assemblies, lectures, recitals, debates, pep rallies, theatricals, weddings, and funerals. Until 1957, chapel services were held each morning except on Saturdays and Sundays, and all students were required to attend. Required attendance at weekly chapel (after 1964 weekly convocation) continued until 1970.
The library has, since 1904, been the library for the City of Mount Vernon as well as for the College. Only three other libraries in the world serve their communities in this way. Cornell's first library was opened in 1854 on the third floor of what is now Old Sem in a room 10 x 16 feet, which, Dr. Stephen N. Fellows wrote, ``was my bedroom, sitting room and parlor, and not being sufficiently utilized, became the library room.'' Between 1857 and 1880, the library was located in a room in College Hall. A common punishment for students found guilty of misconduct was to deny them library privileges for one or two weeks. In 1880 the library was moved to the newly opened north end of the lower floor of King Chapel and in 1891 to the second floor of Old Sem. Because of the generosity of industrialist Andrew Carnegie, the College in 1905 dedicated its first building designed for the exclusive use of the library. Originally called the Carnegie Library, it is now known as the Norton Geology Center and Anderson Geology Museum. The continually increasing size of the collection led in 1957 to the construction of the present Russell D. Cole Library which was opened as a combined library-social center. In 1966 the social center was moved from the library into the newly opened student center and Maxwell Auditorium was built in its place in the lower level of the library. In 1995 a $3.7 million renovation updated the Cole Library and brought it firmly into the information age.
Cornell has always offered a diversified curriculum. Besides the various collegiate programs, the corporate institution used to include a Primary Department (middle school), Conservatory of Music, School of Art, School of Oratory and Physical Culture, and Preparatory Department (renamed the Cornell Academy in 1894 and the Cornell College High School in 1916). From 1857 to 1890, the Preparatory Department had greater enrollments than the College proper. Its purpose was to prepare students from two- and three-year high schools and schools with limited or inadequate curricula for admission to the College, or for careers in teaching (Normal course) or business (Commercial course). The Primary Department was discontinued in 1866. The High School closed in June of 1921. Music, art, speech and dramatics, physical education, and teacher education have become departments within the College.
Cornell was one of the first colleges in the nation to offer its students a choice of degree programs. In addition to the Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees, Cornell has awarded during its long history the degrees of Mistress of English Literature (last conferred 1865), Bachelor of Civil Engineering (conferred 1875-1917), Bachelor of Philosophy (conferred 1881-1904 and 1974-1995), Bachelor of Music (first conferred 1921), Bachelor of School Music (conferred 1925-1945), and Bachelor of Music Education (conferred 1946-1964). The first Bachelor of Special Studies degrees were conferred in May 1972. Masters degrees in Art, Science, Civil Engineering, Philosophy, and Music were offered by the College at various times from its inception until 1943, although the last such degree was granted in 1936.
Since 1857 the College catalogues have contained specific provisions for the preparation of teachers. Courses in education were offered for the first time in 1872, one of the earliest recognitions of this discipline in the country. Sociology was added to the curriculum in 1899, only six years after the University of Chicago established the first academic department of sociology in the United States. The first instruction in geology was offered here in 1855, and a professorship established in 1881. Cornell's Department of Geology is the oldest in Iowa.
Instruction in music had been offered to the first group of Seminary students, but in 1878 the Conservatory of Music was inaugurated ``to supply superior advantages for pursuing the study of Music in all its branches, both theoretical and practical, under the ablest Professors.'' In 1960 it became the Department of Music. The Conservatory initiated the Spring Music Festival in 1899, the first such annual festival in Iowa. From 1903 to 1963, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra appeared annually at the Festival, with Dr. Frederick Stock as its conductor until 1942. More than 60 stars of the Metropolitan Opera Company as well as other world-famous musical artists have appeared on the stage of King Chapel. After its 100th anniversary in 1998 the Festival became Music Mondays, a series of four to five concerts held throughout the year.
By appointment of the Secretary of War, an army officer and graduate of West Point taught military science on the campus from 1873 until 1901 when physical training replaced infantry drills. All able-bodied male Cornellians during this period were organized into companies and known as the ``Cornell Cadets.'' A ``Ladies Battalion'' was officially formed in 1889 although women students had drilled in uniform as early as 1874.
Historically, Cornell has been a pioneer in the cause of women's rights. During that first academic year of 1853, one of the first students to enroll was a woman, and women comprised 35% of the student body. The College was the first institution of higher learning west of the Mississippi to grant women the same academic rights and privileges as men, and the first in Iowa to confer a baccalaureate degree on a woman, in 1858. Cornell women studied chemistry and other sciences in coeducational classrooms and laboratories before their sisters at other colleges or universities were allowed to do so. In 1871, Cornell conferred upon Harriette J. Cooke the first full professorship ever given to a woman in the United States with a salary equal to that of her male colleagues. Soon after her promotion, she founded and became the first president of The Cornell Association for the Higher Education of Women, one of the first such organizations in the nation.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1869 and Susan B. Anthony in 1879 came to Mount Vernon and made Cornellians more aware of the important concerns of women. As early as 1916, the Women's League at Cornell organized vocational conferences for women students and sponsored lectures by women prominent in the professions, business, and public life. This tradition continues. During the 1970s, a number of faculty members at Cornell introduced courses that focused on women and integrated the new feminist scholarship rapidly emerging in most disciplines. A major in Women's Studies was approved in 1989.
