A spirit of education coursed through American life. Ideals of an articulate electorate who could read, write, and think suggested the need to nurture young minds to fit them for responsibilities of citizenship. To read the Bible, explore the meaning of scriptures, and bring succeeding generations to the faith required schooling. To cipher and calculate profit and loss, enter business agreements, and engage in commerce demanded other skills. By the 1800s, people realized that education was basic to their way of life. It became of national importance to develop an educated citizenry.
Oregon’s efforts began modestly. In 1848, Henry Spalding, a Presbyterian missionary who had fled the Nez Perce Indians during the Cayuse War the previous year, opened a private school in a log cabin near Brownsville in the mid-Willamette Valley. Others organized subscription schools where parents paid a teacher to work with students for a few months. Linn County and Albany, its seat of government, mirrored this development. Between 1852, when the public school movement commenced, and 1854, when limited tax funding became more certain, residents developed twenty-four school districts. Three years later the school boards adopted a course of study: Webster’s Speller, Davies’ Arithmetic, Olney’s Geography, Kirkham’s Grammar, and the Student’s Reader.
Across western Oregon, however, church leaders aspired for schools with greater rigor, advanced studies, and preparation of lay and clerical leaders for the ministry. Rev. Edward R. Geary, a Presbyterian minister who came with his wife by sea in 1851, knew the value of such education. He had attended Jefferson College and Western Theological Seminary; his wife was a graduate of Mount Holyoke Seminary. Geary and others secured a charter from the territorial legislature in 1854 for Union Point Academy. He served as its first president, but when he became Superintendent of Indian Affairs, the school languished; it closed in 1859.
Residents of Albany continued to hope for a Presbyterian school. In 1866 they planned a strategy to draw on the assets of the defunct Union Point Academy and the Monteith brothers’ offer of a school site. They launched fund-raising efforts to secure cash and promises for $8,000. On that foundation they built a two-story wood-frame building to house the Albany Collegiate Institute. On February 2, 1867, they secured a charter from the state legislature and in October were ready to offer courses “with the view of increasing knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences for the development of character under moral and religious influences.”
Albany’s “college” possessed no specific distinction. Methodists launched Willamette University in Salem; Congregationalists supported Pacific University in Forest Grove; Baptists had McMinnville College in McMinnville; and the Church of the Brethren founded Philomath College in Benton County. Other church-related schools either preceded or followed the venture in Albany. Nearby was the Methodists’ Santiam Academy in Lebanon and the Cumberland Presbyterians’ Mineral Springs College at Sodaville—both Linn County schools vying for students and Christian benevolence with Albany Collegiate Institute. In fact, residents of Albany erected a public school in 1855, expanded it to four rooms in 1880, and by 1889-90 rebuilt it as Central School with ten rooms and 364 students. To survive, Albany Collegiate Institute had to offer something special, secure endowments, draw strong administrators and teachers, and find stability The institution struggled with each.
Rev. William Monteith, brother of Albany’s developers, was appointed the first president. His tenure of one year set a pattern in administration. In 1867 forty students enrolled. Most were in the “graded” and “preparatory” divisions, for the school took students from elementary grades through college. Beyond the new building, the greatest asset was books from the Albany Library and Literary Institute which turned over its property to the College. Sigma Phi, the men’s literary society, served as custodian of the library.
The school’s commitment to maintain “wholesome restraints” on the students and to provide equality of experience for men and women and boys and girls worked to Albany’s advantage. “The daily association of young ladies and gentlemen, in the presence of their teachers, exerts a most salutary effect upon the manners of both,” said the administration. This coeducational setting tended “powerfully to render the young men courteous, self-respectful, refined and manly, and the young women modest, decorous, graceful and womanly.” The promise of compliant, submissive, well-behaved children persuaded parents in 1869-70 to enroll eighty-six students.
The curriculum focused on the classics and traditional courses. After assuring prospective students in 1878 that the College hall’s “ventilation is ample for health and comfort,” the catalog laid out four terms of work from September to June. The catalog was mute about the primary department which enrolled most of the students. In the first year of “preparatory” study, students received instruction in grammar, arithmetic, composition, astronomy, U.S. history, and Latin. The second year continued Latin, with special work on the writings of Julius Caesar, introductory Greek, algebra, geography, and natural philosophy. “Advanced branches cannot in any case be pursued until those which are preparatory have been mastered,” warned the catalog. Fees ran from five dollars in the primary division to twelve dollars per term for collegiate students. There were extra fees for music, drawing, painting, French, and German.
