Northern Marks 110 Years

Northern is not only recognizing the “High Tech Hits 10” milestone, but also its 110th year of existence. Established by the Michigan Legislature in 1899 as a normal school to provide teachers for the Upper Peninsula, NMU held its first classes on Sept. 19 with 32 students, six faculty and Dwight B. Waldo as principal. For many years, educating teachers was the sole mission of the school.

The red-roofed “old City Hall” building on Washington Street was home to Northern State Normal when it first opened. With the completion of South or Longyear Hall in the spring of 1900, classes were permanently offered on campus. It was at the dedication of this building that Peter White—a city co-founder who successfully lobbied for a college in the Upper Peninsula—delivered an interesting prophecy about the institution’s future, including the growth in facilities:

“There will be more [buildings] … a comfortably housed library, distinct from the one in town, of 20,000 volumes. There will be 500 of our graduates at work in our schools and 1,000 students in the school itself. There will be a gymnasium and careful training in reasonable physical culture and practical hygiene. There will be laboratories for botany, chemistry and physics, and a small but well-equipped observatory. The U.S. Weather observatory will be at this school. There will be an Assembly Hall with a fine pipe organ and notable examples of the arts will adorn the walls, corridors and pedestals. 

“The courses will have been lengthened to four years of advanced study beyond the high school curriculum and the degree of the school will be known and respected at least throughout the state.”

Most of White’s predictions came true. A four-year college program was introduced in 1918 and the first bachelor of arts degree conferred two years later. As enrollment swelled in the '50s and '60s, this small teacher's college became a diversified institution with dramatic growth in faculty and facilities. With an emphasis on instruction, service and research, it established its own graduate program leading to a master of arts degree. Under a state constitution in 1963, Northern—like all public institutions in Michigan—was granted university status and an autonomous board of trustees.

According to Russell Magnaghi (History), Northern has risen above several challenges over the years, some of which parallel current events. Swine flu has recently made headlines, but in 1918, there was a major flu epidemic that closed the university for the fall semester. It required a major effort to double up courses and take other measures to ensure that students could graduate in June.

“War has also impacted the university, especially the gender makeup of the student body,” Magnaghi said. “Most of the men on campus left during the two World Wars. There weren’t even enough remaining to field a football team. And the university has endured economic bad times in the past. Thanks to qualified expertise and a certain amount of creativity on the part of the people who’ve managed the university’s finances, we’ve weathered the storms. Northern has always managed to stay on keel and perform its mission while pushing ahead in non-classroom opportunities such as internships, leadership and the Superior Edge. It’s really been wonderful to see the progress over my 40 years here.”

Magnaghi was appointed the university’s second historian in 1994. His charge was to collect and preserve artifacts and structures on campus, act as a liaison between the university and historical agencies and write a university encyclopedia. The latter is titled A Sense of Time: The Encyclopedia of Northern Michigan University, published in 1999 for the year-long centennial celebration. Magnaghi plans to update the content and perhaps make it available online. He also will continue two activities started during the centennial: placing historical markers on campus and conducting annual recorded audio interviews with the university president.

The first university historian, Francis Roy Copper, wrote a personal history of Northern covering 1899-1943. The Center for Upper Peninsula Studies, which Magnaghi directs, will mark Northern’s 110th anniversary by publishing the manuscript. Magnaghi said it offers rare personal insights on the early presidents.

Photo Credits: NMU Archives


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Updated: August 20, 2009

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