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Mayville Normal School


Mayville State University opened its doors as Mayville Normal School on this date in 1890.

North Dakota had been in business as a state for only one year at that time. Bismarck had retained the state capitol, but other towns and cities wanted a share of the spoils, as well. George H. Walsh, a wheeler-dealer in Grand Forks, later said, “I took the University. Jamestown the insane asylum and Fargo took the agricultural college. The penitentiary went to Bismarck.”

At the constitutional convention in 1889, other institutions were doled out, as well. Because the eastern part of North Dakota was the only portion then settled, most of these went to towns east of the Missouri. Valley City was given a college, Mandan got a reform school, Wahpeton a school of science, Ellendale an industrial school, Lisbon an old soldiers’ home, Pembina County a school for the blind, Devils Lake a school for the “deaf and dumb,” and a school of forestry was promised for some place in Rolette, Ward, McHenry or Bottineau counties. It would be more than a decade before colleges would also be established in Minot and Dickinson.

UND had already been running for six years when Valley City, Fargo and Mayville got under way in 1890. It’s ironic, but there were very few high schools in this state with so many higher education institutions. Almost all of those early students had to begin their college training with preparatory work or with practical courses at the Agricultural College. As the number of high schools increased, so did the number of college enrollments, but even as late as 1914, the great majority of college students didn’t have high school diplomas.

Mayville Normal struggled financially during its first six years. The panic of 1893 caused Governor Roger Allin to veto many education appropriations, and the school’s future was uncertain. Enrollment fluctuated between one and two hundred students, taught by only six faculty members. The school’s six departments included English, history and geography, mathematics, the natural sciences, music and drawing, and the final department, Latin.

One student who came to Mayville in 1896 was Usher Burdick, who later became a high-profile politician in North Dakota. He enrolled late that year because of commitments to a threshing crew. There was no room for him in the male dormitory, and it was finally arranged for him to board with the school janitor’s family until Christmas. When Burdick took his entrance exams, he failed arithmetic and history and had to repeat two elementary courses, which he found both humbling and enlightening.

In 1897, the legislature overrode Gov. Frank Brigg’s veto on education spending, and Mayville Normal’s future was stabilized. That year, the school hired Joseph Carhart as its new president. Historian Elwyn Robinson wrote, “...bearded, experienced Joseph Carhart, with his black skullcap, brought a golden age. He was considered one of the ablest normal-school administrators in the nation.”

Burdick agreed and said Carhart was one of two people, outside his family, who had the greatest influence on his life. Carhart established a new department and taught psychology and philosophy; his classes were challenging and provided a new view of the world and the human dilemma. He also had a gift for speaking and recognized Burdick’s potential. Carhart took Burdick down to the banks of the Goose River and taught him how to project his voice, and when Burdick graduated in 1900, President Carhart selected him class orator for the ceremonies.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm