Humboldt County
Historical Association

PO Box 162
Humboldt, Iowa

Return to FEATURES











Humboldt College

(click to enlarge photo of Humboldt College)

(Adapted from a program for the HCHA
by Marilyn Hiner on October 1, 2007)


Louisiana Purchase


Lewis and Clark Expedition


Des Moines River exploration . . . “Iowa first used to name the area in print


Iowa Statehood

1854 or 1855

Dakotah (now Dakota City) founded


Stephen Taft comes to look over the area


Founding of Springvale (later renamed Humboldt)


Public Meeting to discuss prospects of a College


Swamp Land vote


College construction begins


First Classes at Humboldt College


First (and only) degrees granted


Doors close on first Humboldt College for lack of funds


Reorganization by J. P. Peterson and A. L. Ronell


Mr. Peterson moves Humboldt College to Minneapolis


Humboldt College buildings used for public school classes while present Jr. High was under construction.


Humboldt College buildings razed, some of the stones used to construct the Union Cemetery gateposts


Humboldt College in Minneapolis closes.

These dates illustrate the short span of time which elapsed from the Louisiana Purchase which made much of the area west of the Mississippi and within the watershed of the Missouri (including Iowa) part of the United States to the establishment of an outpost in the prairie which shortly after its founding put up a college. From the purchase to the opening of the College is only 69 years; as history goes, hardly noticeable.

The College campus was situated on a hill at the north edge of the town plat, overlooking the village. It also overlooked a marsh. This shallow body of water still appears in the parking lot of the shopping center in early spring.

When the memorial marker to Humboldt College was dedicated in Taft Park in 1929, Fred Taft sent remarks to be read at the dedication by Alice Taft (Mrs. William Taft). He sums up his father’s vision for the settlement this way:

  • A town to be ultimately embowered in forest and ornamental trees.
  • A community forever free from the legalized sale of intoxicants.
  • A town to be served and capitalized by grist mill and saw mill, operated by the waters of the beautiful Des Moines River.
  • A town whose moral stamina should be buttressed upon a church wholly free from denominational dissentions, a town of schools, a town of thinkers, a town of beauty.
  • And finally, as a crowning achievement, a town whose cultural and ethical life should center in and be uplifted and expanded by a college of university importance, and like its co-worker, the church, untrammeled by factional disputes or denominational barriers.

Which brings us to the subject of the day? As in all endeavors of this sort, financing was a constant worry. Taft spent many months in the East seeking funds from the friends he had there and from those of wealth who had an interest in endowing good works. The land itself was the first investment. An effort to acquire one-half of the swamp lands failed. Taft contracted to buy 240 acres and then went east to find the money.

The first $100 was given by Peter Cooper of New York. Of course money was slow and it was not enough. Taft was about to lose his option when two rather large contributions enabled him to wire the money to a bank in Fort Dodge only one day before the payment was due.

Then the focus was on a building fund. The cornerstone was laid on September 10, 1870. The campus covered 60 acres. Classes began in 1872 with fifty students and three faculty. The next year there were four instructors and a total of 111 students. Since there were no high schools at the time these students took what was called the "preparatory program” for which no tuition was charged. In 1875 when a $5.00 tuition fee was charged, enrollments dropped. The College closed after 8 or 9 years. On June 6 of 1879 the Bachelor of Arts degree was conferred on three students who had been there from the opening day.

The second life for the building on the hill came in 1895, twenty-five years after it was first built. The property became the home of a business school operated by J. P. Peterson and A. L. Ronell. The city granted tax exemptions, and the two men agreed to operate a non-sectarian school of at least seven departments and seven teachers and build two dormitories. The citizens were to donate the college site and buildings—the mortgage of which would be cancelled after five years.

This school was very successful, teaching the practical courses necessary in a growing and thriving community. In addition to what we would call a liberal arts program, courses for business, telegraphy, teacher-training, and others, gave the young—and not so young—the tools to go into the world of work. The schools slogan was “A practical school for practical people—home comforts at home cost.”

Expenses were $32.60 paid in advance for tuition, board and room for twelve weeks or $88.00 a year. Special discounts were available for the first student to enroll from a given county, or for the second from a family. Students could enter at any time. Because there was a farm associated with the school, students could work for at least part of their expenses.

