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Birth of the College


The grand march from the fourth annual Colonial Party, Feb. 21, 1914.

Allison Willits, a prominent Mount Vernon citizen, had first proposed the idea of a college in his community as early as 1847. He found a sympathetic ear in Bowman, who tirelessly set about promoting the idea of a college and raising the money to found it. Bowman deserves principal credit for founding the college and for assuring that it would survive and flourish in its first years. 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 “a fine brick edifice, seventy-two feet long, by forty wide, and three stories high.” Bowman was a gifted fund-raiser, traveling around eastern Iowa raising money for the proposed school, often accepting goods that he could later sell when supporters were unable to give cash. An austere man, Bowman still managed to inspire people with his dreams for the new institution and remained its guiding spirit until he moved to California in 1866.

Referred to in planning as The Mount Vernon Seminary, the new institution opened as the Iowa Conference Seminary in September 1853, even though the building was still unfinished. The first term was taught in the old Methodist Episcopal Church until the morning of Nov. 14, 1853, when the faculty and students walked in procession through the village and took formal possession of the Seminary Building on the new campus. The new institution was under the leadership of Samuel M. Fellows, a gifted educator and inspirational preacher who had previously taught at the Rock River Seminary in Illinois. Among Fellows’ students at Rock River were General Rawlins, who served as Secretary of War in the Grant administration, and Illinois Senator Shelby Cullom. At Cornell, Fellows served as an inspirational teacher and administrator who carefully selected the faculty for the first 10 years of the institution and designed its curriculum. Fellows, his wife, and daughters lived in rooms on the third floor of the lone college building, a space that they shared with unmarried male faculty members. Women boarded on the second floor of the building, while a dining room, kitchen, chapel, and classrooms occupied the remainder of the cramped building. The new school admitted both male and female students, and its first catalogue was modeled after that of the Rock River Seminary where Fellows had previously taught.

Roasting weenies at an early Pal Day, which originated in 1920.

19th-century Cornell cadets with cannons.

At their July 1855 meeting the board of trustees resolved to reposition the seminary as a fouryear college. The name Mount Vernon College was considered but discarded in favor of Cornell College, after William Wesley Cornell, a prosperous New York iron merchant (he owned the largest iron works in the country at the time), devout Methodist, philanthropist, and distant cousin of Ezra Cornell, who founded Cornell University a decade later in 1865. Ironically, Cornell failed to gift the college with more than a few thousand dollars; likely, as tradition states, he was offended that the college had been named without his consent. Leonidas L. Hamline, who pledged in 1854 to give the college $25,000, was a far more generous benefactor of the college than its namesake. Hamline’s donations were clearly critical in ensuring the early success of the college.

In 1858 Mary Fellows, the younger sister of President Samuel Fellows, and Matthew Cavanagh received the first collegiate degrees awarded by the new Cornell College. The two first graduates of Cornell College also became the first alumni couple when they married that September. Mary Cavanagh taught school, while her husband became an attorney and later served as the mayor of Iowa City, Iowa.

King Chapel and Bowman Hall in 1914–15.

As a college, Cornell acquired its first president, William Keeler, a Methodist minister described by one contemporary as “massive, brainy, zealous, eloquent and when fully aroused on some great theme ... a veritable Hercules.” Keeler was not, however, an educator, and quickly realized, as a contemporary noted, that “whatever gifts, graces and usefulness he possessed, he did not just fit the place.” He left after only two years and was succeeded by Samuel Fellows, who served from 1859 to 1863 and who had been the original principal of the seminary. Fellows was “a born teacher” with a sense of humor who, unfortunately, had to contend with the Civil War and his own declining health during his short tenure. With asthma so severe that he often had to sleep sitting in a chair in order to breathe, Fellows had to be carried to chapel on a chair by students in his last months. The last sermon Fellows preached was at the funeral of a student who had been killed in the war. Fellows died the day after commencement in 1863.

William Fletcher King, the third president of the college, as well as the youngest person and only bachelor to serve in that capacity, headed Cornell for over 45 years from 1863 to 1908. King was an able administrator who traveled to Union military camps in the South during the closing years of the Civil War to raise money for the college. King married Margaret Cook McKell of Chillicothe, Ohio, the daughter of a well-known women’s rights activist and the first cousin of Lucy Hayes, whom she visited in the White House during the administration of Lucy’s husband, Rutherford B. Hayes. Recurrent bad health forced King to curtail his active administration of the college and focus on fund raising while day-to-day administration was largely in the hands of Vice President James Harlan, who succeeded King as president in 1908. In addition to his service as president, King, who made a fortune through his investments, gave not only his home to the college but large monetary donations, which were probably double the amount he had received in salary during his 46 years as a college employee.

The charismatic founder of Cornell College was a Methodist Bowman Hall, now Bowman-Carter Hall, as it originally appeared.

Old Sem, opened in 1853, with its original second-floor entrance.

Harlan was in office until 1914, being succeeded by Charles Wesley Flint, a Canadian-born Methodist leader who served from 1915 until 1922, and who later had a distinguished career as a bishop. Harlan Updegraff, the first native Iowan to serve as president and the first president with a PhD, succeeded Flint and served from 1923 to 1927. Herbert Burgstahler led the college through the difficult days of the Great Depression, when the faculty voluntarily voted to return from 5 percent to 10 percent of their salaries. Under Burgstahler’s leadership, the college not only recovered from its financial problems but was able to increase its endowment and add to its physical plant.

Benjamin Magee, who succeeded Burgstahler, was the brother of Carlton Magee, inventor of the parking meter. Magee had serious health problems and became the second Cornell president to die in office, after serving from 1939 to 1943. Magee entered office the day Adolf Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland, marking the start of World War II, a conflict that overshadowed Magee’s short and unhappy presidency. During the war, the college was home to a Naval Flight Preparatory School starting in 1943 and, after 1944, to a Naval Academic Refresher Unit until January 1946. Approximately 4,000 naval personnel went through training at Cornell while living in Bowman, Merner, Rood, and Guild halls.

Like Harlan and Updegraff, Russell Cole, Cornell’s ninth president from 1943 until 1960, was an alumnus. Known as “Red Cole” because of his hair, Cole had been a track star while at Cornell (his Cornell record time of 1.58.2 for the half mile stood until 1959). As president, he presided over the college’s centennial celebration in 1953 and an ambitious building program. Cole’s wife, Arrola, whom he had met while they were students, was a popular hostess and accomplished musician who had once written scripts for NBC radio under the name “William L. Stidger.” During the Cole administration, the college benefited from the GI Bill of Rights, which provided government aid to pay the educational expenses of veterans, leading to a large increase in enrollment following the war.

Women students in the late 1890s.

The opening lines of Cornell’s Alma Mater, composed in 1908 by professor of music Horace Alden Miller.

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