Chapter Two: The Birth of Corvallis College

By George Edmonston Jr. and Tom Bennett

Importance of education known to early Oregonians...


Early travelers along the Oregon Trail to the Willamette Valley brought with them more than the tools and farming skills they would need to prosper in their new home.

They also knew the importance of schools to the future.

Those who framed Oregon's provisional constitution in 1848 stole almost verbatim from Nathan Dane's 1787 political tome, Ordinance for the Government of the Northwest, that portion that reads, "Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged." Joseph Lane, the new territory's first governor, wasted little time in acting on Dane's words.

In 1849, Lane used his administration to pass the first school law of the territory to provide tax money for public school support. Though it would be several decades before Oregonians would build and fund public high schools, the seeds for education in Oregon had been sown.

Over the next two decades (1850-1870), this early planting would give rise to numerous institutions of learning in the population centers of the Willamette Valley. Although the word "college" appears in most of the names of these early schools, they were usually anything but.

Few opportunities for preparatory work were available to school-aged children in the state, so the majority of these early "colleges" funded and staffed "preparatory departments" to help bring the younger enrollees up to speed. Student body photos from these early institutions show a mix of ages represented, from five all the way to 20.

The names included: Willamette University in Salem, whose founding has been listed as early as 1847 and as late as 1853; Albany College in Albany; Bethel College in Polk County, southeast of Amity near McCoy; Philomath College in Philomath; Pacific Academy in Forest Grove; Sublimity College, east of Salem, which had as its first teacher one Milton Wright, father of historic aviators Orville and Wilbur Wright; and La Creole Academy and Dallas College in Dallas, to name a few.

In addition, by 1860, towns such as Sheridan, Lebanon, Eugene, McMinnville and Soda Springs were operating religiously affiliated schools with growing enrollments.

Corvallis attempted to join the mix as early as 1856. By 1860, the small river town of the central valley had a school of its own, a small pioneer academy named appropriately enough, Corvallis College.

Ten decades later, it would become Oregon State University.



The rise of Corvallis College...

The first attempt to establish a school in the town of Corvallis came in 1853. The genesis of this activity lies within Section 10 of the Donation Land Act of 1850.

What Section 10 authorized was that land equaling the size of two townships within the territory of Oregon be set aside for public sale, the proceeds of which were to be used to establish a university.The promised "two townships" totaled 46,080 acres and went immediately on the market for $4 an acre. At that price, few were buying, so the cost was reduced to as low as $1.25. Sales picked up and a new education fund began to fatten.

A commission of three was appointed by the territorial government in 1853 to gather enough funds from the account to establish a territorial university.

Marysville, in just a year or so to be renamed Corvallis, was chosen as the location. For a campus, a five-acre grassy knoll just west of downtown was selected. Building materials were stockpiled at the site.

The property was a gift of Joseph P. Friedly, taken from his Donation Land Claim. Its campus location today, historically significant because it reflects the earliest intentions of the town's leaders on where the school should be situated, is in the vicinity of the building now housing OSU's Student Health Services, about 500 yards north of the Memorial Union.

Yet, in spite of the best wishes of all those who wanted to see a school started in the heart of Benton County, this first attempt never materialized. Before anything could be done, the state found itself deep in political crisis. Among other things, confusion reigned over where the state capital should be located. For a few months in 1855, the seat of government was actually moved from Salem to Corvallis.

In this same legislation, Oregon's "territorial university," still only an idea on paper, was moved south to Jacksonville. Friedly got his land back. The building materials were sold at auction.

But the idea of a school for Marysville had been established and the baton was picked up in 1854 by the Methodist-Episcopal Church of Salem, which had its pioneer roots in the missionary work of Jason Lee and the rise of the ME Church-sponsored Willamette University.

It was another false start. The Salem group did produce a document containing articles of incorporation for a "school of higher education to be called Corvallis Seminary." When it came time to fund the project, however, few investors came forth. Corvallis Seminary vanished from lack of support.

But the idea for a school for Corvallis had been firmly established. In 1856, members of the town's Baptist Association started a school they called the Corvallis Institute, which survived for about a year holding classes in borrowed space in the Baptist Church. Complaints began to rise almost immediately. With almost no staff and little money, the venture was too small to adequately take care of the needs of the town. Something else had to be done.