“Energy and Thorough Work is the Motto of Our School” asserted professors and trustees. The offerings by 1878-79 confirmed that purpose. Freshmen studied American history, algebra, physiology, Virgil, Cicero, and Homer. Sophomores coped with Herodotus, Horace, Tacitus, trigonometry, geology, zoology, and “Memorabilia.” Third-year students read Livy; and studied botany, mechanics, French or German grammar, “American Geometry,” and calculus. Seniors took mathematical astronomy, psychology, political economy, and moral science and read Racine or Goethe.
Students pursuing the scientific degree were permitted to skip Greek and reduce their work in Latin. Those in the classical track had to take prescribed courses in Greek and Latin. Students seeking a “normal” education to become teachers earned a certificate for completion of a two-year program but did not receive degrees. The only deviation of programs among the genders was that “young ladies will be allowed to substitute other branches for the higher mathematics.” Those “other branches” were modern languages.
In the 1880s the College prescribed its programs for advanced students with more precision. Those in the “classical” course faced Xenophon’s Anabasis, Homer’s Iliad, “except the catalogue of the ships,” and thirty exercises in Greek composition. Students in the “scientific” course coped with Sallust’s Jugurtha, Virgil’s Aeneid, Cicero’s Orations, surveying, navigation, “Conic Sections,” calculus, and “Evidences of Natural and Revealed Religion.” The College imposed written midterm and final exams throughout the four terms in all branches of study. The elementary program consisted of four grades. Entering students had to sight-read from the Second Reader and recite the multiplication tables through six-times.
The substantial curriculum belied the instability of the institution. Part of the problem lay in the agreement reached in 1868. The Board of Trustees turned over the College to the president, who received tuition, determined salaries, paid bills, and ran the school. The board maintained the Presbyterian connection, addressed the institution’s moral tone and character, but kept its distance. Some presidents proved good managers; others got into difficulty: faculty rebellions, student discipline, and perennial deficits. The Albany location—though served by steamboats and, after 1872, by the Oregon & California Railroad—failed to draw students from other areas. Competition also hurt, for the state established the University of Oregon in 1876 in Eugene and in 1886 took over a struggling Methodist college in nearby Corvallis as a land-grant university. These competitors and their proximity checked the growth and threatened the stability of the Albany Collegiate Institute.
Part of the problem also lay in its strict rules. Young people in the late nineteenth century wanted to dance, roller skate, swim, and ride bicycles. The College, however, focused on the obligatory “literary societies” and religious services under faculty control. The Erodelphians for women and the Albany College Literary Society (ACLS) for men offered “drill of select speaking, essay writing, debate, criticism, extemporare speaking, and the forms of parliamentary usage” for all over age fourteen. Unlike state schools, all pupils at Albany had to have a Bible, song book, dictionary, and— by 1885—Monteith’s Comprehensive Geography. They attended daily chapel but on Sundays might worship at the church of their choice. Some enrolled because of these offerings; others went elsewhere.
The inability of the collegiate division to attract more than a hundred students for the institution's first fifty-five years was thus a result of several factors. While Albany college recruited talented and well-trained faculty, including a number from Princeton and other Presbyterian-related schools, it struggled. The 1987 catalog spoke of the strong curriculum but lamented that the “gymnasium is only a temporary one annexed to the building.” It described the cupola atop the College and its view, but observed: “the College has no apparatus for practical work in astronomy.” It described the library’s “embryonic state” and the institution’s eagerness to receive “any curiosities and specimen for its mineralogical cabinet, a collection borrowed from a resident of Portland. The required course in physiology it noted, had been “materially assisted” by Dr. G. W Maston, who had loaned his microscope to the College.
The College espoused high standards but suffered from limited resources. Presidents and faculty came and went. At times closure seemed certain. Repeatedly, survival depended on the nurturing of the town’s residents and the sense of mission and pride of the presbytery in its only viable Oregon college. The College also had special friends, including Rev. Samuel Irvine of the Albany United Presbyterian Church and his children and grandchildren who attended the school, and William S. Ladd and Henry Corbett. In 1883 these two businessmen pledged a total of $10,000 for an endowment, provided it was triple matched within three years. In spite of concerted efforts which cost two presidents their jobs, the College was unable to secure the match.
The enrollment growth to nearly one hundred students in 1892 and the nearby ten-room Central School in Albany convinced school officials to enlarge the College building. The decision proved nearly fatal, for though it led to substantial two-story wings on the original structure, it saddled the school with a debt which coincided with the Panic of 1893. The only choice was a mortgage at 10 percent interest. William M. Ladd and Henry Corbett rescued the school in 1896 by paying the overdue interest to get the College out of court. In 1900 the combined energies of President Wallace Howe Lee, Dr. Edgar Hill of the First Presbyterian Church in Portland, and residents of Albany finally freed the College of debt.