One unique feature of the student activity was the construction of a boardwalk across the slough at the foot of the hill. Financed and built by the students themselves, it gave dry passage down to the village and the business district.

Again money intruded on the success story. While the city abated taxes, after a period the county did not. Although the sum was not large, it was enough to cause the college to be moved to Minneapolis where it continued to function until 1978.

While the present Jr. High building was under construction in 1916-1917, the old buildings on the hill above the town served the public school as classrooms.

After that short service, the buildings stood empty. In 1926 Fred Bradburn, who purchased the land, offered to sell the buildings for $1000, but no buyer appeared.  They were razed and all that remains of the stone structures are the gateposts at Union Cemetery.


Judge Fred H. Taft

[On Friday, October 4, 1928, the DAR held the formal dedication of the Memorial to Humboldt College in Taft Park. Judge Fred H. Taft of Santa Monica, California, was asked to write the history in a letter sent Thursday evening, September 27th by air mail, special delivery. The letter containing this history was delivered by air mail at 9:50 a.m. Friday, October 4th. This paper was read by Mrs. Alice E. Taft.]

The origin of Humboldt College really dates from the year 1862 at the hour when its founder, Rev. Stephen H. Taft, looking over the unbroken prairie where Humboldt now stands, determined to found a town and develop a community life on that spot. For Mr. Taft had ventured into the wilderness west of the Mississippi, imbued with a very lofty ideal of what might be accomplished with the opportunities offered by the undeveloped West. With the starting point of a colony of serious minded and forward looking men and women already potentially recruited in the Empire State, he cherished a noble vision. It compassed:

  • A town to be ultimately embowered in forest and ornamental trees.
  • A community forever free from the legalized sale of intoxicants.
  • A town to be served and capitalized by grist mill and saw mill, operated by the waters of the beautiful Des Moines River.
  • A town whose moral stamina should be buttressed upon a church wholly free from denominational dissentions, a town of schools, a town of thinkers, a town of beauty.

And finally, as a crowning achievement:

  • A town whose cultural and ethical life should center in and be uplifted and expanded by a college of university importance, and like its co-worker, the church untrammeled by factional disputes or denominational barriers.

It was a large order, and compared with the barrenness of the whole surrounding country of everything except natural beauty and exceptional fertility, it was as ambitious a plan as is often born of the brain of man.

I have before me the written and printed story of what followed. My time will allow but a condensed recital of it.

The first public meeting devoted to college matters was held in September, 1866, at which the Springvale Collegiate Association was organized. S. H. Taft was elected president, I. A. Averill secretary and A. E. Lathrop treasurer. During the high water of 1867 the dam was washed away and the college movement was sidetracked by more insistent demands upon the promoters.

The movement was definitely revived at a meeting held July 17, 1869, at which the association was reorganized under the name of Humboldt Collegiate Association. At a subsequent meeting articles of incorporation were adopted. The officers chosen were: Hon. Samuel Merrill President; S. H. Taft vice president; E. C. Miles secretary and B. H. Harkness, treasurer. Trustees: Hon. C. C. Cole, Hon. A. S. Kissell (then State Superintendent of Schools), Hon. John Scott, Ex-leut. Gov., B. F. Gue, Hon. G. W. Bassett, John Dickey, Wm. Emerson, W. T. Lynn, Ira L. Welch, W. M. D. Van Velsor, N. S. Ames, S. B. bellows, D. P. Russell and Nelson Martin.

The secretary’s report of this meeting declares that ‘great enthusiasm and the best of feeling seemed to prevail throughout the entire session.”

At that time Mr. Taft was editing a weekly newspaper under the name of Humboldt County True Democrat, which was printed in the office of the leading Fort Dodge paper. In its next issue there appeared an editorial concerning the meeting which concluded with these optimistic assurances: “Two things we believe to have been settled by the meeting—1st. That Northern Iowa is soon to have a first class college, and 2nd, that Humboldt County is to be the favored place of its location.”

Under the date of July 17, 1869, a proclamation was duly published submitting to the voters of Humboldt County the proposition: “Shall one half of the swamp lands which now are or shall hereafter be patented to Humboldt County be conveyed by the proper legal representatives of Humboldt county to the board of trustees of Humboldt College in aid of said college . . . when $10,000 shall have been raised by said board of trustees?”

This proclamation was authorized by the board of supervisors upon the petition of 208 electors of the county, which was a substantial majority of all its then voting population.

