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The Morrill of the story

The Morrill of the story

The origins of the University can be traced to a tiny village in Vermont and the extraordinary man who lived there - in a house he painted pink.

There once was a man who lived in a pink cottage on his medium-sized estate. He had it built as a home for his retirement - at age 38 - and lived there with his wife, son and a dog, Trump. The gentleman farmer planned to kick back, read and collect his precious books, and tend to his gardens and greenhouse, paying special attention to his experiments with trees and flowers from Europe and Asia.

But politics and Washington came calling, and so much for retirement: Off he went for a 43-year career in Congress. There his visionary work completely and permanently altered the scope of education in the United States by creating hundreds of colleges and universities - including the university that calls Fargo home.

The man, Justin Smith Morrill, today is known as the Father of Land-Grant Colleges.

As poet and fellow Vermonter Robert Frost once declared, there is "no greater name in American education." The Congressman and Senator pushed the Morrill Act of 1862 through Congress, granting 30,000 acres of federal lands to any accepting states, who in turn were charged with developing or selling the land to raise funds to establish and endow "land-grant" colleges. (Almost 30 years later a second Morrill Act expanded the original bill.) More than 22 million people have now graduated from the more than 100 land-grant schools that resulted from the acts.

Morrill's homestead still stands. It operates as a state historic site and National Historic Landmark in Strafford, Vermont, where visitors can tour the house, gardens and outbuildings. Morrill's more critical legacy is all those colleges and universities. His distinguished career found him working with 11 presidents, but it was his yearning for learning, his desire to broaden the reach of higher education and make it available to more than just the Eastern establishment of white privileged males, that led to his most lasting achievement.

All this from a guy who never even went to college. Born 200 years ago in Strafford, Morrill was one of four sons to a blacksmith father who couldn't afford to send all of them to school, so he sent none of them. Justin received only a "country education," as a 1980s PBS documentary calls it, but he was bright and motivated. Books, painting, agriculture - all became devoted interests. Instead of going to college, in 1828 Morrill moved to Portland, Maine, where he plunged into the life of a shopkeeper, thanks to a mentor (Judge Jedediah Harris, a prominent Strafford country store owner) who saw promise in the young man, in the busy stores of the thriving port city. "It was a wonderful experience in watching how people handled their money," says Coy Cross, a Morrill biographer. Morrill's astute business acumen impressed, and Harris made him a partner at 21.

Morrill accumulated enough wealth to return home, retire and set in motion his plans for the gothic revival cottage of his dreams. After it was built, a middling interest in politics grew as he was drawn to local debates, where he met up with some members of the local Whig party. When the party succeeded in convincing Morrill to run for Congress in 1854, he abandoned his retirement plans and went on to serve long runs in both the House (1855-67) and the Senate (1867-1898).

In the Capitol, Morrill became known for his thriftiness and practical nature. He even reused the red binding used to bind official documents (which led to the phrase "wrapped in red tape"). His experience as a merchant and shopkeeper made him one of Congress' most learned financial types - Harris had also taught his protege a fair bit about banking and investing - and no doubt today Morrill would be a leading voice in debates about the economy, Wall Street and stimulus packages. He was also a great champion of the underdog, in part because he represented one of the smallest states in the nation. He also carried that yen for education and learning. Morrill viewed education as the key to peace and prosperity. He wanted to make it accessible to the rural population as a more industrialized nation began to emerge in the wake of the Civil War.

In the middle of the 19th century the nation's rural population hadn't fully kept pace with the Industrial Revolution and its technological advances. Morrill championed their cause, and in doing so came up with a bill that not only enhanced their opportunities in farming, engineering and mechanics, but also helped the government resolve what to do with the land bonanza available in the form of the former Western Territories.

Morrill first proposed a National Agricultural School, an idea that failed. President James Buchanan later vetoed Morrill's land-grant idea in 1860; southern interests soured on any expansion of the federal government. Morrill resubmitted the bill two years later, and President Abraham Lincoln signed it into law. The purpose was straightforward: To open up education to rural populations and the middle class, and to focus on the teaching of agriculture, science and engineering.

Iowa State Agricultural College was the first existing school to accept the provisions of the Morrill Act, in September 1862. The first institution created out of the bill was Kansas State University, chartered in February of 1863. Yale and other universities soon followed. By 1870, 37 states had accepted the deal.

