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Sources for the Department of History at the University of North Dakota

March 17, 2008 Leave a comment

Over the last several weeks I have blogged a series of short biographies of important figures in the history of the Department of History  in honor of the University of North Dakota‘s 125th-iversary.  I have received several emails about these biographical notes , and one of the regular questions about working on the history of the university is where to begin.  Since I wrote last week about L. Geiger’s The University of the Northern Plains, I won’t deal too much that important work here.  Instead, I’ll bring to the fore some of the primary sources and good secondary works on the history of the University and the history of the Department of History in particular.

The Early History

The earliest history of the University is particularly fragmentary.  Some of the better fragments derive from the President’s annual reports to the board of trustees and the annual report of the Department of History to the President which either exist as freestanding documents or as embedded within the President’s Report to the Board of Trustees. The minutes of the Board of Trustees’ meeting for the first two decades of the university (1884-1904) contain odd references to Horace B. Woodworth and his activities at the University. Otherwise, Woodworth appears infrequently in the correspondence of President Webster Merrifield, Dean Vernon Squires, Dean Joseph Kennedy, and others. While some of these correspondence preserve information on institutional matters, they contain regrettably little information regarding the man himself, his influences, or the reasoning behind the policies, events, and decisions that affected his role at the university. Some of that information, however, can be gleaned from later reminiscences offered by faculty members, the local press, and the Dakota Student, the University’s student newspaper, which provide some background and color, but little true substance. This general dearth of sources for the University’s early years, plagues the two best studies of the University history – Vernon P. and Duane Squires’s serialized history of the University published in the late 1920s and early 1930s as well as Louis Geiger’s more expansive later work.

V. P. Squires, “Early Days at the University,” The Quarterly Journal of the University of North Dakota 18.1 (1927), 4-15
–, “The University of North Dakota, 1885-1887,” The Quarterly Journal of the University of North Dakota 18.2 (1928), 105-118;
–, “President Sprague’s Administration, 1887-1891,” The Quarterly Journal of the University of North Dakota 18.3 (1928), 201-230;
–, “The First Quadrennium Under President Merrifield,” The Quarterly Journal of the University of North Dakota 18.4 (1928), 313-344;
D. Squires, “The University Attains its Majority: 1901-1905” The Quarterly Journal of the University of North Dakota 21.4 (1931), 293-317

The Early 20th Century

The story of the successes and struggles of the university, department, and its faculty during the first half of the 20th century have survived to a relatively remarkable degree in the papers of Orin G. Libby (for Libby see G. Iseminger, “Dr. Orin G. Libby: A Centennial Commemoration of the Father of North Dakota History.” North Dakota History. 68:4, pp.2-25; G. F. Shafer, “Dr. Orin G. Libby.” North Dakota Historical Quarterly. 12:3, pp.107-110). Libby’s fastidious character ensured that a large quantities of his private papers survived, as did much of his personal and professional correspondence and his annual reports on the Department to the University President. This material has formed the background for Iseminger’s modern studies on Libby’s professional and personal character and contributed to Geiger’s general work on the University. Libby’s material on the department found complements in the annual catalogue of courses which were updated throughout this period to show not only the courses but also the faculty responsible for them. 

The side-effect of the Libby’s large collection of material is that it tends to skew Departmental history toward his somewhat idiosyncratic view of the University and Departmental affairs.  Counterpoints to Libby that focus on the internal working of the department appear occasionally in the papers of the President’s of the University during the early 20th century: Franklin McVey and Thomas Kane.  The continue albeit somewhat more rarely in the correspondence of President John C. West and Dean William Bek, the longtime Dean of the college of the Arts, Science and Literature. Despite the increasingly bureaucratized nature of the University during the first third of the 20th century, the history of the department remains frustratingly fragmentary.

The Era of Elywn B. Robinson

The dynamism of the Robinson Era is captured in a rather remarkable array of documents. The most interesting of these documents, perhaps, is Elywn B. Robinson’s unpublished autobiography. Composed apparently in the early 1980s, Robinson details his life from his early years in Ohio to the publication of his magnum opus The History of North Dakota in 1966. He drew heavily on his family diary, the material in the Robinson Papers in the Orin G. Libby Manuscript Collect, and the reminiscence of his colleagues, particularly Robert Wilkins, and his sons Steve and Gordon. One of my long term projects is to edit this manuscript and explore the possibility of getting it published.

The autobiography is complemented by a series of interviews conducted by John Davenport in the early and mid 1970s. Davenport interviewed Elwyn Robinson and his wife, Eva, members of the Departments of the 1950s and 1960s, and in one extensive interview, Robert Wilkins, who taught in the Department of History from 1945 to 1992. The majority of information in these sources focus on the life of the department in the 1950 and early 1960s. I have supplemented this modestly with interviews with Gordon Iseminger, Playford Thorson, and D. Jerome Tweton, although I have only begun to process much of the content from these interviews. The departmental reports to the Dean from 1955-1977 came to light in the files of the Department Head and provide basic information on departmental affairs including a enrolment numbers. These reports are far more robust for the 1950s and early 1960s than for later years. This, perhaps, reflects the awareness of this period as one of particular importance in the development of the department. Finally, Robinson provided a long synthetic article on the post-war expansion of the University: “The Starcher Years: The University of North Dakota, 1954-1971,” North Dakota Quarterly, 39 (Spring 1971): 5-44.

