Our Iowa Heritage: SUI – The Early Days 1847-1860.

(C-0037) This rare stamp-less cover has been stamped PAID, sent from the Normal School (State University of Iowa in Iowa City) and is addressed to Alonzo Brown, Esq. Supt. of Common Schools in Garnavillo (Clayton County) Iowa. Our cover includes the attached “Doc” dated February 8, 1859 – a recruitment letter for the Spring and Fall Sessions (1859) in Iowa City.

Read more about “stamp-less” mail and how postage rates were determined.

Humble Beginnings.

On February 25, 1847 (59 days after Iowa became a state) the State Legislature, meeting in the Old Stone Capitol in Iowa City, approved the recommendation that the State of Iowa sponsor a University. In this second official act of the General Assembly, lawmakers declared that the fledgling school would serve as the state’s institution of higher learning, one that would provide the state its future doctors, lawyers, and other professionals. In an 1878 publication on Iowa history, we find these details…

The first General Assembly, by act approved February 25, 1847, established the “State University of Iowa” at Iowa City, then the capital of the State, “with such other branches as public convenience may hereafter require.” The “public buildings at Iowa City, together with the ten acres of land in which they are situated,” were granted for the use of said university, provided, however, that the sessions of the Legislature and State offices should be held in the capitol until otherwise provided by law.

Click here to read more about the strange heavenly occurrences surrounding February 25, 1847 in Iowa City.

And while the idea of forming a new state university might have sounded very lofty, making the dream into a reality was quite another story. In truth, records show that for nearly a decade (1847-1855), nothing too much really occurred in making anything happen in Iowa City.

Sadly, the wording used in the 1847 declaration set in place a battle over whether the state’s new endeavor would be a multiple-site campus training students across the state or one central campus bringing students to Iowa City. Since the University, in existence in name only, had no facilities outside of the already bustling Iowa statehouse, it was proposed that the multiple city option might be the best plan. Again, quoting from the 1878 article…

In January, 1849, two additional branches of the University (Fairfield and Dubuque) and three Normal Schools (Andrew, Oskaloosa, and Mt. Pleasant) were also established, all on equal footing, in respect to funds and all other matters, with the University established at Iowa City. At a special meeting of the Board of Trustees, held February 21, 1850, the “College of Physicians and Surgeons of the Upper Mississippi,” (was) established at Davenport, (and) recognized as the “College of Physicians and Surgeons of the State University of Iowa.” Soon after, this College was removed to Keokuk, its second session being opened there in November, 1850.

from Iowa As It Is, N. Howe Parker, pp 242-3, 1855

Meanwhile, back in Iowa City, very little was actually being accomplished…

From 1847 to 1855, the Board of Trustees was kept full by regular elections by the Legislature, and the Trustees held frequent meetings, but there was no effectual organization of the University (in Iowa City). In March, 1855, (the University) was partially opened for a term of sixteen weeks (in Mechanics Academy). (On) July 16, 1855, Amos Dean, of Albany, N. Y., was elected President, but he never entered fully upon its duties. The University was again opened in September, 1855, and continued in operation until June, 1856, under Professors Johnson, Welton, Van Valkenburg and Guffin. In June, 1856, the faculty was reorganized, with some changes, and the University was again opened on the third Wednesday of September, 1856. There were one hundred and twenty four students – eighty three males and forty one females – in attendance during the year 1856-7, and the first regular catalogue was published.

University records show the 1856-57 catalogue listed nine departments offering Ancient Language, Modern Language, Intellectual Philosophy, Moral Philosophy, History, Natural History, Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, and Chemistry.

A Normal School was an educational institution offering a comprehensive two-year curriculum created to train high school graduates to be teachers. As standards increased at the turn of the 20th century, most normal schools transitioned into “teacher-training colleges” or “teachers’ colleges” organized as part of a comprehensive university experience.