For the next thirty years Albany College tried to strengthen its curriculum, faculty, and finances. It brought its offerings into line with state guidelines, especially in teacher preparation courses. Under Presidents Lee and Crooks it gained administrative stability: each served a decade. The enrollment mirrored College division progress: nineteen students in 1895, thirty-four in 1904, and more than one hundred in 1925. In 1901 Lee purchased the Orphan’s Home building and moved it to campus to become Tremont Hall, a women’s dormitory. In 1905 the trustees officially adopted the name Albany College, assumed fiscal responsibility for the institution and negotiations with faculty, transferred ownership to the Synod of Oregon, and established the bachelor of arts degree.
These changes and a shift from the nineteenth-century classical curriculum were long overdue. Albany College faced competition from the rapid proliferation of public high schools as well as the growth of state institutions with far greater resources. The trustees authorized a capital campaign in 1906. It lurched forward, stopped, succeeded in Albany, failed in Portland, then took on new life when East Coast donors responded to President Crooks and reached toward $100,000. In 1911 James Hill, railroad magnate and owner of the Oregon Electric, which passed through Albany, pledged $50,000 toward an endowment of $250,000. These developments drew capital both from Portland donors and statewide.
Looking to the future, the College in 1913 acquired forty-six acres on the edge of town for a new campus. This provoked Monteith heirs to file suit to regain the original campus. They lost in the Oregon Supreme Court. The expansion of the library to more than five thousand volumes and hopes for a better future led in 1915 to an accrediting visit by the U.S. Bureau of Education. Its endorsement and recommendations sealed the fate of the preparatory division and led to efforts to shorten teacher contact hours and improve resources. In 1916 the College announced that the Hill gift, fully matched, had helped create an endowment of $250,000, yet the funds seemed beyond reach. Hill created a complex formula For endowment management. The new funds held out the prospect of better times but did not help meet day-to-day expenses.
In 1916 Pacific University in Forest Grove launched an ambitious merger idea which captured the interest and commitment of many trustees except those from Linn County. Tension gripped the board, enrollment skidded—especially as young men enlisted to serve in World War I—the presbytery struggled with what to do, and Hill’s endowment formula worked inexorably on. The turn of events at Albany seemed to echo in the lines of “Gerontion” by T S. Eliot:
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridor
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving.
In 1920 Rev. A. M. Williams, a graduate of 1896 and the new College president, proposed a solution to the “supple confusions,” a situation grown more ominous by loss of accreditation. Albany College would embrace Self-Help. All students would work, the presbytery would assume greater control, and construction would begin on three buildings on the new “Monteith Campus” on the edge of town. Dr. Clarence Wilson Greene, who became president in 1923, embraced the idea, envisioning twenty acres for buildings, fifteen acres for “self-help industries,” and the remaining property devoted to a college farm and dairy. The bequest of Caroline Kamm of Portland enabled the College to erect William H. Gray Hall in 1925. The next year the College moved Tremont Hall to the new campus, refaced it with brick, and named it Woodward Hall.
By 1929 the College realized the Self-Help formula was more burden than bounty. In spite of all efforts neither community nor College found industrial jobs for students. The College abandoned Self-Help and again sought national support. A bequest of $100,000 by Eric Hauser in 1930 seemed to herald better times and enabled the College to erect Hauser Gymnasium, which seated six hundred. In 1931 Albany College secured accreditation by the Northwest Association of Secondary and Higher Schools, gained membership in the Association of American Colleges, and obtained tentative admittance to the Pacific Northwest Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Each step forward, however, seemed checked by looming fiscal disaster and the Great Depression.
Albany College was not alone in the dire times of the 1930s. Individuals, families, businesses, local governments all teetered on the edge. The benevolence of Albany residents, the Presbyterian church, support of trustees, and labors of the Women’s Albany College League contributed to survival. The faculty took notes, accepted pay cuts of up to forty percent, or even endured no salary at all. Alice Graham, College librarian, continued her duties solely for a room in the dormitory and meals in the student commons.
C. W. Platt, a Portland attorney, accountant, and trustee, sensed by 1932 that financial affairs were out of control. Platt drew in new trustees, renegotiated the mortgage, and staved off foreclosure by bondholders. During the 1933-34 school year a few faculty and trustees realized that in more than seventy years the College had grown but little, yet in Portland resided a large population. A few Presbyterian leaders agreed. Over the opposition of the president of the Board of Trustees, some Albany trustees, and several faculty members, the board decided on June 5, 1934, to offer courses in Portland for fall term. Four years later the last class graduated from the Albany campus. A new future beckoned but its course lay many miles north of where the Monteith brothers south their fortunes.