Unfortunately, as is typical for the history of the department and the university in general, several major voices go unrepresented in the available material. Felix Vondracek left almost no papers after his retirement from the department in 1971. Vondracek served as department head from 1945 to 1962. Equally, if not more problematic, is the absence of material from Dean Robert B. Witmer who was the Dean of the College of Science, Literature, and Arts. Witmer served as dean from the death of Bek
in 1948 until his retirement in the late 1960s and with the growing complexity of the university, played an increasingly important role in the major departmental affairs. The growing complexity of the university its expanded bureaucracy had made the paper trail larger, more complex, and more dispersed. Consequently, this section will depend more fully, perhaps to a fault, to those limited materials available in the Wilkins and Robinson papers. It is important to note, however, that these substantial and easily accessible collections present only one view of the department.

Other Short Biographies of major figures in the Department of History at UND:

Louis Geiger and the University of the Northern Plains
Felix Vondracek and History and the University of North Dakota
Clarence Perkins and History at the University of North Dakota
Horace B. Woodworth and History at the University of North Dakota
Charles Carter and the Hittites in North Dakota

Louis Geiger and the University of the Northern Plains

March 10, 2008 Leave a comment

In honor of the University of North Dakota‘s 125th-iversary, I am continuing my series of short biographies of important figures in the history of the Department of History at the University of North Dakota.

Louis Geiger was one of the last men hired by Clarence Perkins prior to his death in 1946.  He had studied at the University of Missouri and came to the University with the recommendation of Elmer Ellis, a former student of Orin G. Libby’s one of the most prestigious alumi of the UND’s Department of History.  His was trained in American History with a thesis was on Joseph W. Folk (aka Holy Joe), a major reformer in early 20th century Missouri politics.  Geiger would serve the university from 1946-1960, and despite his frequent frustration and continuous clashes with Department head, Felix Vondracek, he managed significant contributions to the development of the department and the history of the university.  Moreover, he was an active scholar with a national reputation receiving a Fullbright Award to the University of Helsinki in Finland in 1953-1954 and, the next year, a Ford Fellowship split between Harvard University and Stanford University.  While his not always happy interactions with Vondracek have been set out in an earlier post, this post will look at his two most lasting contributions to the life of the University of North Dakota. 

The Archives

Geiger played a central role in perhaps the single most significant achievement of the Department in the 1950s.  He and Elwyn Robinson began the difficult task of developing of a Department of Special Collections in response to the need for a regional-and university-wide archive.  The initial impulse in the department for collecting important historical material from the state came under Orin G. Libby. He and his seminar recognized the importance of collecting material relevant to the state’s history. Both unsystematic and systematic efforts, like the WPA funded Historical Data Project, began the process of collecting, preparing, storing, indexing, and ultimately archiving material relevant to the early history of the state, although much of these efforts focused on the State Historical Society in Bismarck. It was not until the 1950s that a growing awareness of the lack of material form state’s more recent history spurred Geiger, Robinson, and John Parker to envision a manuscript division at the library. They solicited resources from Dean Bonner Witmer, namely a sheet of 100 stamps, and sent out letters to a list of North Dakota notables asking them to consider depositing their papers, or in some cases the papers of their parents, in an archive housed at the University. This brought very few results, but did not diminish their enthusiasm for the project.  This initial effort was sufficient to encourage President John West to approve the formal creation of the manuscript collect which he named after Orin G. Libby in honor of his contribution to the study of history in the state of the state. At the same time, they appealed to J. Lloyd Stone, the ambitious new director of the Alumni Foundation and an important figure in the development of University resources during the 1950s and 1960s, to run a story on the archives in the Alumni Foundation newsletter. This story appealed to the name recognition afforded by Orin G. Libby and Elwyn Robinsons who had taught many alumni during their long teaching careers at the university. The story also appealed to North Dakotan’s well-developed sense of identity by noting that Robinson was working on the definitive narrative history of the state.

They followed up these efforts with personal appeal to both ordinary and important personages and institutions who may have had collections of material worthy of preservation. In 1951, Geiger and Robinson, along with Robert Wilkins traveled to Bismarck to explore the resources of the State Historical Society and State Government, only to realize that there was no systematic effort to collect documents important to the history of the State of North Dakota. Moreover, many state documents were simply stored in the basement of the state capitol building without any order and without an archivist.  This prompted Geiger and Robinson, in particular, to begin to collect material from various figures of political importance and in many cases their descendents throughout the state. Initially they sought to gather the paper of Lyn Frazier and approached his widow, apparently while she was herding cows on her farm near Concrete, North Dakota.  Unfortunately, she reported that she had none of her husband’s papers thus eliminating one potential collection. This did not, however, dull the enthusiasm or energy of Geiger and Robinson. By the fall of 1951, they met with the widow of William Lemke, the widow of former Governor John Moses, the daughter of former Governor L.B. Hanna, the son of former Governor John Burke, the son of Senator Asle J. Gronna, seeking to gather the papers of these two important politicians for the University manuscript collection. In 1952, they complemented these appeals to famous North Dakotans with a call to ordinary folks to pass along material of historical significance. To do this, Robinson, Geiger, along with George Lemmer made use of the university radio station, KFJM, through a radio broadcast called “Preserving the History of the Northwest” to solicit historically important materials from throughout the state. The radio broadcast and countless hours and miles of personal travel eventually attracted a substantial and important collection of material to the manuscript collection. The highlight of their early efforts was the William Lemke Papers which were deposited into the manuscript collection and today account for over 50 linear feet worth of material. Through the 1950s, they also managed to secure William Langer’s and Milton Young’s papers for the collection. These collections in addition to the significant donations from both famous and ordinary North Dakotans remain the core of the Orin G. Libby Collection today.

L. Geiger, “A Reminiscence on the Founding of the Libby Manuscript Collect,” in Guide to the Orin G. Libby Manuscript Collection and Related Research Collections at the University of North Dakota. J.B. Davenport ed. (Grand Forks 1975), 3-8.

The University of the Northern Plains

Soon after the creation of the University Manuscript Collection and Archives, L. Geiger utilized the resources of this collection in his book The University of the Northern Plains which was written for the 75th Anniversary of the University. Geiger had started researching higher education in general while he was a Ford Fellow at Stanford and Harvard during the 1954-1955 academic year.  This led President Starcher to approach him with regard to writing a university history. The main body of his text was written in earnest during from 1956 to 1958 when it went to press just in time for the University’s 75th anniversary. The funding for the project came primarily from the Alumni Foundation, in particular, a donation of the New York financier and alumnus John Hancock who on his death in 1957 gave $50,000 gift to the Alumni Association.  Geiger received a course reduction, a summer appointment with no teaching, and, perhaps most importantly, assurances that he could write his book with no interference from the President’s office or any obligation to alumni or other distinguished people.  This is not to suggest that he composed his history without attention to audience; he states
I have tried to write for several audiences and purposes: to inform faculty, students, and alumni, and to entertain them a little if I could, to provide the historical background which must be a part of any intelligent planning for the future and to make some small contribution to the general history of American life and culture.” (x-xi).  Geiger sought contributions to his research from all quarters and his efforts to collect materials for the composition of the history expanded the manuscript collection and filled in some of the numerous gaps in the University archives. In particular, he corresponded regularly with numerous distinguished alumnae, particularly Edna Twamley who would become a major donor to the university as well as Kathrine B. Tiffany, who not only endowed in her own right the East Asian Room and the Kathrine B. Tiffany Graduate Room in the Chester Fritz library, but also encouraged her nephew Chester Fritz to make numerous donations to the University, including funds for the library, the auditorium, and the Chester Fritz Distinguished Professorships. Geiger circulated drafts of his manuscript to both of these individuals, as well as other leading members of the university community, and Tiffany, who taught English for many years and had graduate training, made extensive, in most cases stylistic, comments. These connections are not intended to impugn the veracity or scholarly character of the work, but rather to show that Geiger clearly viewed his work as a link between alumni and the University. Certainly the help provided by J. Lloyd Stone in securing material for the book and the Manuscript Collection and funds to support Geiger’s research did not go unnoticed or unappreciated.

As the book neared completion Geiger and Starcher sought to find it an academic publisher who would help subsidize the printing cost, provide editorial assistance, and ensure it a broad circulation. In the end, this effort was unsuccessful and the University of North Dakota Press undertook its publication amidst the 75th Anniversary festivities of the University. Despite the lack of a major academic press, the book received a focused and successful circulation. In particular, President Starcher gave numerous copies to “stakeholders” in the University ranging from distinguished alumni to, perhaps as importantly, politicians at both the state and national level. The book also served as a model for university histories elsewhere in the U.S. as Starcher distributed copies of the book to his fellow university presidents. Finally, to complete the circle, the publication of the University of the North Plains ensured Geiger promotion to full professor. Geiger’s work served as a focal point in commemorating the Universities 75th year in existence and served as a vital link between its past and present.

Soon after the completion of his book, Geiger left the University to serve as the Department Head at Colorado College.  In 1972 he went on to Iowa State University.  He remained an active scholar for his entire career publishing numerous books including most prominently  Higher Education in a Maturing Democracy (1963), and serving on such professional organizations as North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools (publishing in the course of that service: Voluntary accreditation: a history of the North Central Association, 1945-1970 (1971)).

Other Short Biographies of major figures in the Department of History at UND:

Felix Vondracek and History and the University of North Dakota
Clarence Perkins and History at the University of North Dakota
Horace B. Woodworth and History at the University of North Dakota
Charles Carter and the Hittites in North Dakota

Felix Vondracek and History and the University of North Dakota

March 3, 2008 1 comment

In honor of the University of North Dakota‘s 125th-iversary, I am serializing some short biographies of important members in the history of the Department of History

Felix Vondracek was one the Department of History’s most controversial figures and longest serving faculty members.  He earned the enmity of several of the important voices in the history of the Department, particularly Robert Wilkins and Elwyn Robinson, ensuring that his place in the annals of the Department was generally a negative one.  Despite his shortcomings as a colleague, Vondracek did see the department through a time of growth and can receive at least some credited for seeing the Department from the Era of Libby and Perkins to the modern day. 