Literary societies dominated student social and cultural life from 1853 until the 1920s. The first was the Amphictyon Literary Society, founded November 18, 1853, which was the oldest literary society in Iowa and possibly west of the Mississippi River. More than 20 societies are known to have been chartered at Cornell, and 11 were still in existence in 1927, when they all voluntarily disbanded. The first eight had paired off, a men's group affiliating with a women's group, so that the partnership possessed one of the four prestigious meeting rooms on the third floor of College Hall. On Friday and Saturday evenings, these societies presented various programs to which the college community and the townspeople were often invited. Such presentations were usually lectures, debates, or dramatic readings interspersed with musical selections (the College did not permit theatrical performances until 1899). From the membership of these public societies were formed secret societies, of which little is known except that they became the nuclei for today's social groups. The society halls were the first social centers. Student government was organized in 1919, and the various religious and cultural organizations consolidated into the ``Cornell Student Association'' in 1927. The first Homecoming took place in 1913; the first Parents Day in 1932.
The Cornell Athletic Association was organized in 1888, two years after Cornell began playing intercollegiate baseball. Intercollegiate football followed in 1891, then track and field, basketball, cross-country, and wrestling. At first the gymnasium was the ``great outdoors,'' which was not so great during Iowa's long, cold winters. In 1873 the College finally provided in the basement of College Hall ``rooms and appliances for regular and careful physical training under competent supervision'' for men and women. The men of Cornell built their own gymnasium building, 24 x 40 feet, in December 1889. Ill luck attended this venture, for the building burned to the ground in February 1891. After many years of making do with temporary accommodations, Cornell students celebrated the opening of the Alumni Gymnasium (now McWethy Hall, home of the art department) in 1909 with unbounded enthusiasm. In 1953 the Field House was erected. The Richard and Norma Small Multi-Sport Center, which opened in 1986, allows indoor practice for some teams, and serves as a fitness facility for all students.
Cornell athletes participated in all the Olympic Games between 1924 and 1964. Eight Cornellians were members of Olympic wrestling teams, and 25 Cornell men have won individual national championships in wrestling. In 1947, Cornell won the National Collegiate (NCAA) and the National AAU championships in wrestling. Cornell College remains the smallest college, as well as the only private college, ever to achieve these honors.
In 1977, a proposal was put before the faculty, students, and Board of Trustees to change the academic calendar from a traditional semester system to something new and innovative. The idea was to adopt a calendar system in which students would take, and faculty would teach, a single course each month. The advantages and disadvantages were published, discussed, and dissected. On March 9, 1978, the faculty voted by a margin of 2 to 1 in favor of One-Course-At-A-Time, the term used thereafter to describe the Cornell academic calendar. The new system began that fall.
Leslie H. Garner, Jr. is the 14th president of the College. His predecessors were: Richard W. Keeler, 1857-59; Samuel M. Fellows, acting president 1859-60 and president 1860-63; William Fletcher King, acting president 1863-65 and president 1865-1908; James E. Harlan, 1908-14; Charles W. Flint, 1915-22; Harlan Updegraff, 1923-27; Herbert J. Burgstahler, 1927-39; John B. Magee, 1939-43; Russell D. Cole, 1943-60; Arland F. Christ-Janer, 1961-67; Samuel E. Stumpf, 1967-73; Philip B. Secor, 1974-84; and David Marker, 1984-94.
The following have served as acting presidents: Hugh Boyd, 1873-74; Alonzo Collin, June - September, 1880; Hamline H. Freer, 1914-15; William S. Ebersole, 1922-23 and February - May 1927; Charles M. Cochran, 1973-74; and C. William Heywood, February - July, 1994.
The motto of the College, DEUS ET HUMANITAS (God and Humanity), is said to have been George Bowman's personal motto. Although frequently translated as ``humanity,'' the Latin word humanitas does not mean, as it often does in English, human beings considered collectively. Harper's Latin Dictionary gives the following definitions: ``liberal education, humane and gentle conduct toward others, philanthropy, kindness, politeness, and elegance of manner and language.''
The college published its first scholarly history, Cornell College: A Sesquicentennial History, by C. William Heywood and Richard Thomas, in 2004. Charles Milhauser’s illustrated history book, Cornell College: 150 Years from A to Z, was published in 2003.
In 2003-2004 Cornell celebrated its 150th year of existence with several events. One of these was a grade procession of students, staff, faculty, trustees, and townspeople across campus, through Old Sem, and into King Chapel for a convocation on November 14, 2003.