Willamette University, argued to be the oldest university in the Pacific Northwest, has an interesting history, which is strongly connected to the Methodist church.
In 1842, Methodist missionaries led by Jason Lee established the Indian Manual Labor Training School in Oregon Territory on the grounds of what is now Willamette University’s campus. That same year, on Feb. 1, the Oregon Institute (also known as the American Institute, Oregon), was also established. Gustavus Hines, in his volume “Oregon and Its Institutions: Comprising a Full History of Willamette University,” published in 1868, describes the need for a school for children of the missionaries and other emigrants to the Oregon territory who had settled in Salem. On page 141 of this volume, Hines describes the decision made to establish this school and name it the Oregon Institute.
A committee was elected called the “Committee of Location”, consisting of Rev. Jason Lee, Rev. G. Hines, Rev. D. Leslie, Rev. H Clark and Dr. J. L. Babcock. This Committee ultimately chose a location for the Institute about three miles north of Salem, on Wallace Prairie. This location currently is in Keizer, generally between Cherry Avenue and Verda Lane, bisected by Claggett Creek and north of Highway 99E.
A constitution and bylaws for the Institute was adopted on March 15, 1842 and stated that there shall be nine trustees for this institution. Hines notes that the original trustees for the Oregon Institute included Rev. Jason Lee, Rev. David Leslie, Rev. G. Hines, Rev. J.L. Parrish, Rev. LH. Judson, Mr. George Abernethy, Mr. Alanson Beers, Mr. H. Campbell and Dr. J. L. Babcock. A few of the Board of Trustees for this school are familiar names in the Salem area. David Leslie, Josiah Parrish and Lewis Judson, all became future names of Salem schools.
The Indian Manual Labor Training school was closed in 1844, and the Trustees of the Oregon Institute purchased this three-story frame building originally constructed for the Native American school for use as a building for the Institute.
Gustavus Hines has also provided a thorough narrative of life in the Willamette Valley in his 1851 book “Life on the Plains of the Pacific. Oregon; its History, Condition and Prospects.” Hines describes the purchase of the Indian Manual Labor Training school property by the Oregon Institute in his entry on Tuesday June 25, 1844 on page 241 of this volume:
Ever since soon after the arrival of the large reinforcement in 1840, the people of Oregon had been endeavoring to establish a literary institution bearing the name of the ‘Oregon Institute.’ They had so far succeeded as to secure a very eligible location about three miles from the Oregon Mission school, and built a house which was nearly completed, at an expense of about three thousand dollars. It was now proposed by Mr. Gary to sell the Oregon Mission school house and premises, and disband the school; and though he had an opportunity to sell it to the Roman Catholics for a high price, he preferred to sell it to the trustees of the Oregon Institute for much less. It was exceedingly desirable on the part of the trustees, to secure this property, as, from the location of the farm, embracing a mile square, it was very valuable, and the house itself cost the mission not less than eight thousand dollars. Having an opportunity to sell the first mentioned premises without much sacrifice, they were disposed of, and the Oregon Mission school-house and farm were purchased at an expense of four thousand dollars, and are hereafter to be known as the Oregon Institute. For the promotion of the interests of the church, and for the welfare of this rising country, a more judicious appropriation of the property of the former mission school could not have been made.
Funds for the Institute were difficult to raise in these early years. Methodist William Willson claimed the title in 1839 to the land that now comprises Willamette University, the State Capitol and downtown Salem. Willson was the first treasurer for the Oregon Provisional Government and in 1848 oversaw the minting of Oregon’s first currency, $5 and $10 coins known as Beaver money.
Willson surveyed and platted a portion of his claim in 1845-46. In 1843, Willson was elected to take the place of J.L. Babcock as a member of the Board of Trustees for the Institute. The Trustees of the Institute entered into a contract with Willson, who became the agent empowered to sell off lots to raise money for the Oregon Institute and attract settlers to the new town. Willson even donated a portion of their land at no cost to building a new territorial Capitol building. It was Willson’s wish to preserve open spaces within the growing town, like the village commons in New England where he was from. The block between the Capitol building and the Marion County Courthouse was declared a public square that is known as Willson Park, now located just west of the Capitol building.
This school’s name was changed in 1853 when the Oregon Territorial Legislature, who met in the basement of this building, granted a charter to the school as Wallamet – which was the common local pronunciation and spelling of the river during this period. Emily York was the first graduate of this school in 1859, with a degree in English Literature. The name’s pronunciation and spelling had changed by 1870 to Willamette University.
In 1922, the financial challenges facing Willamette continued, even 80 years later. To establish some financial stability for the university, Willamette University and the Methodist Church initiated a campaign to raise $1 million for a permanent endowment and $250,000 for maintenance of existing buildings, as well as construction of a much needed gymnasium and heating plant. The 70th annual Methodist conference met in Salem on Sept. 5, 1922. They discussed how to ensure the financial stability of what they referred to as their “church university” into the future. The Oregon Statesman reported that “this will be the most important session in the history of the conference.”
They established what they called “The Forward Movement Campaign” to raise a $1.25 million endowment to keep Willamette University open for years to come and appointed officials to run the campaign. The campaign kicked off in October 1922 and speakers traveled throughout the state speaking primarily at churches.
According to a report in the November 21, 1922, Capital Journal: “Fund Drive for Willamette is Half Complete,” $708,000 had been raised, more than half of the goal amount. This figure included $350,000 pledged by the Rockefeller Foundation and pledges of $100,000 each from E.S. Collins and R.A. Booth. It was noted that if the full $1.25 million was not pledged by Dec. 20 then the pledges would be automatically canceled.
Other local community clubs endorsed and supported the campaign including the Salem Rotary Club who went on record unanimously endorsing it as being an important movement for Salem. They emphasized that every member of the Salem Rotary Club and also every businessman in Salem should support the fundraising effort.
On the morning of Dec. 20 — the campaign deadline — both the Oregon Statesman and the Capitol Journal reported the fundraising was $50,000 short.
An editorial in that day’s Oregon Statesman said if the Willamette endowment campaign should fail, the future of the university would be in jeopardy. The editorial said:
Willamette brought Salem into being. Willamette has been the city’s greatest asset to a thinking world. Willamette brought to Salem the state capital, with all that such distinction means. If the money isn’t in tonight, the campaign fails, and it is all void. Salem will lose the 1,150,00 already pledged, most of which is from outside the city.
This final push through the local papers worked, and by midnight on Dec. 20, the final funds were donated to Willamette securing the endowment and ensuring the university’s financial security for many years to come.
The five giant Sequoias known as the Star Trees at Willamette University were planted in 1942. They were presented by the class of 1942 to Willamette University on its 100th anniversary. If you walk into the middle of them and look up, you will see a five-pointed star shaped sky.
Since 1997, the campus annually decorates the five trees with holiday lights which are lit on the first Saturday in December, signaling the start of the holiday season and symbolizing the partnership of the university with the community of Salem.
Clarification: This article was updated on Jan. 4 to better explain the relationship between the Mission school and the Oregon Institute which became Willamette University.
This column is part of a regular feature from Salem Reporter to highlight local history in collaboration with area historians and historical organizations. Kimberli Fitzgerald, Salem’s historic preservation officer, writes about local history and city historic preservation efforts.
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Kimberli Fitzgerald is the city of Salem's archeologist and historic preservation officer. She is a regular contributor to Salem Reporter's local history column.