With the death of Clarence Perkins in the winter 1946, the department, recently reunited after 20 years of being divided into departments of American and European history, rallied to ensure that his classes were taught in the spring semester. A replacement for his position as department head, although far less onerous post than in the modern, highly-bureaucratized, university, was nevertheless required. Dean Bek designated Felix Vondracek, the senior member of the department, as acting department head. Vondracek was known around campus for his photographic memory and booming voice, which on clear summer days could be heard across the quad. He had recently returned to the department from his wartime service, which comprised primarily of training cadets at the University. Libby had hired him in 1929 in the Department of American History although at the time he was struggling to complete his Ph.D at Columbia with a dissertation on the foreign policy of Czechoslovakia. He led a department composed of Robert Wilkins, Louis Geiger, and Elwyn Robinson.  All three held particularly negative views of Vondracek as both a scholar and a leader of the department. In later accounts they were confident that Dean Bek shared those views and resisted officially naming Vondracek Department Head.  Despite the reluctance of the previous dean and the reservations of the faculty, the department had no choice. The retirement of Libby and the death of Perkins had left the department at less then full strength with only four faculty members. Robinson’s frail health made him unsuitable and Geiger and Wilkins were newly arrived and lacked the Ph.D. This situation and the death of William Bek in 1948 led Bek’s replacement Bonner Witmer to elevate Vondracek to the position of department head.

Almost immediately Robinson, Wilkins, and Geiger had difficulty with Vondracek. Both Wilkins and Robinson saw Vondracek as easily offended, insecure, and absent during most of his term as department head.  They criticized his apparent lack of intellectual substance, his failure to provide strong administrative leadership in the department, and his regard for his position as department head as a means to gain a larger salary. As a typical example of Vondracek’s behavior, Wilkins and Robinson both complained that he used his position as department head to monopolize summer teaching in order to supplement his income despite the fact that salaries for junior faculty remained substantially below the national average even amidst post war prosperity.  Their criticism of Vondracek for this and other matters eventually required personal visits not only to Dean Witmer but also to President West and his successor Starcher.

The consistently vituperative critique of Vondracek by Robinson, Geiger, and others cast a long shadow over Vondracek’s term as department head. There criticisms tended to obscure some key developments in the department during that time which may give credit to Vondracek’s leadership. Perhaps the most damning of the criticisms leveled by Robinson is that Vondracek hindered the department’s growth from the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s during which the university itself expanded markedly. While it is difficult to assess the intensity and commitment with which Vondracek acted, the annual reports of the department from the 1950s to the early 1960s nevertheless show that he regularly requested additional resources for the department including better offices, additional library resources, and even provisions for an archivist for the expanding Orin G. Libby Manuscript Collection. The manuscript collection was a pet project of Robinson, Wilkins, and Geiger, none of whom got along well with Vondracek. Moreover, Robinson’s and Wilkins’s critique obscures the key role that Vondracek played in bringing to the university an ambitious, competent, and active group of young faculty members. At the death of Perkins, the department only registered three faculty members, down form the six members of during the days of Libby’s and Perkins’s split department. Vondracek worked to increase the number of faculty members steadily during his term as chair. Wilkins begrudgingly notes that Vondracek was either good or very lucky in attracting faculty members to the department, and may have been equally as instrumental in driving them out.  It should be noted, however, that one of the byproducts of hiring good and ambitious young faculty is that one is apt to lose some of them on account of their greater access to other opportunities.

By 1948, Vondracek had hired two Missourians, George Lemmer a fellow graduate student of Geiger’s at the University of Missouri, and Robert Kirkpatrick who held an M.A. from Washington University, bringing the faculty of the Department back to 5 members. Kirkpatrick earned a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford and departed in 1950 to be replaced by John Parker. Parker was the first native North Dakotan to teach in the Department. He was a graduate student at the University of Michigan and met Felix Vondracek purely by chance at a meeting of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association in Madison, Wisconsin. According to Parker, he had introduced himself to Vondracek after seeing the University of North Dakota as his affiliation. Vondracek hired him quickly after that. While Parker’s training was in European History, he primarily taught U.S. Economic history which was a required course for students in the School of Commerce.

