Hillsdale College: The Frontier Years

Founded in 1844 at Spring Arbor, the frontier Hillsdale College faced harsh conditions. Many more colleges failed than survived, and every institution of frontier society was conditional. But Hillsdale College, part of an agricultural village society, survived and even prospered with force of will. Signs of success are evident. In 1850 the young institution became the first successful private  college in Michigan to be chartered by the legislature with authority to grant degrees. This college charter was the first in the United States to prohibit discrimination because of race, gender or religion. And by 1854 Hillsdale College leaders played a leading role in founding the Republican party at Jackson, Michigan. By 1856 Hillsdale was the largest college in Michigan and remained so for most of the nineteenth century.

This small frontier college not only survived but attained remarkable success. The founders of the college were Michigan pioneers of the 1840s, who had arrived from western New York, which in turn had been inhabited by New Englanders. These founders brought with them their deep religious faith, their customs and their zeal for education. Ransom Dunn, founder of Hillsdale College, expressed the appeal of 

the frontier as he left Vermont: "At the East I have fared well … But I could not rest. A cry arose from my years in the West, and I am now on my way again to that field of labor. To that land, and even beyond to the cabins of the wilderness, I hasten with delight…." Daniel Graham, the first president, temporarily lived in a log hut when the college first opened at Spring Arbor. The values of the leaders of Michigan Central College at Spring Arbor, which become Hillsdale College after 1853, reflected well the description of later President George Roche of much of the nineteenth century: "pioneer and frontier, self-reliant and courageous."

The students were plain folks, men and women, white and black. They were "rural, religious, and conscientious." Most were poor, and college officials struggled to supply endowments so that tuition could remain low. A vital ingredient of the institution was that "it was a Christian college, sustained and patronized by the middle classes—farmers, ministers and mechanics, for the most part. Thus these boys and girls came from country homes, from log houses." Some of the earliest students walked more than a hundred miles to reach the early college. It was not uncommon to furnish a dormitory room with an empty nail keg for a chair, a bundle of straw for a bed and a window sill for a table. Most of the pioneer students supported themselves by manual labor. Enrollment always was lowest in the spring, when many returned home to help with farming. 

The humble origins of most of the students did not detract from their academic performance. The State Board of Visitors reported in 1848: "We have rarely witnessed an examination that has given so good evidence of ability and fidelity on the part of the professors and teachers, and of untiring industry on the part of the students, as this …. The collegiate class is composed of both ladies and gentlemen, all of whom evinced a maturity of scholarship that is unusual with persons of their age and progress, even in older institutions …. In the compositions of the young ladies, and the orations of the young gentlemen (as well as in the papers of the literary societies), some of which we have never seen surpassed, we were gratified to see so many good moral and religious sentiments inculcated."

The academic courses at  Michigan Central College (soon Hillsdale College) give a good example of high standards. The junior year included natural philosophy, astronomy, chemistry, zoology, Tacitus, Hebrew, French, and psychology. Senior year studies were geology, calculus, moral philosophy, weekly declamations and compositions, and monthly original speeches. The college trustees proudly declared in 1851 that their educational facilities were "unsurpassed in the West."

Spring Arbor, however, no longer had the advantages (including railroad access) of some surrounding towns, such as Hillsdale. Influenced by Professor Ransom Dunn, leading Hillsdale citizens voted to acquire Michigan Central College in January 1853. They soon oversubscribed their goal of $15,000 to build a new campus. Dunn himself traveled 6,000 miles by carriage and horseback, preaching in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota. I located his original subscription list of thousands of small pledges, which he captions: "Sent for $10,000; secured $20,000." These funds came largely from poor farmers on the frontier. People of modest means, some of whom lived in log houses or shanties, contributed to this early endowment. Out of such adversity rose the pioneer college and its passion for independence. With good reason, Dunn later would be known as the "Old Man of Hillsdale College" after almost half a century of leadership.

The new site was not without challenge. The town had a alder swamp at the base of current College Hill. The future campus was a half-cleared pasture with stumps, wild grass and wildlife. A deep sinkhole, a frog pond and woodland were located west of the future campus. 

Completion of the campus proceeded rapidly by the late fall of 1855. Built of brick, the majestic building had four floors and a basement. The central part contained the chapel surrounded by galleries, five recitation rooms, two society halls and the treasurer's office. The structure contained a total of 25 public rooms and 110 dormitory rooms. From these rooms, male students later would shoot partridges, turkeys and quail. Those who had shivered in cold rooms now received carpeting. Standard furnishings included a bed, a table, a stove, a cabinet and two chairs. Residents supplied their own lights and firewood.

Hillsdale students, many in their twenties, had earlier faced great hardships on the frontier. Now they accepted poverty to gain a formal education at the "oldest of the denominational colleges in the state." Facing many obstacles, Hillsdale in her earliest years gained prominence as the oldest college in Michigan.


Dr. Arlan K. Gilbert