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

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

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
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