As we have discussed elsewhere, the State University of Iowa – which was created by an act of the Iowa State Legislature on February 25, 1847 – didn’t actually start offering classes in Iowa City until 1855. And even with the initiation of those first classes – March 15, 1855 in Mechanics Academy – SUI barely survived that first decade. In truth, if it hadn’t been for D. Franklin Wells and his highly-successful SUI Normal School, our illustrious university – located today in the center of Iowa City – wouldn’t have made it past the 1860’s.
You see, when SUI opened its doors in 1855, there were two branches of the university – the “undergraduate” department – called the SUI Normal School, and the SUI “graduate” program which was geared for training “college-level” students for more-advanced professional occupations. Read more here.
Beginning in 1839 (see chart above), state-supported Normal schools were popping up around the United States – beginning in the East (Massachusetts, New York, etc.), with SUI establishing one of the earliest Normal schools in the country (1855). Typically, a Normal school was an educational institution offering a comprehensive two-year curriculum created to train high school graduates to be teachers. As standards increased at the turn of the 20th century, most Normal schools transitioned into “teacher-training colleges” or “teachers’ colleges” organized as part of a comprehensive university experience. Today, we might use the term “junior college” or “two-year college” in best defining SUI’s Normal School of the 1850’s and 60’s. Click here to read more about SUI’s Normal School -1855-1860.
So, in those first few years (1855-1860), when SUI first opened its doors for business, it was the Normal School that attracted the most attention, while the “university” side of SUI floundered, even closing for two years (1858-1860) due to low student enrollment. In fact, under the dynamic leadership of its newly-appointed director, D. Franklin Wells, SUI’s Normal School opened its second school year (1856-57) with 124 students – 83 men and 41 women – in attendance, graduating its first class on August 4, 1858!
D. Franklin Wells was born in Oneida County, New York on June 22, 1830. His early education was acquired locally, graduating from the New York State Normal School at Albany in 1852.
It’s obvious that D.F. grew up in a family that certainly valued education, as records indicate that one of the more highly-noted educational institutions of the country – Wells College on Cayuga Lake in Aurora, New York – was founded in 1868 by members of his extended family.
As so many easterners did, D.F. Wells, at age 23, ventured westward, settling in Muscatine in 1853, where he was soon chosen to serve as principal of the city schools. That assignment led to his first big accomplishment in education – the formation of the Iowa State Teachers’ Association (1854).
By December (1854), Wells was actively involved in coordinating state-wide efforts to provide quality state-sponsored education for every citizen across this new state of Iowa. As we discussed earlier, it was during this same season, when SUI began offering coursework in Mechanics Academy in Iowa City (March 1855).
In 1856, D.F. Wells was invited to come to Iowa City and oversee SUI’s fledgling Normal School – a job he held successfully for ten-plus years. One of Well’s first assignments upon his arrival was to find a way for SUI to attract more young people from around the state. While the first school year (1855-1856) was a moderate success, the enrollment was primarily made up of a handful of students who lived in and around Johnson County. Quite simply, there was little to no housing available for out-of-town students, thus SUI was pegged by some state newspapers as “Johnson County High School” during its first year of existence.
Wells and his SUI Normal School Board immediately went to work, and through his growing network of teachers – the Iowa State Teacher’s Association – letters (see below) went out to County School Superintendents around the state, offering free tuition & board to two students from each county. It’s promotional ideas like this that truly built the much-needed foundational base for SUI during these earliest years of its existence.
Young D.F. Wells was not only busy overseeing SUI’s Normal School, but he also took over the job of Head Librarian for the new SUI Library, stepping in for its founder, T. S. Parvin (above). Wells was instrumental in keeping this little library growing, and once the Capitol Building was vacated – when the state moved the capital to Des Moines (1857) – the SUI library was moved into Old Capitol where it remained from 1859 to 1882.
On March 9, 1867, Governor William M. Stone (above) appointed D.F. Wells to the office of Superintendent of Public Instruction – filling a sudden vacancy by the health-related resignation of Oran Faville. Wells was a popular choice and was “officially” elected to the office following a general election in 1867. Sadly, D.F. was unable to finish his term, dying suddenly on November 24, 1868 at age 38.
Many believe Wells died from simple exhaustion, as he poured himself into his new position. A man fully dedicated to the cause of public education, his diligence and attention to detail is fully displayed in his report to the governor in 1867. Below are just a few of the pages from that 45-page summary…
D.F. (1830-1868) was married to Eliza Bowen – a native of Indiana (1835-1908) who grew up in Iowa City. They had two children – Howell Franlyn Wells (1862-1908) and Lucius D. Wells (1865-1881). Historian Henry Sabin called Professor D.F. Wells…
The recognized leader of the educational forces of the State at the period when he was thus actively engaged in the work, and he literally gave his life to the cause.
D. Franklin Wells is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City.
Our rare 1860’s postal cover (below) from D.F. Wells is addressed to Geo. B. Denison – the County Superintendent of Schools in Muscatine. George B. Denison was a teacher-turned-banker in Muscatine, serving as the County Superintendent of Schools from 1862 to 1866.
It was during D.F. Wells’ tenure (1856-1867) as Director of SUI’s Normal School that Wells wrote a letter to his long-time friend and co-worker from Muscatine – Superintendent George B. Denison. Records (below) indicate that Wells and Denison had a close working relationship through their membership in the Iowa State Teachers’ Association. It’s also obvious from their personal stories that the older Denison, who arrived in Muscatine in 1851, was most-likely a mentor to the younger Wells when they both lived in New York, and after D.F. arrived here in 1853.
According to biographical notes – George Burlingame Denison – born February 13, 1819 – received his primary education at home, becoming a student of the Oneida Institute at Whitesboro, N. Y., the first abolition school of America. After completing his education, he became a teacher, and followed that vocation for several years. In the summer of 1850, George came to Muscatine, prospecting for a site for business. At that time a new school-house was being erected, and by offering the building committee some valuable hints in perfecting their work, he became known to them as an educator, and was employed to teach the school the succeeding spring. He returned East that fall, and the following spring came back and entered upon his duties as teacher of the first graded school taught in Iowa, commencing May 12, 1851. He remained in charge of the school for four years.
Mr. Denison gave a great deal of study to educational interests and did much to advance the standard of education, serving as a member of the Muscatine School Board, and in 1862, was elected County Superintendent of Schools, serving from 1862 until 1866. Denison was an advocate of a liberal and broad-gauged system of education, and devoted at least ten years of his life to educational matters. His first vote was cast at a school election, and the first dollar of tax he ever paid was toward the building of a school-house in the district where he went to school.
George married Margaret M. Lyon, a native of Herkimer County, N. Y., and a daughter of Dr. Benjamin Lyon. They were the parents of three children, of whom only the youngest survived, a daughter, Edna – a graduate of Iowa College of Grinnell. Margaret Denison was a graduate from the State Normal School at Albany, N. Y., and was a teacher in the public schools four years after coming to Muscatine. On the 1st of September, 1878, George Denison joined G. A. Garretson in a private banking business, under the firm name of G. A. Garretson & Co., successors to the Muscatine National Bank. George B. Denison died in Muscatine on December 13, 1889, and along with his wife, Margaret (1823-1904), and his daughter Edna (1865-1945), are buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Muscatine.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.