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When Dayton Came Close to Getting O.S.U.


This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News, October 15, 1933


When Dayton Came Close To Getting O. S. U.

By Howard Burba


     Did anyone ever tell you how near the state of Ohio came to locating the Ohio State University in Dayton?

     It’s a highly interesting story, and even though it has been a forgotten chapter in the state’s educational history for half a century, the romance connected with it has not dimmed.  In fact, now that Ohio State university is celebrating its 60th anniversary it takes on new luster with its retelling.

     Just how Dayton came to lose it when she had it in her fact, now that Ohio State University is celebrating its 60th anniversary- gone to the polls and approved a bond issue of $320,000 for the purchase of a site—an even larger amount than was tendered by the city of Columbus, successful bidder for the institution—is still a matter of speculation.  Blame for the loss of the university was generally placed at the time on the shoulders of the rural residents of Montgomery co.  And yet a tabulation of the votes taken on the question shows that every township in the country outside the city of Dayton rolled up a majority for the proposition.  But the rural resident was lukewarm on the proposition.

     To tell the story of how close Dayton came to getting Ohio State University necessitates going back to the second day of July, 1862, when President Lincoln approved an act of congress providing for land-grant colleges.  Under this act Ohio was to receive 30,000 acres of land for each of its 24 senators and representatives, or a total of 680,000 acres.  The land was sold for the sum of $340,000 to provide funds for the new college.  Immediately following the signing of the law Ohio communities launched vigorous campaigns to secure the new institution which, members of the state legislature announced, would be provided for in this state.

     As early as 1863 various cities of the state had put in their claim for recognition when the actual task of selecting a site was started.  It was to be known as an “agricultural college,” and that served to increase the desire of the rural residents in several counties for its location in their midst.  Champaign co. was among the first to file her claim, Urbana being the favored location of those residing in that county.  Then Springfield and Clark co. residents advance their claims, while from Hamilton co. was filed a proposition whereby the state could at little cost take over the buildings and equipment of the “Farmers’ college,” then in operation there, and convert it into a state educational institution.

     For two years, or until the year 1865, advocates of the various sites continued to advance their claims for recognition and to increase their financial offers.  In the meantime, so confident was the state legislature that the institution would be provided for, a commission was named to investigate the various offers, with instructions to lay before the solons at an early date a complete report of their findings.

     Two more years rolled by with nothing being accomplished, and then in 1867 a joint resolution was entered in the house of representatives authorizing preparation of a bill distributing the funds for the new college to three existing ones.  Under its provisions the money made available for an agricultural college was to be apportioned between Miami and Ohio universities and Western Reserve college.  A deluge of proposed amendments followed—one to include Oberlin college and another to include Mt. Union.

     A substitute resolution was then offered by which it was proposed to give the whole fund—estimated at the time at $400,000—to Kenyon college.  On the same day still another bill was presented, urging the use of the huge fund in establishing professorships in several existing institutions.  None of the proposals was adopted.

     Additional offers of liberal donations came later from the towns of Wooster and London.  In 1868 a legislative committee again considered the various proposals and submitted a majority report in favor of locating the institution in Urbana, and a minority report for Wooster.  But these reports also failed of adoption.

     The site controversy received much attention from the legislature in those years, but it was not until 1870 that the first actual steps toward a settlement of it was recorded.  Early in 1870 the legislature appointed a board of trustees, with instructions to “get busy” and end the argument of eight years duration.

     When it was apparent a settlement would soon be reached Dayton stepped forward with a proposal to turn over to the state the sum of $400,000 provided the same should be used for the purchase of a site within Montgomery co.  From that moment this city, with an offer exceeding those made by her competitors, appeared to have the inside track in the race.  And from that moment the proposition became the sole topic of conversation in this part of the state.

     Agitation was intense during the early part of 1870, but apparently showed an inclination to wane as the year dragged on.  In a Dayton paper of Sept. 7, of that year, we find the editor prodding the populace into greater activity.  He wrote:

     “We regret to see the farmers, mechanics, merchants and manufacturers of Dayton exhibit so little interest in securing the location of the agricultural college in Montgomery co.  It is a question in which they are all alike interested.  If the college were located here it would add at once from 500 to 1000 students to our population, every one of whom would expend on an average of from $500 to $800 per annum for their support, or say about $500,000 per year.  All of this would go into the pockets of our business men and of our farmers and merchants and would constitute a large item in our permanent resources of property.

