1855-1860 – Everything’s ‘Normal’ in Iowa City.

As we discussed in an earlier post, The State University of Iowa – SUI – officially began on February 25, 1847, when the Iowa State Legislature, meeting in Iowa City, approved the formation of a state-sponsored university.

But, in all truth, nothing much really happened in Iowa City following that “official” act. As a matter of fact, many say that SUI didn’t really “happen” until 1855, when the very first classes were held in Mechanics Academy – located two blocks east of the Capitol (see map above). In an 1878 publication on Iowa history, we find these details…

From 1847 to 1855, the Board of Trustees was kept full by regular elections by the Legislature, and the Trustees held frequent meetings, but there was no effectual organization of the University (in Iowa City). In March, 1855, (the University) was partially opened for a term of sixteen weeks (in Mechanics Academy). (On) July 16, 1855, Amos Dean, of Albany, N. Y., was elected President, but he never entered fully upon its duties. The University was again opened in September, 1855, and continued in operation until June, 1856, under Professors Johnson, Welton, Van Valkenburg and Guffin. In June, 1856, the faculty was reorganized, with some changes, and the University was again opened on the third Wednesday of September, 1856. There were one hundred and twenty four students – eighty three males and forty one females – in attendance during the year 1856-7, and the first regular catalogue was published.

University records show the 1856-57 catalogue listed nine departments offering Ancient Language, Modern Language, Intellectual Philosophy, Moral Philosophy, History, Natural History, Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, and Chemistry.

Yet, despite these humble beginnings of 1855 in Iowa City, SUI was in a real crisis. Finances were very tight. Management was poor. And student recruitment at the university level, particularly outside Johnson County, was next to impossible. You see, in the original 1847 declaration, the formation of the state university didn’t focus on one institution, but favored a multiple-site school. As a result, the state university “campus” was literally scattered over a dozen different communities throughout Iowa!

In truth, the only “school” that was successful in Iowa City was the SUI Normal School – a two-year training curriculum for teachers. It was during this time, many nay-sayers suggested that the SUI Iowa City campus was nothing more than Johnson County High School.

A Normal School was a state-sponsored 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. In the 1850’s, there were numerous Normal schools located around Iowa – with it being very common to find one in each of the counties throughout eastern Iowa. More on that later.

In all honesty, if not for the SUI Normal School – or Normal Department, as it was sometimes called – the SUI campus in Iowa City just might have disappeared. Fortunately, level heads prevailed and with a few restructuring changes, SUI survived the crisis…

The Board of Trustees created by the new law met and duly organized April 27, 1858, and determined to (keep the Normal School open, but) close the University (portion of the school) until the income from its fund should be adequate to meet the current expenses, and the buildings should be ready for occupation. Read more about these major changes here.

On August 4, 1858, the degree of Bachelor of Science was conferred upon Dexter Edson Smith, being the first degree conferred upon a student of the University.

Diplomas were also awarded to the members of the first graduating class of the Normal Department as follows: Levi P. Aylworth, Cetlina H. Aylworth, Elizabeth L. Humphrey, Annie A. Pinney and Sylvia M. Thompson.

(C-0037) Our stamp-less letter from The State University of Iowa “Normal School” – Postmarked by hand-stamped “Paid” – Iowa City – February 8, 1859 is addressed to Alonzo Brown, Esq. Supt. of Common Schools in Garnavillo (Clayton County) Iowa. Our letter includes the attached document (below) – a recruitment letter for the Spring and Fall Sessions (1859) in Iowa City.

Sent to county superintendents across the state of Iowa, this recruitment letter invited each superintendent to pick two top students from their county to receive a no-cost tuition package to the Normal School in Iowa City for the spring/fall 1859 school year. This two-year to two-and-one-half-year program offered high school graduates upon completion of the program, full certification as teachers in schools throughout the growing state of Iowa.

As I see it, Ellie Stephens of Washington, Iowa is the type of student our recruitment letter was attempting to attract from across the state. Ellie was apparently teaching back home in Washington, Iowa and, from what she states in her letter (below), she was recruited to attend the Normal School in Iowa City, arriving on campus in early September 1858. Ellie has not been feeling well since she arrived, only attending class for three days out of two weeks. She sounds very homesick and wants to go back with her brother Elias, who just visited her prior to the writing of this letter on September 18, 1858.