At this point in time, while some progress was being made statewide, the work in Iowa City was in real crisis. Finances were tight. Management was poor. And student recruitment at the University level, particularly outside of Johnson County, was next to impossible. The Normal School (a two-year training course for teachers) was progressing well, but the University programming was simply not attracting many from across the state. It was during this time, many nay-sayers suggested that the Iowa City campus was nothing more than Johnson County High School. From John G. Gerber’s book, A Pictorial History of the University of Iowa, we find this truth…

On September 3, 1857, ten years after its formal birth, the Iowa City campus finally got what it so badly needed; a game plan to focus all state efforts on building one school in one city…

Article IX, Section 11, of the new State Constitution, which went into force September 3, 1857, provided as follows: The State University shall be established at one place, without branches at any other place; and the University fund shall be applied to that institution, and no other.

Article XI, Section 8, provided that: The seat of Government is hereby permanently established, as now fixed by law, at the city of Des Moines, in the county of Polk; and the State University at Iowa City, in the county of Johnson.

In the Iowa Journal of History & Politics (1916), we find this interesting account of that pivotal Constitutional session in 1857…

The question of the permanent location of the capital came before the constitutional convention of 1857 in connection with the location of the State University. During the second week of the convention a resolution was offered to inquire into the expediency of permanently locating the seat of government, the State University, and the asylums for the blind and the deaf and dumb. The location of the University caused the greatest amount of discussion and it was largely in that connection that the capital was mentioned. The inclusion in the new Constitution of the compromise of 1847, whereby the State University was to be located at Iowa City whenever the capitol should be removed was persistently insisted upon, in spite of proposals to establish the University at the former site of Monroe City, to leave the matter to a vote of the people, or to rest the decision with the legislature. It was objected that such clauses would overload the Constitution with affairs of local interest. But the judgment of those who wished permanently to settle the question finally prevailed, and the convention incorporated (Article XI – Section 8) in the Constitution of 1857.

In order to validify the acts of State officers and to fulfill his duty…Governor James W. Grimes on October 19, 1857, officially declared “the Capitol of the State of Iowa to be established under the constitution and laws of the State at Des Moines in Polk County.” Although the new capitol building at Des Moines was still unfinished, the State officers had begun packing and moving the contents of their several offices by the first of October. Snow flew before the task was completed.

And so, the move of the state capitol to Des Moines began in earnest, prompting one Iowa City newspaper reporter to quip, “Let Des Moines have the politicians, we’ll take the professors!”

Click here to read more about the move of the state capital from Iowa City to Des Moines.

Central Hall (Old Capitol)

Now, back to that 1878 article entitled The History of the State University of Iowa

In December, 1857, the old capitol building, now known as Central Hall of the University, except the rooms occupied by the United States District Court, and the property, with that exception, passed under the control of the (University) Trustees, and became the seat of the University. The old building had had hard usage, and its arrangement was illy adapted for University purposes. Extensive repairs and changes were necessary, but the Board was without funds for these purposes. (On) March 11, 1858, the Legislature appropriated $3,000 for the repair and modification of the old capitol building, and $10,000 for the erection of a boarding house, now known as South Hall.

South Hall – approved in 1858.

The Board of Trustees created by the new law met and duly organized April 27, 1858, and determined to (keep the Normal School open, but) close the University (portion of the school) until the income from its fund should be adequate to meet the current expenses, and the buildings should be ready for occupation. (On) August 4, 1858, the degree of Bachelor of Science was conferred upon Dexter Edson Smith, being the first degree conferred upon a student of the University. Diplomas were also awarded to the members of the first graduating class of the Normal Department as follows: Levi P. Aylworth, Cetlina H. Aylworth, Elizabeth L. Humphrey, Annie A. Pinney and Sylvia M. Thompson.

(C-0037) Our stamp-less letter from The State University of Iowa “Normal School” – Postmarked by hand-stamped “Paid” – Iowa City – February 8, 1859.

Six days before our recruiting letter went out to county superintendents across the state (February 8, 1859) . . .

(On) February 2, 1859, the Board met again and decided to continue the Normal Department, (and) at a special meeting, October 25, 1859, it was decided to re-open the University in September, 1860. (The part-time President), Mr. Dean had resigned prior to this meeting, and Silas Totten, D. D., LL. D., was elected President, at a salary of $2,000, and his term commenced June, 1860. At the annual meeting, June 28, 1860, a full Faculty was appointed, and the University re opened, under this new organization, September 19, 1860 (third Wednesday); and at this date the actual existence of the University may be said to commence.