     “In addition to this, the many advantages which it would afford to our people cannot be estimated in money, but we hope will be taken into consideration by all intelligent persons. The vote on the question of levying a tax for the purpose of securing the location will be taken next Saturday and we hope all the citizens of Dayton will wake up to the matter.  How would it do to hold a mass meeting of citizens, irrespective of party, to take the matter into consideration?”

     That he got early action on his suggestion is indicated when we find a little farther on announcement of a mass meeting in front of the courthouse in Dayton on Friday evening, Sept. 9.  Rousing speeches favoring the location of the agricultural college in Montgomery co. were delivered by the Hon. C. L. Vallandigham, Peter Odlin, John Howard, George Houck and E. T. Young.  “It was a spirited affair and largely attended,” declares the old newspaper report, “and frequent outbursts of applause fairly indicated the spirit and interest taken in the matter.  Those present heartily endorsed the utterances of the speakers.”

     On Tuesday of the following week still another meeting was held, this time inside the courthouse.  Details of this gathering are set forth by the pioneer newspaper reporter in the following language:

     “A respectable number of citizens and taxpayers of Dayton assembled at the courthouse last night to take into consideration the question of securing the agricultural college in Dayton.  The meeting having organized by the appointment of George W. Houck as chairman and Messrs. W. D. Bickham and John G. Doren, as secretaries, a general interchange of suggestions followed, which resulted in the adoption of the following resolution:

     “Resolved—That a committee of five be appointed as an executive committee to make such arrangements as may be them be deemed necessary and proper to obtain a full and favorable vote throughout the county upon the question of an agricultural college.”

     “The following gentlemen were appointed on the executive committee: George W. Houck, William Huffman, L. B. Gunckel, M. Ells and A. Pritz.  This executive committee held a meeting this morning and appointed the following ward committees, with instructions to cooperate in getting out a favorable vote:

     “First Ward—W. P. Callahan, John Weller, George Vonderheide, Henry Bruns, August Kuhns, Benjamin Owen, James Kelly, John W. Stoddard.

     “Second Ward—Christian Herchelrode, D. C. Spinning, Pat O’Connell, John Greer, John Sprigg.

     “Third Ward—Oscar Barringer, Adam Pritz, Elihu Thompson, Daniel Garst, John Shank.

     “Fourth Ward—Isaac Haas, J. B. Keller, William Arnold, John Clingman, James Applegate, John H. Gorman.

     “Fifth Ward—George Lehman, William Patton, John Rouzer, Ezra Thomas, L. Butz.

     “Sixth Ward—Henry Miller, William Winchell, Henry Guckes, Joe Hammond.

     “Seventh Ward—Nicholas Aull, George Neibert.

     “Eighth ward—Nathan Stevens, Joseph Schute, Lewis E. Sackstader, Lawrence Butz.

     “Ninth Ward—Jesse Demint, David G. Brown, Benjamin Kuhns, Dr. Kemp, John Mills.

     “Tenth ward-Jasper Billings, Joseph O. Arnold, A. Winegartner, H. Fichenser.

     “Eleventh Ward—George Aman, F. Baumheckel, James Browne, William Vaughn, William Huffman, jr., William Seely.”

     That the proposition was not without opposition is taken for granted, since human nature has not changed very materially within the past one hundred years. There were stumbling blocks in the way of progress then as now, people who would rather swing a hammer than blow a horn.  For proof of it we have but to turn to this communication in the old file, published on the day following the mass meeting at the courthouse:

     “Dear Editor—From present indications it seems likely the tax to secure the agricultural college will be voted by the people.  The money to be raised is not for the purpose of establishing a college, it is to be used for buying a site.

     “In order to test the propriety of the principle involved let us suppose that all claims made of advantages of the college be true.  Let us believe an increase of two or three thousand in the population of Dayton will perceptibly increase the price of wheat and corn, beef and tobacco; that the location of a college near Dayton will enhance the value of land at Germantown and Vandalia, Farmersville and Salem, and that the erection of a few costly structures will enable our contractors and mechanics to advance the price of labor and realize unwonted profit.  Are we ready to advocate a tax for any project that will promise these results?  A manufacturing establishment would do it much more effectively than a college, and new branches would doubtless be established here at one-half the proposed outlay for the college.  Or, if a college is the essential thing a hundred thousand dollars (less than one-third the proposed donation) if offered as a bonus would certainly secure a commercial college that would bring more students and more money than the agricultural.

