A College is Born

Did you ever wonder what events and forces led to the establishment of a State College in the Village of Fredonia? It’s an interesting history and one which the people of the Village should be proud of. The following article outlines this impressive and memorable period in the history of the Village of Fredonia. Information in this article was obtained from various documents which I have had the opportunity and privilege to review over the past years.

State teachers school

In 1826 the only place of higher education in the western New York area was the Fredonia Academy, a private school of higher education which was incorporated in 1824 and opened in 1826. It was a venerable institution. The people of the Village were very proud of the Academy. The Academy was located on the present site of our Village Hall. During its last few years of existence, the Academy began to fail. This was due to the Civil War, when many young people were away from home fighting in the war. Enrollment at the Academy decreased. Also, financial difficulties began to plague the Academy. The Academy finally closed it doors in 1867.

However, the Academy placed Fredonia on the map. It educated many over its 47 years of existence, including two-term Governor of the State of New York, Honorable Reuben E. Fenton, a resident of Chautauqua County and for whom Fenton Hall was named. When the Academy closed in 1867, it was a significant loss to the Village of Fredonia and community.

Although the Academy was failing in its last few years of existence, the commitment of the Village citizens, including its officials, to continue to have a place of higher education in the Village would not be defeated by the eventual closing of the Fredonia Academy.

It seems like providence must have been on the Village’s side in 1866. On March 30, 1866, the State Legislature by Chapter 466 of the Laws of 1866 authorized four State teachers training schools. The Village officials, through the Fredonia Censor and Fredonia resident and Editor of the Fredonia Censor, Willard McKinstry, were informed of this new legislation. State Superintendant of Education, Victor M. Rice, a Chautauqua County resident, is quoted as saying, “Now is Fredonia’s opportunity.”

The invitation in 1866 by the State of New York made in Chapter 466 of the Laws of 1866 invited applications from any municipality or academy in New York State who desired a State Teacher’s Training School “for the education and discipline of teachers for the common schools of this State.” These schools would be established under the jurisdiction of the State of New York. The State established a commission to review the applications for the four colleges and determine which applicant, among many, would be a worthy place for a new State school to be known as a Normal and Teachers Training School.

Each of the State’s four schools would be operated by a local board under the “general supervision and direction of the New York State Superintendant of Public Instruction in all things pertaining to said schools.”

However, for Fredonia to be a successful candidate for one of the four colleges, there would be a condition and a very significant price to pay by the Village. The condition was that the applicants accepted by the State for the four colleges would have to acquire the land, build the school building and provide the furnishings at the municipality’s sole cost. No grants or state aid were offered. When completed, the successful municipality would have to turn over the land, school building and furnishings to the State of New York. The State would then own and operate the new facility as a State school.

With this fortuitous news from the State in 1866, excitement and questions must have abounded in the Village. Could the small Village of Fredonia win one of the four State schools proposed by the State? Would the Village continue its long history as a place of higher education? Would the Village even attempt or be able to accomplish such a lofty and difficult endeavor? Could the Village have an academic department, as the Academy did, in addition to the teachers training school? There would be competition for the four State schools.

On September 26, 1866, a large public meeting was called and held in Fredonia for the purpose of “Considering the Establishment of a State Normal School in this Village.” A community decision was then made, approved by 90% of the Village taxpayers, to send a delegation in November of 1866 to Albany to convince the State to choose Fredonia as the location for one of the new State Normal and Teachers Training Schools. Village officials at that time consisted of Mayor A. C. Cushing (then called “President”), Clerk A. H. Judson; Trustees Oscar W. Johnson, A. Hayward, C.M. Ball, Nelson Palmer and L.L. Pratt.

The Village Mayor, A.C. Cushing, and the Village trustees above named, were authorized as a delegation to travel to Albany and seek from Albany an assignment of the offer for a new college. Oscar W. Johnson, Fredonia Village Trustee and attorney, known to be a most persuasive speaker, was part of this delegation.

Other villages received assistance from their respective counties in submitting their proposals to the State. Fredonia had no such assistance. Despite the lack of any assistance, a very impressive proposal was submitted by the Village.

The Village’s proposal to the State of New York to win one of the four Normal Schools was significant. The Village Mayor and Board of Trustees unanimously agreed on December 26, 1866 to authorize the Village to go into debt for $70,000. However, later concerned that this might not be enough to construct the facility and thus convince the State to choose Fredonia, the Village Board of Trustees in 1867 by the authority granted by Chapter 223 of the Laws of 1867 increased the Village’s borrowing authorization to $100,000. Fredonia officials were very determined to secure for their Village one of the four sites for a State Normal School and Teachers Training School offered by the State of New York.

