Our school system is Austinishing

Published 7:01 am Saturday, February 22, 2020

In my hand I am holding a very old, heavily sepia-toned article from a vintage Austin Daily Herald. I don’t know what year it was published, but the paper feels as fragile as a cobweb. At the top there is a faded photo of a stately building. The caption under it says, “Our rates of tuition and boarding are as low as is possible while still providing first class service.”

This statement, the article goes on to say, came from the 1911-1912 Southern Minnesota Normal College catalog. Upon reading these words, I sensed a slightly apologetic tone, while at the same time understanding that the statement was defending the school’s honor. But still, it begs the question of what the rates were? And what was this school all about? And where was it? And why haven’t I ever heard of it?

Does it seem to you that “Normal” College is a strange name for a school? Just what is “normal” anyway? Did it mean that if you were above or below average you couldn’t attend? That only those students in the middle range could? And who decided where a student’s normalcy numbers landed on the school’s rating chart? Surely the school board did not ask the mothers about their children’s abilities. For if they had, there would have been no enrollment at all … every mother considering her child a genius and all.

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Imagine the embarrassment of having the entire city of Austin knowing you were one of the school rejects because there you’d be in plain sight hanging out on street corners during daylight hours. And didn’t you just know that everyone, EVERYONE! had to be guessing at whether you were either above or below? I suppose the “aboves” would have gloated, while the “belows” descended deeper into their belowness. In the meantime, both groups would be missing out on an education while all they wanted in the world was simply to be average.

In the beginning, in 1897, the yearly tuition for Southern Minnesota Normal College was …. hold onto your hats …. $1. Room and board was $2 per week. And they had to apologize for that? Makes you weak in the knees, doesn’t it? Even more surprising is that those prices held for the next 14 years.

Initially there was no school building. The college was temporarily housed in the Feeck House, a hotel just south of the Mower County Courthouse. On opening day there were eight professors and 35 students (all undoubtedly “normal”). Curriculum included business courses, teacher training, law and advanced fine arts. By the next semester, 160 students had matriculated, quadrupling the first enrollment.

Austin was then a city of 5,000 residents, all eager to have a college in their town. Plans were drawn up to build a main building that would accommodate 750 students (see the attached photo). One might suppose that, Austin being such a young city, it did not yet have any citizens noteworthy enough to have their names bestowed upon the buildings. I say this because, let’s face it, check out the unimaginative names: the men’s dormitory was designated as “South Hall” and the women’s dormitory was “North Hall.” And guess what the dining hall and the music hall were named? You got it! Dining Hall and Music Hall.

It is interesting to note that way back 123 years ago, Austin recognized that music was necessary to one’s education. Just think how proud those early planners would be to see how Austin has progressively continued to keep this tradition alive. Who would have ever imagined that our prestigious MacPhail School of Music would one day result from such humble beginnings?

The school year was divided into five 10-week terms. Students could enroll at any time. This schedule was a great benefit to the many hopeful collegians who lived on farms and were unable to attend during certain terms. I guess in the end, the college board decided to take all levels of intellect because the article states that the backward students (the “belows”) were given personal attention until they were able to catch up to the “normals.”

Ranking second behind the State University, SMNC had the next largest enrollment in Minnesota. By 1913, there was a student population of 1,000 with students coming from Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota. With this large matriculation, the stenographic and engineering departments were enlarged, and the curriculum was expanded to include advanced courses in math, science, modern languages, history, art, commerce and penmanship.

Wait! Did I just say “penmanship?” In college? Wow! Those teachers could never have anticipated that one day penmanship would no longer be considered important. That it wouldn’t even be taught in grammar school! Does this mean we have evolved or devolved?

As time passed and SMNC progressed into a genuinely quality establishment, its name was changed to the University of Southern Minnesota. “Normal” was tossed out the window.

Does the name “Christgau” sound familiar to you? Arthur Christgau was not only a resident of Austin, but he was also a graduate of USM.

“As one of the students taking engineering at the time,” he explained, “I helped build the new engineering building.” It was across the street from Galloway Park. Later this building was used as a bus garage.

During the 1920s, enrollment in USM began to drop. Why? Because of the growth in auto ownership, which made it possible for students to attend larger and more distant colleges. Also, USM did not have subsidies or grants from industries nor, interestingly, from churches. Eventually the college closed in 1926.

Over the years, most of the buildings were demolished, although there remained some remnants of the former school. North Hall, which was a half a block away from Galloway Park, was remodeled into several apartments. Also, there were trees. Many had been planted on the college campus and they remained as shady areas in the park. Not least of all, the sidewalk that once led up to the main building, became a walkway that winded its way to the kiddie slides, swings and teeter-totters.

My father graduated from Austin High in 1928, two years after USM closed. In reading through his yearbook, I am astonished that back then our high school offered fully developed vocational classes. How incredibly advanced Austin’s educational system was! And how fortunate were those trained students who, right out of high school, were already on their way to a career.

On Sept. 3, 1940, the Austin Junior College opened its doors.Located on the fourth floor of the high school, its beginning enrollment was 138 freshmen, with a faculty of five full-time and four part-time instructors. Eleven years later, in 1951, Austin blazed forward with the Austin Area Vocational Technical School. It was located across the street from Austin High, now our eagerly anticipated MacPhail School of Music.

The Vo-Tech School was designed to be a part of our high school system. But, by 1961, it provided additional post high school training to an enrollment of 250 students in carpentry, farm equipment mechanics, welding, tool and die machinery, automotive mechanics, auto body rebuilding, industrial electronics, practical nursing and cosmetology.

Honestly, now! What an amazing thing is our Austin school system! What an amazing place is our town! Truly Austinishing!