(C-0037) Sent to County Superintendents across the state of Iowa, this letter invited each superintendent to pick two top students from their county to receive a no-cost tuition package to the Normal School in Iowa City for the spring/fall 1859 school year. This two-year to two-and-a-half-year program offered high school graduates upon completion of the program, certification as teachers in schools throughout the growing state of Iowa.

Who is Alonzo Brown of Garnavillo (Clayton County) Iowa?

Alonzo Brown (1823-1867) was married to Mariah C. Crosby (1835-1915). She and her brother, James O. Crosby, were the children of Nathan Crosby (1800-1870) and Malinda Bishop (1806-1900) of Cattaraugus County, New York. Land records indicate that James Crosby purchased acreage in Clayton County, Iowa in 1854 and 1857. It appears that he and Alonzo Brown, both practicing attorneys and partners, came to Iowa together. Below is an intriguing biographical sketch found in Chapter 7 (Education) of the History of Clayton County, Iowa (1882)…

Alonzo Brown, the first Superintendent of Public Schools for Clayton County, was born at Dryden, N.Y., March 6, 1821. When quite a boy he set out with his father, to explore the western part of the State, which was then new and thinly settled. He was so pleased with it that he persuaded his father to emigrate, which he did soon afterward, locating in Chautauqua County. Here he grew to be a man, received his education, and by dint of hard work and close study he obtained a thorough knowledge of the English language. A friend thus writes of him:

Here he stepped forth from the paternal roof a finished gentleman, an honest man with a mind stored with examples and precepts which would adorn a philosopher, and an education which any might be proud of, to act his part in the great drama of life.’

Like thousands of those who have risen to greatness in America, he commenced a school for the instruction of the young. Having a cheerful and pleasing countenance, with a happy faculty of imparting knowledge to others, he soon became the most popular teacher in the county. It was while engaged in this business that he procured a set of law books, and during his leisure hours he acquired, with hard labor and much toil, a knowledge of the law.

He had heard of the Great West; of ocean prairies, of majestic rivers, far toward the setting sun. Here was a place for his genius and a field for his labor. With the same desire for adventure which fills every American mind, he turned his footsteps toward Iowa. In the summer of 1856 he settled at Garnavillo (Iowa). He was not long among us ere his usefulness was discovered, and even before he had gained a legal residence among us, he was elected Justice of the Peace. For several years he held this office with satisfaction to the people and credit to himself.

Iowa had changed her Constitution, and in 1858 adopted and promulgated a new code of laws, among which was a great and intricate system of school laws. His mind clearly and quickly saw the advantages of such a system on the future welfare and happiness of our State, and with the utmost untiring energy he assisted in putting it in operation. He was almost unanimously elected Superintendent of Public Instruction for the county (spring of 1858), and proved the right man in the right place at the right time. The new system was intricate; no one seemed to understand it. There was neglect and indifference about putting it into execution. He took hold of it with a master’s hand, unfolded all its windings and mysteries, explained and analyzed in every part of the county, all its parts and sections, organized new school districts, gave plans for new school-houses, instructed teachers in their several duties, and organized a teachers’ institute (Teachers’ School at Garnavillo – fall of 1858), which remains an honor to its founder, and a credit to its members.

During the (Civil) war Mr. Brown was appointed United States Deputy Marshal, the duties of which he discharged with promptness and fidelity. When the Governor of Iowa issued an appeal to the people imploring them to send to our suffering soldiers sanitary supplies, this appeal touched the heart of this good and loyal man. He loved his country, and the thought that those who were fighting her battles, fighting for the flag he so dearly loved, were suffering for the necessaries of life, nerved him to make an effort for their relief. He forgot his own private affairs, and bent the whole energy of his soul toward raising supplies for the army. He traveled days and nights, addressed assemblies, appealed to the patriotism and loyalty of every man and woman, held up the suffering condition of the poor soldiers bleeding and dying in a strange land for the common necessaries of life. The people responded. They gave, and they gave freely. The result was that he went to the Sanitary Fair at Dubuque with his full measure of supplies. Thanks poured in on him from every quarter. Ladies and gentlemen bowed to and honored him, and the weak languishing soldier blessed the name of Alonzo Brown. In consequence of his industry and perseverance, Clayton County received the prize of a large and beautiful flag. On the Fourth of July, as it annually returns, this may be seen floating from the flag staff in Garnavillo.

