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UND’s First Nickname


To see the sprawling campus of the University of North Dakota today, it would be difficult to imagine the humble beginning of the institution and what the campus looked like in 1884. On February 23, 1883 the law was passed creating the University. On May 25th, ground was broken for the main building, but it was on this date that the contracts were analyzed. The next day, a contract for $32,500 was accepted for the construction of the first building. The site chosen for the university was a barren, plowed area surrounded by a vast area of yellowing grain. Not a single dwelling or building lay between the school and the fledgling town of Grand Forks. Not a tree dotted the landscape – the nearest were two miles away along the Red River of the North.

The cornerstone was laid on October 2nd of that year and construction carried on during the winter. On September 8, 1884, the University of North Dakota opened its doors for the formal reception of students. The sounds of hammers and saws often interrupted the sound of recitation, according to Webster Merrifield, one of four instructors at the college. There was no library, no museum or laboratories. The university was divided into three separate departments. The first was the Preparatory Department, then the Normal Department and, finally the Collegiate Department.

Dr. William Blackburn served as President of the University, and though announced as the professor of mental and moral science, he actually taught arithmetic, algebra and the histories of Greece, Rome and the United States. Professor Henry Montgomery, noted as professor of natural sciences, actually taught English composition, grammar and literature. Webster Merrifield, whose prospectus showed him as a professor of Latin and Greek, actually did teach Latin and Greek, with Greek being a required course at the time, even at the preparatory level. The fourth faculty member was Mrs. H. H. Mott, who served as Matron for the female students, but she also taught reading, writing, spelling, geography, and grammar.

Students for the first year at the college numbered seventy-nine. There were 10 high school seniors, 18 juniors and 51 students below the ninth grade level, who were all listed as special students in the Preparatory Department. There were no students in the Normal or Collegiate Departments yet. That would take several years as the student body matured, which, much to the dismay of the school’s supporters, lent to UND’s first nickname: “The Grand Forks Kindergarten.”

Dakota Datebook written by Jim Davis


The Evening Times, September 29, 1910 page 16

The Pioneer Express August 22, 1884 Page 2