The question was decided at the general election of October 12, 1869, and the proposal defeated by a small majority.

Immediately following the vote denying appropriation of half the swamp lands Mr. Taft took an option in the form of bond for a deed upon what was then known as the Frank Simmons farm, comprising 240 acres including what became the college campus.

I quote from a written statement by Mr. Taft as to what followed: “Early in the spring of 1870 I went where all pioneer builders of manufactories, railroads and colleges have to go for funds, to the Atlantic states. My first $100 was from the hand of Hon. Peter Cooper of New York. On the last Friday in May I received a letter informing that the District Court would be asked on the following Tuesday to declare the bond a nullity for nonpayment. The Rev. Edward Everett Hale on Monday secured me the favor of Hon. Oliver Ames who let me have between five and six thousand dollars. The money was deposited in a Boston bank at 1 o’clock p.m., wired to Fort Dodge, the message arriving there at 123:30 (a half hour ahead of time) and E. G. Morgan had the money in court in Dakota City before noon Tuesday. Since that eventful day,” the account concludes, “our friends have multiplied until they number by scores instead of units.”

Ground for the college building was broken June 17, 1870, with appropriate ceremonies. Former Judge C. C. Cole, of the Iowa Supreme Court, a resident of Des Moines, delivered the chief address. Other notables present upon the occasion included Gen. Wilson, editor of the Iowa Homestead, A. R. Fulton of the Des Moines Register, Mrs. Austin Adams of Dubuque, Gov. Gue and wife and Gov. Carpenter and Wife, of Fort Dodge. Mr. Taft concluded his address with these words:

“Hundreds are here present today. Tens of thousands shall gather here a hundred years hence to commemorate the birth of the institution and rejoice in the blessings it shall have conferred.”

The articles of incorporation were finally completed for filing with the State authorities under date of Sept. 21. 1870. They were signed by E. C. Miles, secretary and acknowledged before G. M. Snyder, notary public.

The building was sufficiently near completion to permit the opening of school on September 13, 1872. At that time the faculty comprised Prof. D. B. Stone, acting president and instructor in English and Science, Rev. Julius Stevens, professor of history and languages, and Angie B. Stevens, assistant and instructor in art.

Other teachers who figured in the history of the school included John McLeod, W. J. Lloyd, Frank L. Harvey, George H. Horsewell, Leonard Brown and Albert Earthman.

Something like 60 pupils enrolled, about twenty of whom undertook the advanced studies, including Latin. One of these students began upon college work, the first three years of the course outlined in the curriculum comprising preparatory studies only. Those who became permanent students remained to conclude the preliminary studies and followed them with four years of a college course proper. No tuition was charged for the first three years.

But three families were represented in the senior class which entered upon the last of the seven years of study for the school year of 1878-79: Adell and Gazelle Stevens; George and his sister Frankie Welch, and William J. Taft and his brother Fred H., who has compiled this sketch. Of these six, George Welch and the Misses Stevens finished the final semester at Cornell College, Mount Vernon, taking their degrees from that older institution, and I know of no others except the remaining three of that class upon whom Humboldt College ever conferred the degree of A.B. No other class ever followed the full preparatory and college course from beginning to end during subsequent years.

This first class was graduated in June 1879.

From this distance of time it is not difficult to note the financial rocks which the college was unable to avoid. No institution ever had a more determined and enthusiastic promoter than Humboldt College. Mr. Taft realized from the first that a permanent endowment fund was as essential to the success of the school as teachers, students and equipment. And for this he worked unceasingly for a series of years. Twice or more he sensed the probability of reaching the goal, but it finally evaded him. Enemies? Yes. Personal enemies and impersonal opposition. It would serve no useful purpose to go into detail, but in his own memoirs Mr. Taft has sketched some of the difficulties he encountered even in the heyday of the school’s sessional life. In a public address in Humboldt in March, 1874, he said:

“Among the difficulties which have attended my labors I would name:

1.      The Boston fire

2.      The dull spring trade of 1873

3.      The panic of 1873

4.      The defalcations of railroad companies on their bonds.”

It was however several years later before he finally acknowledged to himself that the cumulated obstacles and active opposition spelled failure to secure the needed endowment, without which permanency was impossible. To the last hours of his life, however, he cherished both a hope and faith that somehow, sometime, some way the inspiration and energy of another would take up the work and realize for the college all that he had dreamed.