Sincere and patriotic as he was, ardent and energetic as he was for the public good, great and noble as were his public acts, his social life eclipsed them all. In the social circle he was loved and admired by all who knew him. His kind words, merry laugh and innocent jests made him the life and soul of a company.

He had a smile for those who loved him
And a sigh for those who hate.
And whatever skies were o’er him,
Had a heart for any fate.

He was the first at the bedside of sickness, and the last to leave. Often when little children were afflicted with a dangerous epidemic would he hold them in his arms, striving to soothe their dying moments. On one occasion when a little sufferer was about to close its eyes forever, almost the last words upon its lips were, ‘Ma, Mr. Brown will save me.’ Then did the tears gush like rain from his manly eyes, as he bent o’er the dying form of his neighbor’s child.

He believed in the great God and in the immortality of the soul. His ideas of a future state were both beautiful and philosophical. He studied Nature and obeyed her commandments. He loved the excitement and sport of the chase; was a fine woodman and one of the best rifle shots in the country. But this philanthropist and benefactor, this kind husband and indulgent father, this faithful friend and true companion, is now no more. He died (age 46) in Chautauqua County, N.Y., March 6, 1867.

Alonzo Brown’s gravesite – Evergreen Cemetery – Chautauqua County, New York

September 1858 – Ellie Stephens from Washington, Iowa – a new student at the SUI Normal School. This is the type of student our letter was attempting to attract from across the State of Iowa. Ellie was apparently teaching back home in Washington, Iowa and, from what she states in her letter (below), she was recruited to attend the Normal School in Iowa City, arriving on campus in early September 1858. Ellie has not been feeling well since she arrived, only attending class for three days out of two weeks. She sounds very homesick and wants to go back with her brother Elias, who just visited her prior to the writing of this letter on September 18, 1858.

(C-0245) Postmarked in Iowa City on September 19, 1858, this is a letter from Ellie Stephens, a new SUI student, attending the Normal School, being trained as a teacher. Ellie has been in Iowa City for about two weeks and is in “very poor health” and only attended class “3 days.” She’s writing her cousin, John Elbert (J.E.) Organ in Rolla, Missouri, referencing her brother, Elias (Elias G. Stephens 1831-1899), who recently visited her in Iowa City and just returned home to Washington, Iowa. Other letters we found on-line show other Stephens/Organ family members that live in Washington, Iowa, writing to cousin J.E. Organ in the 1860’s. Records show that Organ and his brothers served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and that J.E. become a newspaper editor, a surveyor, and well-known public figure in Dent County, Texas County, and Phelps County, Missouri (all surrounding Rolla). Elias Stephens, on the other hand, being from Iowa, served faithfully in the 13th Iowa Infantry Co. I (United States) from 1861 to 1865. Ellie mentions that “Elias and Perry (another brother?) have a new threshing machine (that) I think they are doing tolerable well with it.” Ellie states that “There is none of us married yet (but) Elias is putting up a new frame house on his farm that does for us to laugh about.” Records show that Elias put that new house to good use, marrying Cellina H. Aylworth (1841-1925). Commenting on her own love-life, Ellie states, “As for myself, I fear I can’t find any to please me so that my lot will be that of an…old maid.” Ellie closes with, “Please give my love to all and a share to yourself & write soon.”

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Iowa As It Is – A Gazetteer for Citizens and Handbook for Immigrants, N. Howe Parker, 1855

The State University – Iowa City, Johnson County, History of the State of Iowa, The History of Black Hawk County, Iowa, The Western Historical Society, 1878, p 188

A Pictorial History of the University of Iowa: An Expanded Edition, John C. Gerber, University of Iowa Press, p3, 2005

The Removal of the Capital from Iowa City to Des Moines, Iowa Journal of History & Politics Vol. 14 No. 1 (Jan. 1916), pp 56‑95

History of Clayton County, Iowa – Chapter VII – Educational (1882)

Elias G. Stephens, Find-A-Grave (site 1)

Elias G. Stephens, Find-A-Grave (site 2)

John Elbert Organ, Find-A-Grave

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