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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published September 15 2013

Did You Know That: The surprising life of Homer Sprague

When political boss Alexander McKenzie tried to get the Louisiana Lottery implemented in North Dakota in 1889, he failed.

One of the most effective spokesmen leading the opposition was the highly moralistic president of the University of North Dakota, Homer B. Sprague, an eminent scholar and acclaimed orator.

Sprague was so respected that people wanted him as their U.S. senator.

McKenzie supporters made certain that this would not happen, and to punish him further they had his salary drastically reduced, forcing Sprague to resign from UND.

But before that fight, Sprague was an education leader and innovator.

After the Civil War, Col. Homer Sprague decided to devote his life to improving the education of young people in the U.S.

He was offered the position of principal of the Connecticut State Normal School (now Central Connecticut State University) in New Britain, and he accepted.

In 1867, the state legislature closed CSNS, and Sprague worked to get the school reopened.

He was elected to the legislature in 1868, becoming chairman of the joint standing committee on education. He helped make the state public schools free of charge, increased teacher pay, and restored the authorization and funding for CSNS.

From 1868 to 1870, Sprague taught rhetoric and English literature at Cornell University, where he was known as an expert on the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, Goldsmith, and other notable authors and playwrights.

In 1870, Sprague became principal of the progressive Adelphi Academy in Brooklyn.

As a leading proponent of an excellent and equal education for all, he welcomed the idea that the former all-boys school was opening its doors to girls.

While at the academy, Sprague instituted the first fire drills in the U.S. He also completed his doctorate at the University of New York.

In 1876, Sprague became headmaster at the Girls’ High School in Boston.

His goal was “to improve his pupils physically, intellectually, and morally.”

At the school, he made changes to improve ventilation, lighting and temperature control in the school, and invented a writing shelf so students were better able to take notes.

In 1879, Sprague founded the Martha’s Vineyard Summer Institute, “the first general summer school in the United States.”

Initially it was aimed at teachers and focused on Greek, Latin and the sciences, but when he expanded the curriculum with more general offerings, enrollment leaped.

For the first time, students could take general level college classes during the summer months.

In 1884, Cyrus Mills, president of the Mills Seminary in Oakland, Calif., died. Sprague was hired as his replacement.

In 1885, it became Mills College, the first women’s college west of the Rocky Mountains.

Susan Mills, the widow of the former president, was the principal and a personality conflict developed between her and Sprague.

In early 1887, Sprague resigned.

Meanwhile, the university in northern Dakota Territory at Grand Forks was struggling.

William Blackburn, a scholarly theologian, was hired as the first university president in 1884 but dismissed in the spring of 1886.

Henry Montgomery, vice president of the university, then served as acting president.

The Board of Regents knew of Sprague’s success in Boston and called on him to interview in Grand Forks on Oct. 3, 1887.

The regents were impressed and “he was unanimously elected at [an annual] salary of $3,000.”

When he arrived, the fall enrollment at the university was 65 students.

To boost enrollment, Sprague criss-crossed northern Dakota and western Minnesota, telling listeners of the school’s merits.

His speeches dispelled any doubts young people had about going to college in Grand Forks.

His admissions policy was “to reject no-one,” and attendance soared to 199 in 1888.

Sprague believed the role of the university was for the moral as well as the intellectual development of students.

The “importance of truthfulness, temperance, purity, industry, kindness, public spirit, fair dealing, respect for honest labor, and loyalty” was emphasized.

Sprague wanted students “to love their country, to know fully their civil rights [and] to discharge skillfully and magnanimously their civil duties.”

To accomplish this, Sprague believed the university needed to emphasize the humanities, centering Latin and Greek.

“The majority of the faculty disagreed with Sprague,” but the regents concurred with him. But, most of the faculty agreed the university needed to emphasize a moral education.

When North Dakota was ready to seek statehood in 1889, elected members assembled in Bismarck to draw up the constitution.

The group asked Sprague to prepare the article on education, and most of what he submitted was approved. He saw this as his greatest legacy.

“I desire for myself no other epitaph than this: ‘He originated the leading sections of the article on Education in the Constitution of North Dakota,’” he said.

Sprague was a leader, and many North Dakotans sought to have him nominated as their U.S. senator.

That idea was dashed when he came out strongly against Alexander McKenzie’s plan to introduce the Louisiana Lottery into North Dakota.

Not only did McKenzie’s lieutenants short-circuit his ambitions to become senator, but they saw to it that his annual salary was reduced to $2,500.

Sprague resigned as the university’s president in March 1891 and resumed his roles as a popular speaker and prolific writer.

In June 1916, UND invited him to speak at commencement and bestowed on him an honorary doctorate of laws degree.

Homer Baxter Sprague died on March 23, 1918.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at cjeriksmoen@cableone.net