The Birth of Hillsdale College

 At its first trustee meeting in October 1844,          Michigan Central College at Spring Arbor came into being … kind of. There were no buildings, apparatus or students, much less a charter, endowment or the ability to confer degrees. Daniel McBride Graham, age 27, was the president and sole teacher. He had five students, one a woman, and taught his classes in a leaky, deserted wooden store. The single young lady was enrolled in what was called a "Ladies' Course," with fewer expectations than the usual course of classes. But the college was coeducational, which was an impressive departure from the norm. In 1850 the college finally received a charter from the Michigan Legislature, a charter that became a prize to be won when the lack of money to improve Michigan Central College provided the impetus for its relocation to Hillsdale.    

    The citizens of Spring Arbor were pleased to have the college, yet felt no financial commitment for the construction of new buildings, the purchase of books and materials or to pay the professors. As the number of students and teachers increased, the school's president, Edmund B. Fairfield, and Ransom Dunn, a popular and charismatic teacher, along with the rest of the faculty, realized that, rather than the uphill battle to improve the college in Spring Arbor, it would be advantageous to move to a larger village (with more citizens to contribute to the college endowment) on a railway line (which would bring students more easily). A committee was formed to look at possible sites. 

    Jackson, though nearby, was rejected out of hand because its pro-slavery element would object to the firm anti-slavery stance of Michigan Central College. Adrian and Marshall were also disinterested. Coldwater, on the Michigan Southern Railway, emerged as a good location, but then Dunn, in his capacity as scout from the Michigan Central faculty looking for a new location for the college, came to Hillsdale, another town on the Michigan Southern Railway. He very much impressed the men who convened at the Courthouse to hear him, and Hillsdale considered itself in the running for the new site of the college. A letter written by Daniel Beebe for the Hillsdale Herald in 1884 recounted the course of events 31 years earlier of how Hillsdale College came into being. Beebe's letter colorfully (and with perhaps a bit of overstatement) tells an exciting cloak-and-dagger story.

    Beebe was one of four men dispatched (incognito) to Spring Arbor to see if Michigan Central College was even worth having. They attended the trustees meeting and then "spied out the land." They were impressed with the quality of the professors, and definitely not impressed with the facilities. On returning to Hillsdale they deputized a "shrewd young man" to secretly keep abreast of the negotiations between the college professors and Coldwater. This came in handy when the committee from Michigan Central College stopped in Hillsdale after receiving an offer of $10,000 from the Coldwater city fathers to help establish an endowment for a college in their town. 

    Dr. G.W. Underwood of Hillsdale asked the Spring Arbor group what they would accept to move to Hillsdale. Shooting for more than they would receive from Coldwater, they replied, "$15,000." The Hillsdale city fathers confidently affirmed that they could raise that amount, and a deal was struck. The professors agreed to raise the same amount from outside Hillsdale County, and Beebe convinced Esbon Blackmar of New York to donate 25 acres of his land, located on a hill to the north of the village, as well as $500. There was such enthusiasm for the college coming to Hillsdale that throughout the county citizens donated $21,000, a full $6,000 above what had been pledged. 

    Professors from Michigan Central College dispersed to fulfill their part, speaking to groups and even going to individual homes. Their canvassing for endowments included many small donations from people across the Midwest. Promised for some endowments was a scholarship, inheritable and transferable, giving perpetual tuition to one student at a time for $100. (In the 1950s Hillsdale College realized that these "perpetual scholarships" were getting out of hand and they were discontinued.)    

    In Spring Arbor, where enthusiasm for raising the money to support Michigan Central College never materialized, the certainty of losing their institution finally roused the citizenry. There were libelous rumors spread about the president and faculty of the college that were angrily denounced by the trustees. One of the professors was threatened with tar and feathers, causing the faculty and trustees to arm themselves and to barricade the doors of their homes. Further complications resulted from the desire of the Michigan Central professors to transfer the original charter to Hillsdale College to avoid having to start over again to receive the right to confer degrees. 

    To transfer the charter would require that no interruption of classes occurred; Michigan Central College had to continue to exist until Hillsdale College commenced. Two moves were made to assure this would happen, one surreptitious and one speaking of great courage in the face of the threats from the citizens of Spring Arbor. The former was the secret removal of the record books. This was done by L.B. Potter, one of the trustees. He hid them under straw in the wagon box of his cart, where they escaped discovery by armed constables who searched both his wagon and home. He fled to Jackson by night and then transferred the books to Hillsdale. The courage to continue to teach classes at Michigan Central College came from Dunn and C.H. Churchill (who was the object of the threatened tar and feathers).

    The citizens of Spring Arbor had one further ploy. Like children who don't get their way and so take their toys and go home, they declared that none of the books and apparatus from Michigan Central College would go to Hillsdale. The ensuing endless litigation caused the initial excitement in Hillsdale to deflate. After an enthusiastic laying of the cornerstone on July 4, 1853, and the purchase of bricks for Hillsdale College, subscriptions to support the new college and the actual building of it stalled. Finally, the attempt to use the charter and equipment from Michigan Central College was abandoned, leading Beebe to say in his account that, "We removed none of its library, cabinet, or chemical apparatus. No, we only got the brains!" 

    Dr. Cressy, one of the original supporters for moving Michigan Central College to Hillsdale, was elected to the state Senate in 1854 and set about amending the current law that prohibited special charters for colleges. The new college law, introduced on the particular behalf of Hillsdale College, was impersonal in its language to include other denominational schools. Once again, the establishment of a place of higher learning in Hillsdale went into high gear. Articles of Association were adopted on March 22, 1855, and on May 17, 1855, Hillsdale was incorporated under the new college law and received its charter. The trustees  of Michigan Central held their last meeting on Jan. 3, 1855. There the outcome of the case by the citizens of Spring Arbor against the college was announced: The complaint was judged to be without basis.

    Hillsdale College opened to women and minorities as well as to male students. Sensitive to what they imagined were the special frailties of women, a less rigorous curriculum was developed for them. This adjustment corresponded to the belief that the female intellect couldn't fathom the intricacies of regular college work. Some of the women, with permission, were allowed to pursue the male college degree, and did just fine. The administration of the college, however, put down its collective foot with regard to a mingling of the sexes. An extensive list of rules for student conduct included the admonition that ladies and gentlemen were not allowed to walk or ride in company of each other without special permission of the president or the principal of the Female Department (the Dean of Women). Nor could they meet in the same reception room or study together in the reading rooms. It's fair to say that this Victorian fear of the consequences of allowing boys and girls to be in the same place at the same time was occasionally circumvented by the students it was meant to protect. Despite that, higher education gained a foothold in Hillsdale that was never relinquished.


  JoAnne P. Miller