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Ryan Johnson, Published August 19 2012

Cultivating NDSU: Fargo preferred hosting jail, mental hospital to land-grant university

FARGO - An often-overlooked piece of legislation that sailed through Congress 150 years ago paved the way for North Dakota State University to be established here in 1890 – even if some city leaders didn’t want it.

The Morrill Act gave each state at least 90,000 acres of federal land to be sold, with the profits used to establish or maintain a land-grant college offering a practical education in agriculture, mechanic arts and other fields.

North Dakota was eligible when it was granted statehood on Nov. 2, 1889. But Fargo became the site only after losing a political battle with Jamestown over which city would get the prized “Hospital for the Insane,” still operating today as the State Hospital. Many in Fargo doubted their new school would amount to much.

“The Board of Trustees of the North Dakota Agricultural College – whatever that is – met yesterday and elected a faculty – whatever that is,” Maj. Alonzo Edward, editor of the Fargo Daily Argus newspaper, wrote about the first meeting to formalize the college on Oct. 14, 1890.

But the college’s work to develop new plant strains and farming techniques that would work in the unforgiving terrain “made North Dakota possible” and turned an unsettled prairie into one of the nation’s most fertile lands, said Mark J. Halvorson, curator of collections at the State Historical Society in Bismarck.

Former NDSU archivist John Bye said the general feeling in the city at the time was something like, “Well, it will at least increase the population a little bit for Fargo by having it here.” But he said it’s hard to argue now just how crucial the university, and its more than 14,000 students, is to the city’s economy and the state’s agricultural success overall.

“Little did they realize what there was in store,” Bye said.

Winning a ‘plum’

Retired NDSU history professor David Danbom said it didn’t make much sense to locate the state’s agricultural college here. But the state had to put it somewhere, and Fargo lost its bid for something else.

Even at the time, with a population of around 8,000 by 1892, Fargo had “metropolitan pretentions” and saw itself as the next Minneapolis or Milwaukee, not a farming center, he said.

There also was little logic in putting it as far east as possible in the state, Danbom said. The Red River Valley, while fertile, has farmland unlike the most bountiful fields in the drift prairie region near Jamestown and Valley City.

“These weren’t decisions that were made on the basis of planning or rationality; they were political decisions,” Danbom said.

A bill to locate the college in Valley City was introduced in the territorial government 16 days before a similar bill to base it in Fargo, and the Valley City plan was approved by lawmakers.

But by 1889, most of the future state’s “political plums” had already been awarded and Fargo wanted something. Adding to the appeal was the Hatch Act, passed by Congress two years earlier, which offered $15,000 in federal funds to each land-grant college to establish an agricultural experiment station designed to help local farmers and ranchers.

Bismarck became the capital of Dakota Territory in 1883, the same year the University of North Dakota was founded in Grand Forks.

In 1885, the territorial prison now known as the State Penitentiary opened in Bismarck and the Hospital for the Insane was established in Jamestown. Fargo had missed out on what many believed would be the best institutions for a growing community.

“They figured there would always be criminals and there would always be insane people,” Danbom said. “They weren’t sure there would ever be many agricultural students.”

A group from Fargo went to the governor in 1889 and convinced him to veto the bill that would have put the agricultural college in Valley City. Soon after, Fargo had won its “plum,” which, in some ways, was just a consolation prize.

A common education

North Dakota Agricultural College started small, with just 30 students by January 1891.

Enrollment jumped to 123 for its first term on the current campus the next year, when construction was completed on the first building, College Hall, which is better known today as Old Main.

Danbom said the college’s mission stemming from the Morrill Act, enacted in 1862 and signed by President Lincoln, made it hard to draw a large class in the early years.

The legislation was introduced by Rep. Justin Smith Morrill, R-Vt., the son of a blacksmith who Danbom said never forgot the “injustice” that his father and people like him faced in the 1800s.

NDSU President Dean Bresciani said the Morrill Act aimed to help the geographically large but economically small nation take advantage of its natural resources through research and education in agriculture and engineering.

But it also sought to correct the European-style higher education system that had sprung up in the country. The aristocratic universities at the time were generally open only to rich and elite white men, not the sons and daughters of the industrial class like Morrill.

“Although the economic impact was, perhaps, the driving force of it, it was the social impact that really was the most stunning,” Bresciani said.

“I would argue both economically and politically, the single largest factor in the United States becoming a world power is an educated citizenry.”

Danbom said the ambitious goal of higher education for the common person caused some logistical issues in the early days of North Dakota Agricultural College.

At the time, most of the state lacked a proper high school system and many residents were lucky to end up with an eighth-grade education. He said that meant the people who were supposed to be helped by the Morrill Act’s new colleges weren’t ready for college studies, and for a time, more students were in the prep program taking the equivalent of high school courses than actual college credits.

“It was a big problem, and it was understandable that a lot of those people wondered if this is ever going to turn out to be anything worthy of note,” Danbom said.

Researching success

Even if the college component of the school struggled to take flight, it wasn’t long after its formation that the accompanying Agricultural Experiment Station on campus was revolutionizing how the new state was farming its way to economic success.

Ken Grafton, NDSU’s vice president for agricultural affairs who oversees the agriculture college and experiment station, said the research was meant to “help agriculture move forward” while also serving society through science-based solutions to problems.

That mission was boosted as the college added research extension centers across the state to determine what would work in the different climates and geographies of North Dakota.

Grafton said NDSU soon was sharing cutting-edge research that changed the face of the state, and much of the nation.

One of the earliest professors, Dr. H. Luke Bolley, developed the first laboratory test to detect cholera in water samples – work that was credited with stemming the cholera epidemic that swept across the nation in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Bolley also determined the barberry plant was the alternate host of wheat stem rust, a pathogen that devastated wheat crops. With his discovery, North Dakota passed an eradication act in 1916 to eliminate barberry and make the disease more manageable for farmers who otherwise would have faced great losses.

Danbom said the college’s research in the 1920s helped sugar beets become a main crop of the Red River Valley, and early research in dry edible beans and sunflowers also gave local farmers more options for planting.

Grafton said while other universities at the time focused on liberal arts, the land-grant colleges established through the Morrill Act such as NDSU instead set out to enhance science and technology and come up with practical information to be shared with everyone.

Today, the nation’s 106 land-grant institutions are responsible for about 75 percent of all agricultural research in the public sector.

Grafton said that work continues today, with modern issues of a growing world population, less land for fields and water scarcity forcing farmers to produce more food with fewer resources.

“We have a lot of challenges, and we think that agriculture is here to help play a very important role in solving those challenges, just like they’ve solved the problems in the past,” he said.

Bresciani said the Morrill Act was meant to address the economic and societal challenges of 1862. Times have changed, and the issues are different now as science and engineering studies become more popular on campuses like NDSU than the agricultural courses that dominated the schools a century ago.

But 150 years later, he said NDSU and the other schools still have a role to play in fulfilling the ambitious goals of the Morrill Act that senators and representatives debated then – even if they didn’t fully realize the lasting impact of their vote that summer.

“In many ways, it’s a rebirth,” Bresciani said. “The original foundation of the Morrill Land-Grant Act was to change our society into an educated one that was economically productive, and that mission continues and now is being refocused into the other opportunities and means for creating an economically successful country.”


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587