The faculty of the early 1950s, however, also proved difficult for Vondracek and the turnover in faculty fed a period of instability in the department. While his relationship with Robinson and Wilkins was cool at best, he did not get along at all with Lemmer, Geiger, and Parker. At one point, Vondracek famously told Lemmer and Geiger that President West saw them as “dead-wood”.  Moreover, he seems to have verbally attacked John Parker for reasons that remain obscure.  This increasingly hostile work environment took its tool on the physical health of Parker leading him to resign with an ulcer in 1952. He completed his Ph.D. in library science and served for almost 40 years as the James Ford Bell Library of rare books at the University of Minnesota. Lemmer soon left as well to take a position as a temporary position as a civilian historian with the Air Force. During this time he wrote a letter to Dean Witmer very critical of Felix Vondracek and this prompted President West to fire Lemmer.  Efforts by Robinson, Wilkins, and Dean Witmer to convince Lemmer to write a formal apology and return to the University were unsuccessful. At the same time as Lemmer’s and Parker’s departure, Louis Geiger accepted a position as a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Helsinki, Finland and as a Ford Fellow at Harvard University and Stanford University. These departures, both tempora
ry and permanent marked a period of instability and change at both the University and the Department. John Harnsberger, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota, replaced John Parker. Jerry DeWitt, a graduate student at Yale University, replaced Lemmer. Fred Winkler was invited to replace Geiger for his two years of leave. In 1960, Playford Thorson came to the University as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota having earned an M.A. from the University of New Mexico. He would serve for over three decades as the department’s expert in Scandinavian history. The new blood in the department initially calmed the turmoil incited by the conflicts between Lemmer, Parker, and Vondracek. The calm did not persist, however, as soon DeWitt and Harnsberger chaffed under Vondracek’s leadership.  The record for the early years of the 1960s and the end of the 1950s is poor, but it appears to have been a period of growing discontent with the leadership in the department as the early 1960s marked a significant watershed in departmental history.

Robinson, Geiger, and others complained to President Starcher, Dean Witmer, and ultimately the newly created Vice President of Academic Affairs (the predecessor to the position of Provost at the University) William Koenker about Vondracek’s lack of leadership in the department. While initially there was no response, eventually the departure of DeWitt, Harnsberger, Wilkins, and Geiger during the early 1960s drew administration’s attention to the department. Robinson opined that these departures in the context of the constant complaints regarding Vondracek’s leadership forced the administrations hand in 1962. President Starcher, however, had been inclining toward a policy of rotating department heads.  Several long serving department heads like Libby’s old friend George Wheeler, had resisted as these men typically held their positions for life, but over time nearly all of the old guard were replaced. The policy of Starcher, while immediately beneficial to an embattled department like history, was part of the gradual expansion of administrative power at the University largely at the expense of the faculty. Ousting long standing department heads and replacing them with rotating faculty limited the ability of faculty groups, like a group of powerful, longstanding, and conservative faculty called “the Wranglers”, to develop sustainable power bases and shifted some of the responsibility for continuity of policy to the administrative level. In the Department of History, a petition submitted to Starcher by Thorson, an emerging member of a younger, more liberal minded, and progressive group of faculty members called the “Young Turks”, and endorsed by five of the members of the department led to the ouster of Vondracek. The next year, Starcher tried to offer the department head to Thorson, who refused, and Robinson briefly assumed the post until his chronic health issues led him to resign after less than a year.  Glenn Smith, a newcomer to the department hired in 1962, followed him but briefly as chair.

Vondracek continued to teach in the Department for another decade, finally retiring in 1971 after serving 43 years in the Department of History.

Other Short Biographies of major figures in the Department of History at UND:

Clarence Perkins and History at the University of North Dakota
Horace B. Woodworth and History at the University of North Dakota
Charles Carter and the Hittites in North Dakota

Clarence Perkins and History at the University of North Dakota

February 28, 2008 Leave a comment

In honor of the University of North Dakota‘s 125th-iversay, I will continue to look back at some of the key players in the Department of History’s development within the University.  As before, I am not going to dwell right now on the well-known story of Orin G. Libby, but will shine some light on a less well-known, but no less important figure in our Department’s history, Clarence Perkins.

Despite his nearly 20 year career at the University, Clarence Perkins remains an ill-defined figure in the history of the discipline at UND. His significance was largely overshadowed by his more cantankerous colleague, Orin G. Libby. Nevertheless, Perkins played a key role in the expansion and development of the discipline at the University. Trained at Harvard, he had taught in the Department of History at Ohio State University from 1909-1920 when he was wooed to the University of North Dakota by President Thomas Kane.  Kane and Libby had clashed during late ‘teens and particular controversy arose over Libby’s seemingly irregular hiring practices.  Almost from his first days on campus, Libby had criticized Kane’s management style and suitability to lead the university.  A particularly violent disagreement over Libby’s right to hirer additional faculty in the Department of History had led Kane to split the Department of History into two parts, as a largely punitive measure against Libby.  From 1920 until after Libby’s retirement in 1945, there would be a Department of American History under Libby’s chairmanship and a Department of European History

Clearance Perkins was hired by Kane to lead the Department of European History.  Affable, jolly, generous, and prone to gossip, there is no evidence that he and the more taciturn Libby got on well.  Perkins had studied at an undergraduate at Syracuse University and received his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1908.  His thesis was a The History of the Knights Templar in England and he taught medieval and modern English History.  Early in his career he produced a series of prominent articles on the Knights Templar in both the American Historical Review (1910) and in the English Historical Review (1909, 1910, 1930) but like scholars of an earlier era he was qualified to teach in almost any European field from Ancient to current affairs. During the 1920s, he demonstrated his wide ranging competence in writing a well-regarded high school textbook, The History of European Peoples published by Rand, McNally, and Company in Chicago and stretching to nearly 1000 pages, as well as several study guides for the Ohio State Bookstore in Columbus.  Throughout the 1930s he continued to write popular texts like Man’s Advancing Civilization (1934 and 1937) and Ancient History (1936). In 1940 he published Development of European Civilization with two former colleagues at UND, Clarence Matterson and Reginald Lovell.  These and other books provided him with some income, particularly during the dark years of the late 1920s and 1930s when the collapsing grain prices and then the Great Depression wracked the state and gutted the University budget.  Throughout his career at UND Perkins was a successful teacher and scholar who had a national reputation and regularly spent time away doing research both in Europe and at major American universities like the University of Texas.

