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Creating Hamline, Minnesota’s first college

In 1854 a group of Methodist ministers founded Hamline University in Red Wing.

Hamline University, Red Wing, c. 1865
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

In 1854 a group of Methodist ministers founded Hamline University in Red Wing. It was the first college established in Minnesota Territory.

William Pitt Murray, a St. Paul attorney and a leading Methodist layman, became an early supporter of a “Minnesota Academy” for the territory. He was influential in getting the territorial legislature to grant a charter for such a school on March 3, 1854.

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Although St. Paul appeared the most likely university site, William Freeborn, one of the new school’s trustees, lobbied for Red Wing. Freeborn believed the town had a strong future. The new school named for Methodist bishop Leonidas L. Hamline, opened in Red Wing on November 16, 1854. Classes for the thirty-three students were held on the second floor of the Smith-Hoyt building.

The school enrolled women students from its beginning. Co-education of women and men was still a rare occurrence in 1854, but the idea was taking hold. Hamline served largely as a preparatory school at first and was operated by a small staff. Jabez Brooks, a thirty-one year old Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, became principal and lead teacher. Miss Louisa Sherman was instructor of modern languages, painting and drawing. Mrs. Frances L. Dunning, a music instructor, completed the staff.

Emily and Elizabeth Sorin, daughters of the Red Wing Methodist churchman Matthew Sorin, also taught. The Sorins studied for their collegiate degrees while working with newer scholars.

Hamline opened a three-story brick building on donated Red Wing land in January 1856. Enrollment increased with scholars from Minnesota as well as Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin taking classes. However, a damaging national economic recession, the Panic of 1857, soon brought hard times. Fund raising withered and student enrollment slipped. Jabez Brooks resigned claiming his heavy workload was affecting his health. Unfazed by the bad news, school officials voted to add a college department to the prep school’s organization.

The addition of the Reverend Benjamin F. Crary as Hamline president in 1857 helped stabilize the program. A well-known preacher from Indiana, Crary had taught school previously. He was also an attorney. The following year Horace B. Wilson, a professor of mathematics and civil engineering, joined the faculty. Wilson, a later state superintendent of public education, gave a boost to Hamline’s prestige.

Hamline reorganized its educational program into four major departments: classical, preparatory, scientific, and law. Red Wing attorney Charles McClure started the school of law. In June 1859 Hamline honored its first graduating class: Emily and Elizabeth Sorin. The Sorins’ achievement was especially remarkable considering how few colleges were willing to educate women at the time.

Hamline students rushed to volunteer when the Civil War broke out in April 1861. They joined a Red Wing unit that became Company F of the famed Minnesota First Infantry Regiment. More than twenty signed up with the 104-man outfit. Three faculty members enlisted in other units. Members of the Hamline contingent fought bravely and suffered heavy casualties during the conflict. The war broke up three successive senior classes as male students left school for the military. About 120 students and faculty members served during the Civil War.

The loss of so many of its students and faculty made it difficult for Hamline to function. Debt soared and left the school on the brink of financial failure. Only twenty-three students enrolled in 1868. It was too small a number to continue the program. Hamline’s last graduation in Red Wing was held in March 1869.

In 1873 St. Paul offered Hamline trustees an eighty-acre tract of land along Snelling Avenue as a site for reopening the university. The plan fell through when another national financial crisis dried up funding. Work on a new building was underway but had to be halted in 1874. The campus also shrunk in size. Trustees found money enough for only forty acres instead of the planned eighty.

Classes finally got underway in St. Paul in September 1880.The oldest school of higher learning in Minnesota was reestablished and once more educating students.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.