(C-0245) Postmarked in Iowa City on September 19, 1858, this is a letter from Ellie Stephens, a new SUI student, attending the Normal School, being trained as a teacher. Ellie has been in Iowa City for about two weeks and is in “very poor health” and only attended class “3 days.” She’s writing her cousin, John Elbert (J.E.) Organ in Rolla, Missouri, referencing her brother, Elias (Elias G. Stephens 1831-1899), who recently visited her in Iowa City and just returned home to Washington, Iowa. Other letters we found on-line show other Stephens/Organ family members that live in Washington, Iowa, writing to cousin J.E. Organ in the 1860’s. Records show that Organ and his brothers served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and that J.E. become a newspaper editor, a surveyor, and well-known public figure in Dent County, Texas County, and Phelps County, Missouri (all surrounding Rolla). Elias Stephens, on the other hand, being from Iowa, served faithfully in the 13th Iowa Infantry Co. I (United States) from 1861 to 1865. Ellie mentions that “Elias and Perry (another brother?) have a new threshing machine (that) I think they are doing tolerable well with it.” Ellie states that “There is none of us married yet (but) Elias is putting up a new frame house on his farm that does for us to laugh about.” Records show that Elias put that new house to good use, marrying Cellina H. Aylworth (1841-1925). Commenting on her own love-life, Ellie states, “As for myself, I fear I can’t find any to please me so that my lot will be that of an…old maid.” Ellie closes with, “Please give my love to all and a share to yourself & write soon.”

Interestingly enough, six days before our February 8,1859 recruiting letter went out to county superintendents across the state, the SUI trustees made some major decisions that secured the long-term success of the State University of Iowa…

(On) February 2, 1859, the Board met again and decided to continue the Normal Department, (and) at a special meeting, October 25, 1859, it was decided to re-open the University in September, 1860. (The part-time President), Mr. Dean had resigned prior to this meeting, and Silas Totten, D. D., LL. D., was elected President, at a salary of $2,000, and his term commenced June, 1860. At the annual meeting, June 28, 1860, a full Faculty was appointed, and the University re opened, under this new organization, September 19, 1860; and at this date – the actual existence of the University may be said to commence.

In closing, allow me to share this rather lengthy biographical piece on the man our 1859 recruitment letter was addressed to – Alonzo Brown – Superintendent of the Clayton County Schools. I’m truly inspired by his story – I hope you will be as well…

Alonzo Brown (1823-1867) was married to Mariah C. Crosby (1835-1915). She and her brother, James O. Crosby, were the children of Nathan Crosby (1800-1870) and Malinda Bishop (1806-1900) of Cattaraugus County, New York. Land records indicate that James Crosby purchased acreage in Clayton County, Iowa in 1854 and 1857. It appears that he and Alonzo Brown, both practicing attorneys and partners, came to Iowa together. Below is an intriguing biographical sketch found in Chapter 7 of the History of Clayton County, Iowa (1882)…

Alonzo Brown, the first Superintendent of Public Schools for Clayton County, was born at Dryden, N.Y., March 6, 1821. When quite a boy he set out with his father, to explore the western part of the State, which was then new and thinly settled. He was so pleased with it that he persuaded his father to emigrate, which he did soon afterward, locating in Chautauqua County. Here he grew to be a man, received his education, and by dint of hard work and close study he obtained a thorough knowledge of the English language. A friend thus writes of him:

Here he stepped forth from the paternal roof a finished gentleman, an honest man with a mind stored with examples and precepts which would adorn a philosopher, and an education which any might be proud of, to act his part in the great drama of life.’

Like thousands of those who have risen to greatness in America, he commenced a school for the instruction of the young. Having a cheerful and pleasing countenance, with a happy faculty of imparting knowledge to others, he soon became the most popular teacher in the county. It was while engaged in this business that he procured a set of law books, and during his leisure hours he acquired, with hard labor and much toil, a knowledge of the law.

