History: Birth of the University

Over the course of my postings, I hope to pass along some of the University of Maine’s storied past as well as recognize some of the university’s notable alums.  It is my aim to do so in a unique, interesting and (hopefully) brief way.  So what better way to start than where it all began?

On July 2nd, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Act.  This act would provide 30,000 acres of government land to each eligible state (read: those that did not secede to join the Confederacy) for each member the state had in the United States Congress.  The State of Maine, having seven congressmen at the time, would be granted a land scrip for 210,000 acres.  This land scrip would give the State of Maine the right to sell any 210,000 acres within its boundaries not already appropriated for another purpose.  The proceeds from this land was to be invested and the interest earned on said investment was to be applied to support at least one college with the primary purpose of teaching agriculture and the mechanical arts ‘in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes’.

On March 25th, 1863, the legislature of the State of Maine voted to accept the terms of the Morrill Act.  One year later the legislature voted to allow the Governor to take action to sell the land scrip for the establishment of the college.  The first big hurdle to overcome was whether to establish a new college or to employ an existing institution to provide the necessary schooling.  Many in the state desired the simplicity that came with handing over the responsibility to a third party.  Others, most notably the State Board of Agriculture, desired the control that came with the establishment of a new, dedicated institution.  Discussions on this topic were carried out in front of the joint special committee on agriculture in early 1865.
Among the institutions to speak to the committee was Waterville College.  Due to the Civil War, Waterville College, an all-male school at the time, suffered significant losses to its student body, devastating the school’s income and threatening to close its doors (it later received a generous donation from its now namesake, Gardner Colby).  Waterville College proposed that it, along with Bowdoin and Bates Colleges, each provide for some of the studies required by the law.  In return each school would receive twenty-five percent of the money earned from the sale of the land scrip with the remaining twenty-five percent to support various experiments and lectures at each of the three colleges.   However, students would have been required to transfer between each institution to obtain the desired schooling.
Bowdoin College offered its own, independent option to the committee.  It would agree to provide studies to meet the requirements of the law (and just barely at that) in return for the deed to the 210,000 acres granted the State of Maine.  The allure of Bowdoin’s plan was that it would provide all the necessary buildings, equipment and instruction, with no further involvement from the state.  However, Bowdoin’s program would provide for just one year of schooling in agriculture and the mechanical arts.  This sat poorly with the committee as it showed an active disinterest in the true purpose for the school.
On the side of independency, S. L. Goodale, Secretary of the Board of Agriculture, and Dr. Ezekiel Holmes, editor of the Maine Farmer, a periodical with a large circulation in the state, met with the committee to advocate for the creation of an independent institution.  The opinion of the board of agriculture had been consistently opposed to aligning with an existing school from the very beginning.  Dr. Holmes argued that, for the institution to carry out the intended purpose effectively, it must remain unhampered by a connection with an existing institution.
In the end, and with great influence from the State Board of Agriculture, the committee voted to report to the state legislature in favor of the creation of a new institution.  And thus was born the yet-to-be-named University of Maine.  The next hurdle… where to build it?

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