     “But if it is to be a money-making affair (and this is the argument advanced) what matters the character of the institution?  If the people have a right to vote a donation from your property and mine to secure a college have they not an equal right to use the same means in any other case that will promise the pecuniary success of the investment?  A majority of the people may conceive, for instance, that a splendid race-course near the city would bring a great sum of money to the county, or that voting a handsome purse to the winning horse would attract competition and cause the expenditure of large sums in our midst.  But why multiply illustrations?  It is evident, if it is right for the majority to donate the money of their fellow-citizens to one purpose, not necessary to good government, they may with equal justice make donations from the common fund to any object they approve.


     But the editor didn’t let that slap at the proposition go unnoticed, for directly beneath it we find, under a black-type heading, “Worth Thinking Of,” the following stirring appeal:

     “It is worth remembering that while Montgomery co. will be required to raise a little over $300,000 to secure the location of the agricultural college here, she will have five years to pay it in and that in the course of that time double the amount of tax will have been returned to her in the shape of money distributed among her citizens for the various expenditures incidental to the college.

     “Men, laborers, manufacturers, mechanics, business men and property owners—a vote ‘Yes’ for the “Agricultural college brings over $420,000—now in the state treasury, proceeds of the sale of government land scrip—into Montgomery co. to be added to $375,000 more. The proceeds of a tax of only 15c on the $100, to be used in constructing and putting into operation in our midst an institution designed to promote the interests of agriculture and the mechanic arts.

     “Who can vote ‘No’ on such a proposition?  Let there be a full vote and it will be carried.   

     “There is no policy in the question.  It is only education and improvement.  It is prosperity against stagnation; enlightenment against ignorance.  Skilled labor is the great source of a nation’s wealth.   Agriculture and the mechanic arts need the fostering assistance afforded by public institutions such as this college is designed to be. 

     “Let the vote then on Saturday be unanimous in the affirmative!”

     But the vote on Saturday was a long way from being unanimously in the affirmative.  When the more than 5500 ballots cast that day had been counted it was found that every ward in the city had responded with a majority in favor of the proposition.  To be exact Dayton cast 2566 votes “Yes” against a total of but 182 “No.”  But out in the rural districts there was a different story to tell.   In the language of today, rural voters were “not so hot” for an agricultural college.  The tabulation of the complete vote revealed that the opposition had rolled up almost enough to overcome the big lead recorded by city voters.  The proposition to donate almost $400,000 for an Agricultural college had won out by a narrow margin of but 260 votes.

     On the 17th of September the trustees held a meeting to take final action on the proposition.  When they began their deliberations they found before them these offers:

     Montgomery co.—Donation of $400,000 8 per cent county bonds.

     Franklin co.—Donation of $300,000 7 per cent county bonds and private subscriptions of $28,000.

     Champaign co.—Donation of $200,000 8 per cent county bonds.

     Clark co.—Donation of $200,000 8 per cent county bonds.

     Already the board had visited the several counties making offers, and had inspected proposed sites.  In Dayton they were given a royal ovation, and taken out to see the then new “holly water” system, the installation of which served to put Dayton miles ahead of any other Ohio municipality.

      But something went awry when the actual balloting began.  The outstanding offer may be Montgomery co. citizens—almost a cool hundred thousand dollars more than any other applicant had offered—failed to convince the trustees that the agricultural college should be located here.  Joseph Sullivant, wealthy Franklin co. resident, wielded some magic power over those trustees, and when the balloting was over Dayton’s proposition had received but three votes while Franklin co. had garnered enough to carry the day.

     Thus on the 17th day of September, 60 years ago, there was born at the capital the institution which, through a change of name in later years became Ohio State University.  The Neil farm, present site of O. S. U., was the one selected by the trustees for the location of the institution.  It was at that time a considerable distance north of the city, which boasted a population of 35,000.  In the same year a contract was let for the construction of the original college building, now known as University hall, at a cost of $112,484.

     The finishing touches were not yet completed when the first students, 17 in number, assembled for the opening semester.  Of those 17, three are now living.  They are Miss Harriette Townsend of Columbus, Charles H. Deitrich of Lexington, Ky., and John F. McFadden, sr., of Steubenville.

     Today the alumnae of Ohio State University belts the globe.  Today no other Columbus institution compares with it as a publicizing agent.  Columbus owes her fame largely to the fact that Ohio State University is located there.  And she should build a gigantic monument to Joseph Sullivant, the man who pulled the wires which gave it to her when Dayton almost had it in her grasp.