Twelve proposals were submitted to the State for the four schools, including Fredonia’s. The Fredonia commitment was the largest made by any community competing for one of the four schools. For a small community of 2500 people, this commitment was very significant. The $100,000 would be needed to acquire the land and construct the building. The Fredonia Academy donated its furnishings.

This project was the most ambitious project in the history of the Village of Fredonia.

In 1867 this sum of $100,000 amounted to 10% of the total assessed value of the Village. To put this in perspective, in today’s figures 10% of the Village’s taxable assessed value would equate to a commitment of $8.3 million (10% of $83 million current Village taxable assessed value).

Although there is no direct evidence, certainly Governor Fenton, a former student at the Fredonia Academy and a resident of Chautauqua County, must have had much influence in the selection of Fredonia as one of the sites for a State Teachers School. In addition, in 1867 the New York State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Hon. Victor M. Rice, was a resident of Chautauqua County.

Thus, the stars were aligned perfectly for Fredonia to be selected as the site for one of the four State schools. With a substantial financial commitment from the taxpayers of the Village to construct the school facility and, most likely, with the recommendations of Governor Fenton and Superintendent of Public Instruction, Victor M. Rice, Fredonia was in an excellent position for selection for a state normal school.

On August 8, 1867, after reviewing the 12 proposals, the State of New York selected the Village of Fredonia as the site for one of its four Normal and Teachers Training Schools. The citizens of the Village of Fredonia through their persistence, diligence, and sacrifice, finally prevailed. A State college would be established in Fredonia.

The site of the new school would be where One Temple Square housing facility is now located at the intersection of Temple Street and Central Avenue. It would be commonly known as “Old Main” or “The Normal School.” In the early 1800s, academies and schools were controlled locally and each had its own standards and curriculum.

With the advent of state normal schools under the jurisdiction of the State of New York, minimum standards were required to be adopted by such teacher training schools. These new Teachers Training Schools were uniform or “normal schools” under the jurisdiction of the New York State Superintendent of Public Instruction, now the New York State Department of Education.

According to the Centennial History of Chautauqua County, the cornerstone of “Old Main” was laid August 8, 1868 “with imposing civic and Masonic ceremonies.” “From 10,000 to 15,000 people were present, and it was an occasion long to be remembered.”

On November 23, 1868, Mayor Thomas Higgins, under the unanimous authorization of the Board of Trustees of the Village, signed the deed conveying the newly constructed facility to the State of New York with the promise by the State to operate a State Normal and Teachers Training School.

In the next 20 years, the Village’s bonded indebtedness of $100,000 to construct the State Normal School was faithfully paid in full by the Village taxpayers with interest at 7 percent.

Lewis McKinstry, first Secretary to the Normal School Board, in his speech at the College’s Quarter-Centennial celebration said, “not a taxpayer flinched” and “that record established the financial credit of the Village.”

Village insists on state school

Although the Village of Fredonia had secured in 1867 a State Normal and Teachers Training School for Fredonia, a final issue remained unresolved between the State of New York and the Village. This issue became contentious with legal complexities. The Village insisted on an academic department in the proposed new Normal and Teachers Training School, which could not be legally taken away. Both the Fredonia Village Board and the Fredonia Academy insisted that this be a condition of the conveyance of the school building from the Village to the State. The academic department of the Fredonia Normal and Training School for Teachers started after the Normal School opened in 1868.

Why did the Village Board insist that an academic department in the proposed Fredonia State Training school be maintained by the State?

The consensus in 1866 in the Village when first entertaining the question of whether the Village should move forward in securing a State Normal School Fredonia was that an academic department should be part of the new school. The March 27, 1878 issue of the Fredonia Censor quotes Fredonia Village Trustee Oscar W. Johnson as stating: “At this time (1866) Fredonia had an academy which had been in existence for about 45 years. In that time it had aided in educating more than 11,000 students. It was interwoven with the whole history and social life of the village, and with all its hopes for the future.

“As soon as the matter of proposing to compete for the location of one of the normal schools was agitated, it was found that the sentiment was almost universal not to do so, unless we could have an Academic Department to be sustained perpetually by the State in connection with the Normal School. At a public meeting to take the matter into consideration it was unanimously resolved to comply with any reasonable terms the State might propose as to lands and the erection of buildings and furnishing of books and apparatus, but upon condition that an Academic Department for the education of those who did not choose to prepare for teaching, or could not be admitted into the Normal Department, should be provided.

