Home > Departmental History at UND, North Dakotiana > Louis Geiger and the University of the Northern Plains

Louis Geiger and the University of the Northern Plains

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

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