Morrill's second bill passed in 1890, driven by the Senator's insistence that the former Confederate states eliminate race as a condition of college admission, or to otherwise designate a separate land-grant institution for blacks. Cash, not land, was granted to the states under this bill and led to the founding of North Dakota Agricultural College the same year. On October 15, Horace E. Stockbridge assumed the presidency, a board of trustees was formed, and six classrooms - rented from Fargo College - opened for business. Two years later came the completion of the College Hall, a home to offices, classrooms and a library for the four students then enrolled.

Morrill's bills were game changers (although a ridiculously unfair distribution of funds by many states led to a rough, long haul for many of the black schools). No longer would classical studies dominate the core of higher education studies. Some schools attached the letters "A & M," for "agriculture and mechanics," to their names. Soon land-grant colleges gave rise to a bevy of model farms, machine shops, and even home economics courses. Professors took on new specialties - one land-grant college employed a "Professor of Agriculture, Horticulture and Greek." Morrill's broader admissions policies opened up education opportunities not just for blacks, but also Native Americans and women, like never before. Today the land-grant universities, 16 of which are historically black institutions, and another 33 tribal colleges that became land-grant institutions in 1994, belong to the nation's oldest higher education association, the nonprofit Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.

Back in Vermont, the pink cottage stands sentinel on a shaded rise over the tiny village of about 1,000 residents. It's considered a fine example of Victorian gothic architecture and of an 1850s New England gentleman's farm.

The homestead is located about 15 minutes from the nearest interstate, making it a tough draw. But few who venture by can resist the draw of the unusually sharp-angled house on the hill. Rubbernecking makes the local 20 mph speed limit easily enforced. A low-key atmosphere pervades, from the small parking lot, minimal signage, and nothing at all that screams museum. Yet that's just what it is, an appropriate monument to the man whom a Harvard professor declared was "responsible for the democratization of education." The quiet, 17-room home looks pretty much as it always has. No ropes or security guards prevent visitors from getting close to the original 19th-century furnishings, including wall-to-wall carpeting, Morrill's poster bed, a magnificent stained-glass window from France, rare-for-their-time closets, and the recent acquisition of some dresses worn by Mrs. Morrill. Even the attic and its skylight beckon, not to mention the portrait of Trump that hangs in the music room.

A stroll outside offers fine views of the gothic windows and their canopies, as well as the opportunity to roam the six acres that are home to remains of the hothouse and gardens, as well as an array of barns that Morrill had built. (They're pink too, a common gothic revival color used to simulate freshly cut sandstone; the color here, to be precise, is a soft-gloss latex made by Benjamin Moore called "Ciao Bella.") A walking tour of the village takes visitors to the library next door and down the road past historic homes and buildings Morrill knew well to the home where he was born. Nearby stands the stately Strafford Townhouse, built in 1799, and the cemetery where Morrill and his family are buried. (He died in 1898.)

State budget cuts have limited visitation hours and thwarted additional restoration plans - particularly for the gardens. But local advocates do what they can. The Friends of Justin Morrill Homestead, a group of local volunteers, work to preserve the grounds, raise funds, and hold public events that include an annual 19th century AppleFest featuring period costumes and activities, garden tours, and lectures on a wide range of topics. Recently the Friends installed a new bridge to make the ice house more accessible. While many who stop at the homestead are drop-ins, a few of the site's annual few thousand visitors include hardcore Morrill devotees. For example, the Morrill Scholars - students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, another land-grant institution - make annual treks to the site.

The Friends publish an annual newsletter to spread the word and solicit donations. A recent edition featured Morrill descendent James Morrill, a Nebraska farmer who had attended and worked at three land-grant colleges; another reported how the Friends had received an anonymous letter along with a key to the house that had been stolen 40 years ago. "Sorry," admitted the remorseful thief. The stories reveal a place that is greatly revered yet charmingly quirky.

"Morrill's Land-Grant Act was revolutionary on a world scale, and his ideas are still alive, well and very relevant today," says Friends co-president Marie Ricketts. "It is important to remember and understand the role that the Land-Grant Acts played in the development of our country." Once again the pink house and the homestead will burst with activity before settling back to its norm: as stoic, stately - and unheralded - as Morrill himself.

Student Focused. Land Grant. Research University.