The next attempt came in 1858, this one involving the entire community and without religious affiliation. The school was chartered as Corvallis College and had the full backing of the town's leading citizens and founders, Joe Avery and W.F. Dixon.

The town, for once, pulled together. Through great effort involving many fund raisers, enough money was put together to begin construction on a two-story wooden structure to be located on 5th Street, between Madison and Monroe Streets. Today, the Corvallis Moose Lodge occupies this site.

The work was finished in short order. Surviving photos of Corvallis' first college building show a plain structure painted white. Total cost of the building, with outhouses, was $5,000. When enrollment grew to over a 100 by December, so did the bills to pay off the remainder of the construction debt, still at over half.

More fund raisers were held. A "Grand Ball," with many weeks advanced publicity, netted exactly $99 dollars, a tidy amount but not nearly enough to pay the carpenters and laborers who had built the school.

In a group, the workers went to the Benton County sheriff and demanded the building be put up for auction, the proceeds of which would be given back to them for their work. This event would have far-reaching effects on the history of Corvallis College, with political, social and cultural impacts that would be felt through the life of the college and the land-grant school that would be its eventual successor.

At the sale of the town's new college, two bidders stood face-to-face. The first was a Presbyterian minister named H.R. Avery. He had been the principal of Corvallis College at the time of its closure and was reportedly authorized by his backers to spend no more than $4,000.

The other was also a man-of-the-cloth, the Rev. Orcenith Fisher of the Methodist-Episcopal Church, South. His secret weapon was no spending limit. Fisher ended up with the building, the school and the business for a mere $500 above Avery's highest bid.

But he had to work fast if he wanted to begin realizing an early return on his investment. So he and a group of friends rushed things together in time to reopen the school for fall term.

He also made preparations to turn the college over to the group that would ultimately have the responsibility for supervising the school: the Columbia Conference of the ME Church, South, which held its first formal meeting in the school building it now owned in late 1860.

On January 1, 1861, Corvallis College quietly passed into the hands of the Southern Methodists, the same month six states would join South Carolina in succeeding from the Union. Only three months later, Confederate forces under P.G.T. Beauregard would begin firing on Fort Sumter to begin the American Civil War.

With Oregon feeling the effects of the conflict that would tear the country apart for the next five years, the new owners of the college, to their great credit, worked hard to keep their young pioneer academy solvent...and open! When students arrived in September, a new faculty of three greeted them: the Rev. W.M. Culp as principal, assisted by a local physician named E.B. Stone and Mrs. R.J. Fisher.

In spite of what the town of Corvallis might have thought of its new school, it was hardly a "college" by today's measures.

Typical for the times, Corvallis College sponsored both primary and preparatory departments, with instruction in reading, writing, spelling and arithmetic.

Tuition for preparatory instruction was $8 per student per quarter. For $12 per quarter, the advanced student delved into such meaty subjects as English and English grammar, geography, advanced arithmetic, natural philosophy and physiology. For $16 a quarter, algebra, geometry, trigonometry and Latin were offered. No college-level courses were available at this time.

The next year, 1862, a Civil War event would happen in July that would once again alter the history of Corvallis College.

Part 3 in this series will examine Southern Methodist influences in the early history of Corvallis College and profile the life and career of OSU's (Corvallis College's) first president, 31-year old William A. Finley, a graduate of Pacific Methodist College in central California.

Selected Bibliography:

Bennett, Tom, "The Civil War and OSU," The Oregon Stater, June 1994, pp. 9-14, 21.

Munford, Kenneth, "Politics helped shape universities," Corvallis Gazette-Times, July 8, 1985.

Groshong, James W., The Making of a University: 1868-1968, a special commemorative booklet celebrating OSU's centennial published by the president's office.

OSU Fact Book

Smith, John E., A History of Corvallis College, a small booklet published by the author in 1951, with copies housed in the OSU Archives and at the OSU Alumni Association.

Orange and Black, OSU Alumni Association, 1937. Dated and riddled with errors but useful, particularly for old photos.

Horner, John B., Oregon History and Early Literature, Vol. 4, 1931. An old history text, full of errors, and yet, OSU's own John Horner has left us a book that is still useful, particularly for helping students keep straight the basic chronology of Oregon's early history.


Tom Bennett, was a free-lance writer in Corvallis in the early 1990s who wrote numerous history features for the
Stater. He was a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and moved to Oregon after his retirement as an advertising executive in the midwest.