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A team of horses pull a nowplow on the St. Paul campus, 1917.

A team of horses pulls a snowplow on the Twin Cities campus in St. Paul, 1917.

On this day in history

U celebrates 155 years on Founders Day

By Gayla Marty and Laura Johnson

Brief, February 22, 2006

On February 25, 1851, the mail came into St. Paul on the Mississippi River ice-highway. The Minnesota Pioneer reported, "Everything indicates a breakup of winter, and we do not expect any more news."

Millard Fillmore was president of the United States that year, and Minnesota was still seven years away from statehood. The territorial legislature met in a log hotel in St. Paul. On that day, "the legislature thoughtfully stroked its collective beard and created the University," wrote historian James Gray.

A university charter was signed amid efforts to draw settlers to the territory, attract railroads, and achieve statehood. It would be the first higher education institution in the territory.

Four people in particular championed the early cause. Territorial governor Alexander Ramsey, Henry Hastings Sibley, Franklin Steele, and Henry Rice set out to create a university with unwavering commitment and perseverance.

A commitment to access

In a tribute to the commitment of the founders and their understanding of a university's value to a state and its people, U leaders announced last week that the Founders Opportunity Scholarship was expanding to offer significant new financial support to Minnesota students entering all the U campuses. Freshmen are eligible for four years of support under the program, and transfer students for two years. The program is expected to help a majority of Minnesota students from families earning less than $50,000 a year. For more information, see "Low-income students get tuition and fees guarantee," UMNnews, February 14, 2006.

The University was originally located near what is now the intersection of University and Central Avenues S.E.--just up the east bank of the river from St. Anthony Falls. With $2,500 and donated land, the U constructed a two-story building and accepted 20 students its first year. But by 1855, school officials learned that the land donor had not actually owned the parcel. The U packed up and moved to its current site.

The road to realizing the founders' vision was almost never smooth, including an interruption of several years during the Civil War. Beginning in the 1860s, John S. Pillsbury averted disaster by forgiving a University debt, becoming a regent, and steering the institution to firmer financial ground.

Eventually, the University would grow to a statewide presence through its research stations, outreach centers, and campuses.

For 155 years this coming Saturday, the U has touched the lives of generations of citizens of Minnesota, students, faculty and staff members, and alumni. Today it stands for excellence in education, is a premier research institution, and shares its knowledge in order to improve communities and society. As the U strives to become one of the top three public research universities in the world, it celebrates the vision and achievements of its founders.

To commemorate Founders Day 2006 on the Twin Cities campus, free buttons will be distributed on Friday, February 24, at the information desks in Coffman Union, St. Paul Student Center, West Bank Skyway, and U Relations (3 Morrill Hall).

If you want to see what the night sky might have looked like that night 155 years ago, stop by the big steel sculpture at Oak Street and Washington Avenue S.E., Minneapolis. About 2,000 tiny lights within the monument illuminate the exterior, creating an artistic representation of the night sky as it appeared on February 25, 1851. During the day, a "day chamber"--a public viewing space with an overhanging roof and tiny holes--directs sunlight onto an angled stainless steel panel below, creating an impression of constellations inside the monument.

Sources The University of Minnesota, 1851-1951, by James Gray. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1951; pp. 13-16.

The University of Minnesota, 1945-2000, by Stanford Lehmberg and Ann M. Pflaum. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

"150 Facts and Firsts," by Shelly Fling and Monica LaBelle, in Minnesota, September-October 2000, p. 29.

"History of the Capitol," by Friends of the Minnesota State Capitol.

"Minnesota weather for the year 1851," in The First Fifty Years of Weather History in Minnesota (1820-1869): A Year-by-Year Narrative Account, by Charles Fisk, member, American Meteorological Society.

Revised February 28, 2006