Fridays with Fred: Bringing a burgeoning Beloit College to life with Jackson Bushnell

Joseph Bushnell’s contributions to the founding of the college.

Beginning with the ornate calligraphy in its first trustees ledger, proclaiming “Records of Beloit College,” this pioneer Wisconsin college has demonstrated ample pride in documenting its history. Attractive, keepsake booklets appeared on anniversaries, valuable compilations of laudatory speeches referring to an already distinguished past and promising even better to come.

On July 9, 1872, Beloit College held exercises for its quarter-centennial anniversary. College administration, trustees and alumni provided a flurry of speeches on the present and future of Beloit College. One speaker, however, reminisced about his first days and weeks at the newly founded institution. Jackson J. Bushnell, below, was a Yale graduate, class of 1841, who had spent several years teaching at Western Reserve College in Ohio.

Seeking to hire its first two professors, Beloit chose Bushnell and his fellow Yale classmate, Joseph Emerson. Many years later, Emerson described his friend Bushnell as having “the soul of a poet, the mind of a scholar, the zeal of a man of business.” Perhaps Bushnell’s zeal led him to arrive in Beloit a few weeks before Emerson. What was it like to see Beloit for the first time? What was it like to be one of the first to help bring Beloit College to life? Professor Bushnell’s speech, later published in the college’s quarter-centennial booklet, provides firsthand experiences fleshed out in colorful detail:

On the 27th of April, 1848, I came in sight of Beloit, as the lumbering vehicle called Frink & Walker’s stage, rose over the crest of the hill to the northeast of Roscoe. As we descended the hill and drove through the street of that village, I saw, for the first time, I think, this side of Cleveland, a dry street and solid road bed of mingled gravel and sand, and my ear was greeted with the unusual sound of pebbles grinding under the coach wheels. I shouted at once to the driver, “Is Beloit anything like this? Do they have gravel there?” “Yes, just like this,” was the answer. “Ah! that is the place for a college, then,” said I to myself.

My enthusiasm for gravel will be understood from the fact that for five years I had been connected with a college in Ohio, confessedly first in the West at that time, but which was located in a region of pure clay; rough and hard to the feet as rock under the summer sun, giving an unknown depth of mud in the winter and early spring, and slippery as soft soap in the drizzles of spring and autumn; and the crisp sound of the gravel under the wheels was pleasantly suggestive of dry walking, and clean boots, and pleasant excursions on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, and all that free out door air and exercise which is so conducive to the healthy life of a college; and there is no doubt, I think, that the dry gravel streets, and pleasant walks over the firm soil and gravel bluffs in this vicinity, did much to give Beloit its early popularity as a place for educational institutions. It is in these respects without equal among the small cities of the Northwest.

I landed from the stage at the old Rock River House…and soon found my way to the house of Rev. Mr. Clary…the Secretary of the Board of Trustees. The invitation which had brought me hither was, to come and assist in the preliminary steps for the organization of the college…It will perhaps be a marvel to the future historian, that Beloit College began to be a college upon such slender means, and upon so narrow a pecuniary basis. A few inquiries brought out the facts, that at the time of my arrival the College had no cash funds…For six months preceding my arrival, the walls of Middle College had stood floorless, windowless and roofless, without any means to finish it…

But slender and inadequate as the means of the College were, it had already made a beginning. Five young men had been fitted for college in Beloit Seminary, under the instruction of Mr. S.T. Merrill, and were organized into a Freshman class in 1847, and continued under the charge of Mr. Merrill for the greater part of the Freshman year. This was the beginning of Beloit College…Early in May, 1848, Mr. Merrill transferred the instruction of this first class to me, and it remained in my hands a few weeks, till the approaching meeting of the Board of Trustees. On the 23rd of May, 1848, Prof. Emerson reached Beloit on the same errand which had brought myself hither four weeks before. He came directly to my room, and almost his first question was, “Can we have a college here?” Having had some experience in building up a college in Ohio, already twenty years old, and still in peril of failure, and a vivid consciousness of our meager resources, I answered, “Yes – if we will make it.” How heartily my honored colleague accepted this view, and set himself to the work of making a college here…

One day later, on May 24, 1848, the trustees met and assigned the department of languages to Joseph Emerson and the department of mathematics to Jackson J. Bushnell. While Emerson continued his association with the college until his death in 1900, Bushnell served as “Hale Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy” for 10 years, resigned to pursue business interests in Beloit, and then rejoined the college in 1863 for another decade. He passed away on March 8, 1873.

January 24, 2014

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