Dakota Datebook

Jamestown College

Friday, November 19, 2004

Jamestown College was incorporated on this day in 1883. The Presbyterians had been proposing a college somewhere in Minnesota or Dakota Territory and began receiving bids from interested cities the year before. Grand Forks made an offer, but UND was about to open in Grand Forks the following year, reducing its luster. Fergus Falls was more established and offered a location in an official State of the Union. Reverend C.B. Stevens of Fargo favored a beautiful setting on the rim of the James Valley at Jamestown, population 425. But the Northern Pacific Presbytery ended up choosing Casselton.

The church agreed to raise $10,000, but in the end, Casselton couldn’t meet their end of the bargain. In the fall of 1883, the Presbytery ruled the bid had failed and called for new ones. This time, Fargo, Fergus Falls, La Moure and Jamestown applied. Jamestown received the honors not just because of its lovely setting but also because of its central location in northern Dakota. Also chosen for colleges were Pierre and Groton in the southern part of the Territory.

Captain Samuel McGinnis contributed 27 acres, the city came up with money, and the college opened its doors in September 1886. A woman named Sadie Elliott was the first student to register. She and 34 other students had their choice of studying science, the classics, business, music or preparatory courses in what was called the “North Side School House.”

At the time, Dakota Territory didn’t have a school for those who wanted to go into the teaching trade – Jamestown filled this gap by becoming the Territory’s first Normal School the following year. Old Main was built that year, as well, and the enrollment doubled.

Old Main had a remarkable presence on the treeless prairie and added considerable status to the college. Built of brick, it wasn’t deep, but it was broad and impressive with a beautiful cupola sitting atop the building’s fourth story.

Unfortunately, the college ran into trouble almost immediately, because there was no president. A Professor Crowe acted also as Principal for the school, but he had little time for managing the business, and resigned the management position. Pastor Mendenhall of Grand Forks was asked to take over, but he declined, and finally Pastor Baskerville of Towner took the job.

A written report said Baskerville stepped into an impossible situation. “The country was new,” read the report, “conditions pioneering, homes scattered, people poor, social life crude, protection against the elements little, and college facilities meager… Wood stoves distributed in rooms, with transoms for heat to percolate into the rooms not near enough to chimneys to have stoves, were the only means with which to heat the building.”

The Presbytery reported, “We have no improvements on the ground, no under drainage, no system of heating, no library, no museum, no laboratory, no apparatus, nothing to obtain any of these things with, or even winter’s coal, or storm windows to save fuel and render the apartments comfortable.”

The first graduation took place in 1891 with three students. Debts continued to mount, and in the financial panic of 1893, the college closed its doors and boarded up its windows. Jamestown College started over in 1909, sixteen years later. Old Main was destroyed by fire in 1930, but the college has grown and still flourishes on the rim of the beautiful James River Valley.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

This text and audio may not be copied without securing prior permission from Prairie Public.

Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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