Act lays ground for establishment of first state college
BY SARA PLUMMER World Staff Writer
Monday, September 10, 2012
9/10/12 at 7:45 AM
One hundred fifty years ago, Oklahoma State University wasn't around, let alone the city of Stillwater or even the state of Oklahoma.
President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act of 1862 providing federal funds and land to the establishment of public colleges and universities that would focus on agriculture, mechanical fields, military training and "practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life," according to the law.
Thirty years later, the state's first land grant school - Oklahoma Agriculture and Mechanical, now OSU - enrolled its first class of about 100 students in December 1891.
Just a few years before Stillwater, the home of the university, had opened to homesteads after the Oklahoma Land Run in 1889, said David Peters, interim head of special collections and university archives at OSU.
"There wasn't a site - there wasn't anything," Peters said, but that didn't stop the Stillwater organizing committee from competing to be named the site of the state's first land grant university. Four homesteaders offered 200 acres of their land to be used as the campus, and residents approved a bond issue to build a classroom building, now called Old Central.
"It's been a symbiotic relationship," Peters said of the university and the city. "We've grown up together. We're twins almost. It's a really close relationship. It's like siblings."
Another piece of legislation, the Morrill Act of 1890, required land grant schools to either demonstrate race was not a factor in admissions or establish a separate university for black students.
Langston University, the state's second land grant school and historically black college, was established in 1897 as the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University.
Like at OSU, Langston's roots are in agriculture and mechanical studies, said Marvin Burns, dean of the school of agriculture and applied sciences at Langston.
"Langston was created that same decade (as OSU) to carry out the land grant mission of teaching research and service," Burns said.
Those first students at Oklahoma A&M were primarily from the surrounding area. With no residence halls, most stayed with families living in Stillwater or rode in every day on a horse, Peters said.
The vast majority of the campus, 180 acres, was an agriculture laboratory with orchards, crops and plants grown by students.
"Most of the early A&M (universities) focused on practical knowledge - agriculture, engineering, domestic science," he said. "Because of the Industrial Revolution, you needed people to build highways, the infrastructure. You needed people with practical knowledge."
After statehood and again after World War II, OSU saw big jumps in enrollment, Peters said.
"With statehood, now we're reaching a larger population, now we're the state university, now we're developing residence halls on campus," he said, and the G.I. Bill offered to veterans of World War II spurred further expansions. "After World War II, our enrollment explodes, tens of thousands qualify for college."
In 1929, then university President Henry Bennett unveiled an expansion plan for the school, moving the center of campus from the university's oldest building to a new library, but the stock market crash and the Great Depression stalled the college's growth until after the war when the need to expand became imperative.
The need has arisen again, with the largest freshman class in the school's history - about 4,300 freshmen - enrolled at OSU this fall.
"We've had dramatic expansion in the last few years," Peters said, with new research, academic and residence halls being constructed. "Right now, I think we're at capacity."
Peters said the land grant model that OSU was founded on is still used and needed today.
"The world has changed, but we still have issues that we need to address," he said, whether it's in the areas of nutrition, agricultural science, military technology or engineering. "In the last two to three generations, there's been this expansion of the land grant model around the world. They needed people who could grow stuff, prepare stuff, build stuff."
As the political climate and civil rights movement changed the country, they changed Langston University as well, Burns said. In the 1950s, Langston was awarded its first federal funding appropriation for agriculture research.
The agricultural foundation that Langston was built on remains a focus for the university. In 1984, Langston started its goat technology research program, and today it's renowned in the U.S. and the world.
"The growth of the goat industry is the fastest growing livestock industry in the U.S.," Burns said. "It will only continue to grow as more diverse populations move to the U.S."
Peters praised the foresight of the framers of the Morrill Act, Justin Smith Morrill and it's supporters.
"Lincoln signed the Morrill Act 1862, the Civil War had already started. In the midst of this we were still able to step back and think of the future," he said.
'Teach men the way to feed'
On July 2, 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Land-Grant Act, which provided land to each state to establish a public college to teach agriculture, the mechanical arts and humanities.
Proposed by Rep. Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont, the legislation was passed by Congress after initially failing in 1858.
"We have schools to teach the art of man slaying and to make masters of 'deep-throated engines' of war; and shall we not have schools to teach men the way to feed, clothe, and enlighten the great brotherhood of man? It is just on the part of statesmen and legislators, just on the part of other learned professions, that they should aid to elevate the class upon whom they lean for support, and upon whom they depend for their audience."
- Rep. Justin Smith Morrill
Original Print Headline: Act gave a boost to higher education
Sara Plummer 918-581-8465
A classroom building, now called Old Central, was the center of the Oklahoma A&M campus. Later, the center would be expanded to the library. OSU SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES/Courtesy
Four homesteaders offered 200 acres of their land to be used as the Oklahoma A&M College campus, which would become Oklahoma State University. OSU SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES/Courtesy