Perkins’s who had far less baggage than Libby with the administration and took time to cultivate good relations with the Kane administration. This better relationship enabled him to hire good quality faculty throughout the 1920s like Claudius Johnson (Ph.D. Chicago in 1927) in 1921, Albert Hyma (Ph.D. Michigan 1922) and Fletcher Brown in 1922, and Clyde Ferrel (Ph.D. Wisconsin) in 1923. In the later 1920s, Perkins’ department hired Phillip Green (Ph.D. Chicago) and Donald Nicholson (Ph.D. Wisconsin). Perkins, like Libby, often relied on personal connections with colleagues to find capable professors for their departments. In an interview conducted in the late 1970s, Robert Wilkins, whom Perkins hired in the 1940s, opined that Perkins sought candidates who were likely to be comfortable at the University and over time relied less upon the recommendations of colleagues at more established East Coast institutions. In fact, Perkins had hired Wilkins on the advice of fellow Syracuse alumnus, F. Lee Benns, a noted scholar at Indiana University where Wilkins had received his B.A. and M.A.

Despite the relatively good credentials held by many of the faculty members of the 1920s, their appointments in the two Departments did not necessarily coincide with their increasingly specialized training. For example, Felix Vondracek, a specialist in Central European history found himself teaching the Survey of American history in Libby’s American History department; Phillip Green, in contrast, a specialist in American history, primarily taught European history in Perkins’ European History Department. Notwithstanding the odd assignments, the faculty of both Departments tended to be productive with Libby and Perkins setting the tone for the more junior faculty.  Perkins, in particular, took pains to note the accomplishments of his faculty in his annual reports to the president.

Perkins was particularly concerned with the difficulty in retaining qualified faculty, a problem characteristic of the university as a whole and reflected in the Departments of History. L. Geiger, in his book University of the Northern Plains: A History of the University of North Dakota 1883-1958, considered “the chief cause of the turnover was the uneasy relations between the president and the faculty.” It is perhaps unsurprising, however, that this particular factor does not appear prominent in the History Department’s annual reports to the President. Perkins stressed in his reports throughout the 1920s that the pay for faculty was too low if the University hoped to compete with Eastern colleges which regularly paid as much as 50% more than UND. In practice, it was not just eastern universities that hired away qualified faculty from UND; one member of the faculty, G.P. Hammond, was hired to teach Latin American History at the University of Arizona. A. Hyma, who became a noted scholar of the Renaissance moved on to teach at the University of Michigan (his major contributions to the Christian Renaissance have been collected here).  An instructor or even Assistant Professor was unlikely to earn over $2000 a year. Salaries from the mid-1930s through the early 1940s stood below the levels of the turn of the century, and while jobs were scarce throughout the U.S. many of the better qualified junior faculty were able to obtain positions elsewhere.  Perkins understood this reality, and admitted as much to President West in a letter when he conceded “I believe it is far better to get men good enough to move and have them stay only two or three years here than to land mediocrities who stay indefinitely.” Perkin’s continued to replace faculty who left, spending considerable time working to find teachers for the European History department. The struggle, however, to keep a full compliment of faculty was obvious: Nicholson left in 1935, Reginald Lovell the same year for Willamette College in Oregon, Clarence Matterson left in 1939 left for Iowa State University at Ames where he would eventually become department head, Charles Morely left for Ohio State in 1942. 

These departures distressed Perkins, but they did allow him to hire two men who made massive and enduring contribution
s to the University: Robert Wilkins replaced Phillip Greene who sought to return to his southern roots by taking a job at Queen’s College in Charlotte, North Carolina. Perkins also hired Louis Geiger, a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri, on the advice of former University of North Dakota history alumnus Elmer Ellis.  With Perkins’s sudden death in 1946 (and Libby’s retirement the year previously), Geiger, Wilkins and Elwyn Robinson emerged as the most influential members of the Department during the 1950s and 1960s.

Other Short Biographies:
Horace B. Woodworth and History at the University of North Dakota
Charles Carter and the Hittites in North Dakota

Horace B. Woodworth and History at the University of North Dakota

February 25, 2008 Leave a comment

As the University of North Dakota begins the celebration of its 125th-iversary, it’s a good opportunity to look back at some of the faculty who played important roles in creating the Department of History at UND.  Most people familiar with History at UND know of Orin G. Libby.  Libby’s name graces the Manuscript and Photograph Collection the Department of Special Collections, and Gordon Iseminger and Robert Wilkins have published on his contributions to both the study of history at UND and the formal study of the history of the State of North Dakota (see here for basic biographical notes and bibliography).