“A petition to the corporate authorities of the Village, signed by almost 9/10ths of the taxpayers, was presented, asking them to compete for the location of one of the Normal Schools, if they could have an Academic Department to do substantially the work that had been done for this community by the Academy, almost from the time when the community was organized in the wilderness.”

It was important to the Village and the Fredonia Academy that the liberal education of various academic subjects that was taught by the Fredonia Academy not be lost to a State Normal and Teachers Training School. The Village Board and Fredonia Academy insisted that the academic departments should continue as part of the new proposed State Normal School. An agreement to this effect was signed between the Village Board of Trustees and the Trustees of the Fredonia Academy on May 30, 1867. The State, however, was not a party to this agreement, but later became aware of its significance.

This 1867 agreement between the Village and the Academy required that the Village repair the old Fredonia Academy building “so that it could be used by the State of New York for the purpose of a Normal and Teachers Training school with an academic department and that it will cause such school to be opened in it by the first day of September next (1868) with such academic department for the benefit of students residing in the Village and vicinity and others who may wish to attend the same where all the usual academic branches shall be taught as heretofore in this Fredonia Academy institution while said building shall be used temporarily by the State during the completion of the Normal School building and further that there shall be such an academic department as aforesaid kept in the Normal School building when completed.”

Thus, both the Village of Fredonia and the Fredonia Academy were determined to keep a general education continued in the new State school, not limited to a teacher’s training school. However, it would cost the State money to add the academic department.

The problem that now confronted the Village was that the legal obligation of the State to maintain and continue an academic department in the new State Teachers training school was not spelled out in the 1866 State legislation authorizing the four Normal schools. This legislation only authorized the State “to receive proposals in writing in regard to the establishment of normal and training schools for the education and discipline of teachers for the common schools of this State.” The State argued with the Village that the State had no legal obligation to have any academic department in the proposed Fredonia Normal School.

The Village countered the State’s argument with a later law by asserting that Chapter 223 of the Laws of 1867 of the State of New York enacted March 30, 1867 gave authority to the Village not only to borrow up to $100,000 to construct the Normal School, but also specific language authorizing an academic department.

Section 1 of Chapter 223 of the Laws of 1867 stated that the money borrowed by the Village was to be used “for erecting a new normal and teacher’s training school, with departments for academic, experimental and practicing schools…” This later legislation greatly strengthened the Village’s position that an academic department should be maintained by the State in the proposed new Normal and Teachers Training School.

Perhaps the State was not fully aware of the inclusion and effect of the word “academic” departments in the 1867 legislation as the main purpose of the 1867 law was for authority for Fredonia to borrow money. Nevertheless, this later law included the words “academic departments” and these words were important and persuasive in the Village’s argument to maintain an academic department in the new Normal School for the benefit of the general education of the community.

Basically, the academic department at Old Main was expected to take the place of the old Fredonia Academy. As stated by Trustee Oscar W. Johnson in 1878, the Fredonia Academy surrendered to the State “all its means of usefulness and its very existence and the State was expected “to give academic and classical education to such of the scholars of the village as did not design to become professional teachers.” The State of New York had accepted the building, the library of about 4,000 books and apparatus and other property of the Fredonia Academy to its use for more than 10 years. The Village and Academy had performed their part of the contract.

The Village Board was concerned that an academic department might not be established in the new State Normal school. To avoid this result, the Village Board included in the proposed deed drafted by the Village in 1868 a condition or agreement that the State maintain an academic department for general education for the people in the Fredonia area as was done by the old Fredonia Academy, or failing to do so, the property would revert to the Village. However, in a letter to the Village from the State Comptroller and Governor Fenton, it was stated, “I have no doubt that the State will act in good faith, but the state has no right to accept a deed subject to any conditions. The Village must rest on the faith of the State and the educational policy inaugurated.”

I believe that the Village Board became concerned that insistence on including the condition for an academic department in the deed might cause the loss of a State School for Fredonia. The Village already had on its side the 1867 law authorizing use of the money for academic departments. Likely believing they had achieved as much as possible in terms of securing an academic department and with assurances from the State, the Village Board decided that this restriction would be omitted in the 1868 deed from the Village to the State.

