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Doctor Webster Merrifield

Doctor Webster Merrifield became UND’s third president on this date in 1891. Merrifield grew up in Vermont and graduated from Yale in 1877. For the next two years, he taught in a private school in New York, then spent the next four years as a Greek and Latin tutor at Yale. He moved to Dakota Territory in 1883 to fill the chair of Latin and Greek at the newly established University of North Dakota, where he also taught Literature and Political Science.

UND’s early years were difficult. The state had taken on many costly institutions without enough of a tax. In 1885, President Blackburn was dismissed, and Merrifield was asked to take over. Instead, he recruited Homer Sprague as the school’s second president. But in 1891, Merrifield relented, accepting the position he would hold for the next 15 years.

Merrifield faced the same challenges as his predecessors. The territory was struggling toward statehood, there were political problems, and the economy was on a downturn. In 1894, an outbreak of typhoid fever paralyzed both the university and the city of Grand Forks. The following year, the governor refused to appropriate any money for UND, and it looked like it would close.

The University of Montana saw an opportunity and tempted Merrifield to become its president and to bring with him his entire faculty! The city of Grand Forks rallied, however, raising $26,000, and the teaching staff accepted a 25% pay cut. During Merrifield’s presidency, UND was reorganized and actually expanded, including the law school and medical school.

Early students “got back and forth to Grand Forks on daily afternoon trains or a horse and carriage bus called the “Black Maria.” The few students who lived on campus occupied two large barracks – the Bull Pen and the Ram Pasture. One story tells of a pious classman who loudly delivered bedtime prayers that included the names and misdeeds of everyone in the whole Bull Pen – loudly enough for professors to hear. It was reported that students “took matters into their own hands with a forced dip in a cold bathtub, which soon solved the problem.”

Merrifield also worked to develop and improve curricular standards for the state’s fledgling high schools. In fact, at his retirement in 1912, he was honored as the “father of secondary schools” in North Dakota.

Doctor Webster Merrifield died in his Pasadena home in 1916 at age 63.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

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