Los Angeles
October 2, 1928

Remarks on Humboldt College
Mrs. Alice Taft

After reading the History of the College written by Fred H. Taft, Mrs. Alice Taft said: “I came to Humboldt to teach in the preparatory department of Humboldt College in the fall of 1879 after the first class had graduated in June, and taught in the school until it was closed.

The next class of ten or twelve took a Normal Training course and would have received their diplomas in June, 1881, but funds for maintaining the college were no longer available and its doors were closed at the end of the winter term.

My first walk to the college was over the historic old sidewalk that a few who are here today recall, but in a short time there will be no one left who remembers the slough at the foot of College Hill with its tall marshy grass and the mud hens and ducks and muskrat houses. The road to the college was like all of our roads in the seventies and early eighties, fairly good in dry weather, but at times nearly impassible.

The students in the college maintained an enthusiastic literary and dramatic society. They gave very creditable plays in the assembly room of the college on a stage built and equipped by themselves. They financed and built a sidewalk which was the most unique of any walk in this section of the country. It was put across that slough on stilts. They set two rows of posts cut from native trees, by driving them into the soft bottom of the slough about two and one half feet apart, the longer posts being set in the lowest ground and some of them extended six of eight feet above it. On top of these posts planks were nailed, making the walk consist of two rows of boards about 18 inches apart that extended from the foot of the hill well onto the high ground on this side. The planks for this walk were rafted down from Algona on the East River, Mr. Witt Locke being captain of the craft. At Livermore they encountered the remains of an old dam and here the raft had to be dismantled, carried around the dam, rebuilt and launched again. It was finally floated safely into Dakota City and hauled to place from there by teams. The college boys built much of the walk themselves.

I think that this was the most important public improvement that has ever been carried out by any group of young people. Certainly no walk here was ever so greatly needed. Sometimes it was a little difficult to keep one’s balance on these boards and you had to “Watch your step.” but it was great fun for fleet-footed boys and girls to walk or race over, and more than one boy yielded to the temptation to push his companion off into the shallow water below.

Mr. Fred Taft has written the history of the Humboldt College that he knew and loved, but no history of this kind would be complete without a reference to and commendation of the second school that most of you think of as Humboldt College. The first school was the center of higher education and social affairs in this community for a little less than ten years and its doors were closed for lack of funds, nearly fifty years ago.

The second Humboldt College, made possible only by the property owned and the building erected by the first, was opened in 1895 by Prof. J. P. Peterson, after the college had been vacant for about 13 years and had been considerably injured by the abuse that an isolated vacant building is always subject to. He modernized the building in several ways; erected two much needed dormitories, employed fine teachers, and with their aid and that of his gifted wife, conducted a successful Normal and Business School for eighteen years. In a new country students are obliged to attend nearby schools, most of them coming from within a radius of a hundred miles and the second Humboldt College, like the first, made it possible for many young people to get the education that would otherwise have been impossible. Many lives have been broadened and many of their students and graduates now hold responsible positions, and no one who has attended one of their reunions can doubt their devotion and loyalty to the second Humboldt College. They are joining with the DAR in erecting this Memorial to Humboldt College and at their next reunion plan to hold an appropriate service.

I close my remarks by reading the high personal tribute given by Fred H. Taft to the original Humboldt College. I think that many of the students and graduates of the second Humboldt College will echo a part of all of his sentiments.

Judge Taft writes in closing:

“I ought not perhaps to conclude this sketch without a word of personal recognition of what Humboldt College meant to me.

It meant opportunity for study beyond the range of the schools otherwise within my reach. It meant the enlargement and permanence of personal associations that have been the strong safeguards of my character.

It meant the awakening of a broader knowledge of life and its meaning, and the narrowness of bookless conceit.

And it meant the foundation upon which has been built a life of whose continuing happiness I have been fortunately aware as the months and years have passed; and if to that there can be added any substantial success as citizen, neighbor or friend, I am proud to feel the Humboldt College, its teachers and influences, have been outstanding factors contributing to the results attained."

The College building was torn down in 1926, as no funds were available to equip it for any useful purpose. Not a stone remains on the site of that beautiful building that was so long a pleasing and familiar landmark of the town of Humboldt.