Although the deed restriction committing the State to maintain an academic department was omitted in 1868, Fredonia Mayor T.L. Higgins and the Village Board continued to insist on an academic department in addition to the teacher’s training school. That was the agreement between the Village and the Fredonia Academy, thought to be understood and agreed upon by the State and which was supported in Chapter 223 of the Laws of 1867 authorizing the Village to borrow the $100,000. The Village refused to relent. It continued on insisting for the inclusion and continuance of an academic department in the new Normal School.

After moving into the Old Main building in 1868, the State continued the academic department in the Normal school as the Village insisted. However, about 10 years later in 1878, the Village became concerned about the continuance of the academic department by the State. It came to the attention of the Village Mayor and Board that the academic department would be discontinued by the State due to costs and questions concerning the need for an academic department.

Village Trustee Oscar W. Johnson in 1878, in recalling the events taking place at that time (1867-1868) stated the following: “The Village upon suggestions from the State Commission waived the expression of rights (the deed condition for an academic department) it would have insisted upon with an ordinary party, and left it to the honor and good faith of the State to give them the benefit of all previous understandings, and of a liberal and equitable construction of the statutes under which they have acted.”

The Village then forcefully petitioned the State to continue to honor the commitment it believed it had secured from the State in 1868 for an academic department in the new Normal School.

Again summoned to serve his Village, Fredonia Trustee and attorney, Oscar W. Johnson, on behalf of the Village Mayor Higgins and Village Board, petitioned the State Legislature to have an academic department maintained in the State Normal School in addition to a teachers training school. As I mentioned previously, Trustee Johnson was known to be an outstanding public speaker. He brought to the State’s attention that the Village had pledged considerable money for the State School. He stated most eloquently and persuasively to the State in 1878 the following: “The offer to raise the $100,000 was from the Village alone, “…there were no tenders or hopes of aid from the county as competing localities had.” We (citizens of Fredonia) cannot believe that while the State is enjoying for general purposes of education the costly structure this locality has conveyed to it, that this locality is to be arbitrarily deprived of an academic education. … This request is insignificant to the State, but of vital importance to the Village … The State of New York in dealing with a humble community like ours can afford to be generous; it cannot afford to be unjust.”

Legal arguments ensued between the State and the Village regarding the obligation of the State to provide an academic department in the new State Normal School as was provided by the Fredonia Academy to the Village and surrounding area.

Trustee Oscar W. Johnson continued to forcefully defend the Village’s position for an academic department declaring the following: “It is submitted to the State that sustaining an academic department in the Fredonia Normal School is not onerous to the State. What we citizens of the Village claim is that aside from all the understandings, which create equities in our favor, we have unquestioned legal rights. We say that as against us no force or technical or narrow construction should be resorted to by the Representatives of a great State, to whose honor and good faith we have confided so much.”

With such eloquent and persuasive arguments made by Trustee Oscar W. Johnson on behalf of the Village in 1878, the State conceded to the Village’s request and an academic department was then continued by the State in the Fredonia Normal and Teachers Training School. The State Normal School became not only a teachers training school, but also a school with academic departments for the general education of students from Fredonia and the vicinity. The State Normal School thus was more that a teachers training school due largely to the insistence of the Village.

On May 31, 1867, the Fredonia Academy agreed to sell its old Academy building to the Village. The new State Normal school construction was completed in 1868 and the Fredonia Academy building was subsequently demolished to make way for the construction of the present day Village Hall in 1890 which sits on the site of the old Fredonia Academy.

Reversionary rights

Surprisingly, almost 100 years later in 1969, reversionary ownership issues surfaced regarding the Old Main building and deed restrictions and rights of the Village to claim ownership of the Old Main building if the State closed the Old Main building. As I mentioned, the Old Main building is now the One Temple Square apartment building located at the intersection of Temple Street and Central Avenue.

In 1969, the State informed the Village it planned to close Old Main, discontinue the school and sell the building. Was the Village entitled to ownership of the building under the reversionary clauses contained in the Village Board resolutions adopted over 100 years ago in 1866 and 1868? The Mayor and Village Board of Trustees became very concerned about the future of Old Main.

As mentioned above, the State in 1868 required that the deed from the Village to the State be free of any restrictions, despite objection from the Village which wanted restrictions in the deed to protect the Village’s investment and for the benefit of the Village.