While most scholars regard Orin G. Libby as the “Father of North Dakota History”, he was neither the first man to teach history nor was he the first individual to hold the position of Professor of History at the University of North Dakota. Horace B. Woodworth held these honors. The former farmer from Southern part of Dakota Territory taught history as well as philosophy, math, and even astronomy at the University of North Dakota from his hiring in 1885, one year after the University was founded, to his retirement in 1904. From 1902-1904 he was Professor of History at the University. In contrast to Libby’s professional credentials, Woodworth held a more fluid and ambiguous position at the university and this reflected important changes at the institutions around the turn of the century. Woodworth’s career parallels in many ways changes taking place at the university and preserves an important perspectives on the early years of higher education in state.

Woodworth’s began as the Professor of Mathematics, Physics, and Astronomy, became the Professor of Moral and Mental Science, and retired as the first Professor of History at the University of North Dakota.  His career was parallel with the creation of the professional standards in the discipline of history, and the emergence of organization like the American Historical Association, which sought to establish and protect the integrity of the discipline by developing a coherent set of professional standards.

Despite a career path that would look unusual by today’s standards, Woodworth’s career path was not terribly odd in his time. Born in 1830, he grew up farming in rural Vermont and graduated from Dartmouth in 1854 at the age of 24. After graduating he continued to farm while serving as the principal of several New England boarding schools during the later 1850s. By 1861, returned to school and earned a degree from the Hartford Theological Seminary.  He then preached at several Congregationalist churches in Connecticut and New Hampshire. His choice of careers, first in teaching and then in the ministry, was not unusual for Dartmouth College students in 1850s, especially the sons of farmers from rural New England.   These young men sought the skills to succeed in the changing economic and social conditions of the 19th century, and as might be expected many of them moved west. Woodworth followed this trend and left New England first to serve as the pastor in churches in Charles City and Decorah, Iowa, before moving to Mt. Vernon in what is now South Dakota to farm in the early 1880s. In 1884 he applied for a position at the University of North Dakota.  He was hired beating out men like Elwood Mead who went on to head the Bureau of Reclamantion and give his name to Lake Mead behind Hoover Dam.  His success is perhaps owed to his acquaintance with a member of the University of North Dakota’s Board of Regents, F. R. Fulton, whom he had known in Iowa, he was hired by the University, an institution that was scarcely a year old, as Professor of Mathematics, Physics, and Astronomy.

By 1888, however, Homer Sprague, the newly appointed president of the University, sought to improve the professional credentials of the UND’s faculty.  He hired Ludovic Estes to replace Woodworth as the Professor of Mathematics, Physics, and Astronomy.  Estes was more conventionally trained holding a Ph.D. in Physics from Michigan and worked hard to develop laboratory science at the university which was seen as a key contribution to a useful education. As a result of Estes hiring, Woodworth moved to Chair of Didactics, Mental, and Moral Science and Principal of the Normal Department. By 1890, he would have as part of his responsibilities the requirement to teach history.

Woodworth, however, did not like the position as principal of the Normal Department, which was primarily responsible for teaching secondary school teachers in the state.  In particular, he felt that it detracted from his lectures in History and Mental and Moral Science. By 1890, Woodworth asserted his hope that “the course in History may be more fully developed in the near future and that it may be giving the prominence which its importance demands.”  His hopes were fulfilled later than year when he appeared as the Professor of Mental and Moral Science and History. With his new position, Woodworth began to prepare a more complete and consistent offering of University-level history courses.  His first offering were a course to juniors on the constitutional history of England and course on the History of Civilization for students in the Letters Course (a degree course which required less math and had a stronger emphasis on literature). At the same time he continued to teach courses in logic, psychology, and the history of philosophy. Woodworth saw all these course as contibuting to the same goals: “to encourage habit of independent thinking and thorough investigation.”  This view of history would not be out of place among many faculty today.

Woodworth’s earliest offerings at the University in the field of history reflect late 19th century interests in institutional and constitutional history which were epitomized in the work of Henry Baxter Adam’s seminar at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.  Adams and his contemporaries viewed the rigorous study and teaching of history as a way to ensure good and conscientious citizenship.  Such an interest comes through in Woodworth’s relatively modest scholarly effort, The Government of the People of the State of North Dakota, which followed contemporary trends in the study of institutional and constitutional history.  Eldredge and Brother, a textbook publisher in Philadelphia, published the work both separately as well as bundled with Newton Thorpe’s The Government of the Nation: A Course in Civil Government based on the Government of the United States. In the preface, Woodworth notes: “the new interest in the study of Civics is a hopeful sign. But the study ought not to be confined the study of the Constitution of the United States. Home government in the township, in the county, and in the State has more to do than the national government, in matters connected with the home, family, and daily life of the citizen.” It begins with a twenty page history of the state before a chapter detailing the basic narrative of the states founding. The bulk of its pages, however, are committed to a detailed analysis of the content, institutional apparatus, and, in some cases, reasoning behind the text of the constitution. Woodworth’s book stands in contrast to the work of the former President of the University, William Blackburn’s history of the state.   Blackburn’s work written in 1892 and published in 1902, details the history of the territory and early statehood of the Dakotas. Blackburn’s work apparently written during 1892 and published 1902.  In general, it is highly fragmentary and anecdotal in nature.(William Blackburn, “A History of Dakota,” South Dakota Historical Collections 1 (1902), 42-162).  It shows no
inclination toward the rigorous institutional history and lacks any effort to bring in primary source documents.  Woodworth’s work in contrast, includes the complete text of the State Constitution.  Woodworth’s work book is only surpassed in 1910 when James E. Boyle wrote The Government of North Dakota.