He had heard of the Great West; of ocean prairies, of majestic rivers, far toward the setting sun. Here was a place for his genius and a field for his labor. With the same desire for adventure which fills every American mind, he turned his footsteps toward Iowa. In the summer of 1856 he settled at Garnavillo (Iowa). He was not long among us ere his usefulness was discovered, and even before he had gained a legal residence among us, he was elected Justice of the Peace. For several years he held this office with satisfaction to the people and credit to himself.

Iowa had changed her Constitution, and in 1858 adopted and promulgated a new code of laws, among which was a great and intricate system of school laws. His mind clearly and quickly saw the advantages of such a system on the future welfare and happiness of our State, and with the utmost untiring energy he assisted in putting it in operation. He was almost unanimously elected Superintendent of Public Instruction for the county (spring of 1858), and proved the right man in the right place at the right time. The new system was intricate; no one seemed to understand it. There was neglect and indifference about putting it into execution. He took hold of it with a master’s hand, unfolded all its windings and mysteries, explained and analyzed in every part of the county, all its parts and sections, organized new school districts, gave plans for new school-houses, instructed teachers in their several duties, and organized a teachers’ institute (Teachers’ School at Garnavillo – fall of 1858), which remains an honor to its founder, and a credit to its members.

During the (Civil) war Mr. Brown was appointed United States Deputy Marshal, the duties of which he discharged with promptness and fidelity. When the Governor of Iowa issued an appeal to the people imploring them to send to our suffering soldiers sanitary supplies, this appeal touched the heart of this good and loyal man. He loved his country, and the thought that those who were fighting her battles, fighting for the flag he so dearly loved, were suffering for the necessaries of life, nerved him to make an effort for their relief. He forgot his own private affairs, and bent the whole energy of his soul toward raising supplies for the army. He traveled days and nights, addressed assemblies, appealed to the patriotism and loyalty of every man and woman, held up the suffering condition of the poor soldiers bleeding and dying in a strange land for the common necessaries of life. The people responded. They gave, and they gave freely. The result was that he went to the Sanitary Fair at Dubuque with his full measure of supplies. Thanks poured in on him from every quarter. Ladies and gentlemen bowed to and honored him, and the weak languishing soldier blessed the name of Alonzo Brown. In consequence of his industry and perseverance, Clayton County received the prize of a large and beautiful flag. On the Fourth of July, as it annually returns, this may be seen floating from the flag staff in Garnavillo.

Sincere and patriotic as he was, ardent and energetic as he was for the public good, great and noble as were his public acts, his social life eclipsed them all. In the social circle he was loved and admired by all who knew him. His kind words, merry laugh and innocent jests made him the life and soul of a company.

He had a smile for those who loved him
And a sigh for those who hate.
And whatever skies were o’er him,
Had a heart for any fate.

He was the first at the bedside of sickness, and the last to leave. Often when little children were afflicted with a dangerous epidemic would he hold them in his arms, striving to soothe their dying moments. On one occasion when a little sufferer was about to close its eyes forever, almost the last words upon its lips were, ‘Ma, Mr. Brown will save me.’ Then did the tears gush like rain from his manly eyes, as he bent o’er the dying form of his neighbor’s child.

He believed in the great God and in the immortality of the soul. His ideas of a future state were both beautiful and philosophical. He studied Nature and obeyed her commandments. He loved the excitement and sport of the chase; was a fine woodman and one of the best rifle shots in the country. But this philanthropist and benefactor, this kind husband and indulgent father, this faithful friend and true companion, is now no more. He died (age 46) in Chautauqua County, N.Y., March 6, 1867.

Alonzo Brown’s gravesite – Evergreen Cemetery – Chautauqua County, New York

Godspeed, Alzono Brown – and thank you, for your loving service to the families of Clayton County, Iowa. Interestingly enough, my Boller family came close to settling in Clayton County instead of Johnson County. Read more here.


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

The State University – Iowa City, Johnson County, History of the State of Iowa, The History of Black Hawk County, Iowa, The Western Historical Society, 1878, p 188

History of Clayton County, Iowa – Chapter VII – Educational (1882)

Elias G. Stephens, Find-A-Grave (site 1)

Elias G. Stephens, Find-A-Grave (site 2)

John Elbert Organ, Find-A-Grave

Alonzo Brown, Find-A-Grave


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