Although no specific deed restriction was included by the Village in the deed, the Village still had strings attached to the ownership of the Old Main Building. The 1868 deed to the State recited that it was signed “in pursuance to a resolution of the Board of Trustees of the Village of Fredonia.” This Village resolution was adopted on August 31, 1868 stated the following: “such deed to contain a condition that when said property shall cease to be used for the purposes of a Normal and Training School as provided by law, that the same shall revert to this village.”

The State probably did not review this resolution regarding the reverter of the building before accepting the deed.

The above 1868 restriction was similar and consistent with the Village Board resolution adopted on December 26, 1866 in its proposal to the State for one of the four normal schools and which proposal was accepted by the State.

The December 26, 1866 Village Board resolution mentioned above offered to convey a five acre site and school to the State for the purposes of a State Normal and Teachers Training school “to be granted and belong to the State for the purposes aforesaid as long as the State shall continue said Normal School or Training school.” It would be reasonable to assume the State had a copy of this resolution as it was essential to the Village’s proposal for a site for a new State school. But this was in 1866 and there were no telephones or fax machines, and mail was slow and probably somewhat unreliable.

After learning in 1969 of the State’s intent to close Old Main, the Village asserted that the 1866 and 1868 Village resolutions gave reversionary rights to the Village, entitling the Village to claim ownership of the Old Main building if it would ever be closed.

The State Attorney General’s Office opined to the Village in 1969 that “it would appear that it was the intent of the above resolutions of the Village Trustees in 1866 and 1868 “that the deed contain such a condition and that title be granted to the State on conditional limitation with a possibility of reverter.” The Attorney General did not make a final decision regarding the legality or effect of the reverter clauses as the building was still being used by the State and no reversion had yet taken place.

Much public discussion was held during the next 4 or 5 years on this matter of whether the Village should try to claim ownership of Old Main from the State. If the Village was successful, what would the Village do with this very large building?

The Village Board of Trustees finally decided by resolution on October 4, 1974 to release its reversionary claim to the Old Main building. Reasons given at the public meetings prior to that date included the cost of maintaining the building, too large for Village use, having it placed on the tax rolls for apartments, etc. The building was then auctioned off by the State of New York. The Old Main building, now One Temple Square, is now on the tax rolls of the Village as a HUD subsidized apartment building.

Tragically, the original 1868 Old Main building was destroyed by fire on December 14, 1900. Six young lady students and the custodian perished in the fire. They are all buried in Fredonia at the Forest Hill Cemetery in a common grave well marked by a large monument with the names of the deceased inscribed on the monument. It is located on the northerly side of the main driveway of the Cemetery. I believe this must have been the largest tragedy in the history of the Village.

After the 1900 fire there was some concern that the State might abandon the college. However, the State of New York, with $80,000 in insurance money and its own resources, continued its obligation to the Village and rebuilt the “Old Main” building on the same site and which is the present One Temple Square housing facility. The Great Seal of the State of New York is engraved at the front top of this impressive building.

In 2017 the State College will have been in Fredonia for 150 years, having first opened in the Old Fredonia Academy building in December of 1867 as a Normal and Teachers Training School under the jurisdiction of the State of New York. It was not until 1868 that the Old Main building was completed by the Village and the State school moved into the new building. The college celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1967 and an article was written in the OBSERVER on September 12, 1967 regarding the 100th anniversary.

Conclusion

As most eloquently stated by Fredonia Trustee, Oscar W. Johnson, on the occasion of the dedication of the “Old Main Normal School” in 1868:

“Great recognition and tribute must be given to the enterprising citizens in the year of 1866 who by their liberality, courage and public spirit secured the location of a State Normal School in Fredonia; and in our joy let us not forget to revere the noble pioneers of 1826 who founded the Fredonia Academy; who manifested that great New England trait of counting no sacrifice too great to make in the cause of education, who determined that regardless of their poverty, of the hard labor and self denial and even deprivation that might be required, they would rather raise their children to a condition better than their own.”

This most important part of Fredonia’s history should not be forgotten. Village residents have good reason to be proud of the State College. It was their forefathers, residents and officials of this Village, who 148 years ago through their farsightedness, hard work, persistence and financial commitment were the moving force in bringing a State College to the Village of Fredonia. We owe much gratitude and honor to these forefathers and citizens of the Village.

Note: used in writing this article were the Official minutes of the Village of Fredonia Board of Trustees meetings, minutes of the Fredonia Academy, Ph.D thesis by John F. Ohls, The Fredonia Censor and resources at Fredonia’s Darwin R. Barker Library.

Sam Drayo, Jr. is a graduate of the Fredonia Normal School.