While little is specific detail is known of Woodworth’s private life and finances, there is no reason to assume that he was wealthy. His appointment at the university paid a salary of $2000 which was consistent with other faculty of his rank. He was able to live comfortably in town in a modest house at 815 S. 5th St. in Grand Forks and seems to have enjoyed the benefits of a middle class lifestyle.  Moreover, his position as a professor at the University afforded him some social clout, and he was active in various charitable activities in the community.  In a statement read by fellow faculty members, Vernon Squires, Joseph Kennedy and M.A. Brannon into the minutes on the occasion of Woodworth’s retirement in 1904, it is noted that he contributed money to the university’s maintenance.

Woodworth’s family life was also consistent with a middle class and even shows signs of upwardly mobility. He had two daughters. Alice Woodworth Cooley worked in the administration of the Minneapolis city schools and co-authored a well-regarded English grammar. In 1901 she returned to Grand Forks to teach in the School of Education.  She retired in 1905 as an Assistant Professor of Education.  With a well-developed professional reputation and access to solidly middle class society, she married C. F. Cooley who would become a local judge. Woodworth’s other daughter, Henrietta (Hattie) Woodworth also taught at the University briefly in music in 1889 (interestingly her her father objected to her appointment!). She married W. A. Gordon a New York City native and Amherst graduate who made his fortune as a real estate developer and insurance broker. He was a prominent citizen in Grand Forks and a supporter of the university.  In fact, during a financial crisis in the 1890s he traveled with the president of the University, Webster Merrifield, to Bismarck to lobby on the university’s behalf.  The intermarrying of Woodworth’s daughters with members of the local “gentry” is a good indication that the Woodworth family was not limited by the later breach between “town and gown”. Recalling the situation perhaps 15 years later, Orin G. Libby’s eldest son, Charles, noted that university families tended to live near one another and children of the university professors did not necessarily play with the children in town.  While the information of Woodworth himself remains modest, his family demonstrated access to middle and upper class society in Grand Forks.

Despite the appearance that Woodworth circulated among the elite society of Grand Forks, it seems that Woodworth remained dependent upon income from his position at the university. After he retired he received a modest pension from the university of $600 a year and professor emeritus standing. UND’s President, Webster Merrifield, however, inquired whether Woodworth would be eligible for a Carnegie Fund Pension.  In this letter Merrifield specifically cited his friend’s former salary of $2000 a year. Woodworth did not live to hear that he had been awarded a Carnegie Pension. The letter announcing that he had been awarded a Carnegie Pension of $1000 a year for life arrived two days after his funeral in 1907. 

After his death, his name graced Woodworth Hall, the longtime home of the College of Education at the University.  When it burned down in 1946, Woodworth’s name disappeared from campus and became eclipsed by the legend of Orin G. Libby.

Woodworth Hall

For more on Woodworth check out the first chapter of my history of the Department of History at the University of North Dakota.

Categories: North Dakotiana

More Departmental History…

September 19, 2007 1 comment

I’ve mention in the past that I worked a good bit on our department’s Departmental History over the last twelve months and ramped up my efforts to a considerable degree this summer.  When I came to Athens, I figured that my enthusiasm for the history of my department would fade a bit (and it has), but to my surprise the American School has found itself in a reflective mood of late producing a number of articles on its institutional and intellectual history (see in particular Tracy Cullen’s piece on 75 years of Hesperia (that is the journal of the American School)in volume 76.1, Jack Davis’s article in the same volume on the “Birth of Hesperia” and Kostis Kourelis article in 76.2 on “Byzantium and the Avant Guard” at the Corinth excavations of the 1920s and 1930s.)  The American School is the kind of place that feels like it has an official history (in fact, there are two volumes dedicated to the history of the School), and both Kourelis and Davis say that their use of the archives has allowed them to uncover “the real story” so to speak (As Davis says on page 22 of his article that one of his goals “is to contrast published and archival accounts”).  It lends both articles a subversive tone (which one probably feels more acutely if one has has spent time at the American School), but, in the end, archival research is at the core of the historical method.

Prof. Orin G. Libby, Historian
University of North Dakota 1902-1945

In any event, it’s kept my interest in the departmental history simmering.  I have now posted my working text for the introduction and chapters 1-3.  These chapters cover the history of the department up to about 1970.  The goal of the university, of course, was to compile the history for each department over the last 25 years which was to complement existing departmental histories of the first 100 years written in conjunction with UND’s 100 anniversary in 1883.  Our department did not write a departmental history at that time, so I was left to write the entire history of the department from the 1880s to present.  I made to the late 1960s, but after 1970 the sources become a bit more scarce, I am increasingly uncomfortable with the methods (especially oral history), and I can’t shake the nagging feeling that if it’s not 1000 years old it’s not really historical (my colleagues will rightly disagree with this!).


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