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Penn State History Lesson: James Irvin, Centre Furnace, & Humble Beginnings

University Park may seem big now, but it wasn’t always. What once started as the Farmer’s High School of Pennsylvania stretches nearly 7,000 miles as one of the largest universities in the United States.

While Penn State may look a little different now, some iconic State College landmarks are still around today. One of these gems is the Centre Furnace, and we have James Irvin to thank for that.

Born on February 18, 1800, in Bellefonte, Irvin was an American politician who served in the 27th and 28th Congress and would end up having a profound impact on the university and Centre County. Irvin Hall, one of Penn State’s oldest residence halls, was even named after him.

Irvin, along with his father, James Irvin, and brother-in-law, Moses Thompson, began purchasing an interest in Centre Furnace in 1832. In 1838, James Irvin became the sole owner of the furnace, which mainly produced iron.

Courtesy of the Centre County Historical Society

Although Centre Furnace stopped producing in 1858, one of its stacks still stands today on East College Ave. and Porter Road.

Thompson moved into the Centre Furnace Mansion in 1842, which set a tradition for a member of the Thompson family to live there up until 1912.

Courtesy of Penn State University Libraries Special Collection

Today, the mansion still stands and is open for tours. Additionally, it’s home to the Centre County Historical Society.

Courtesy of the Centre County Historical Society

In the 19th century, Pennsylvanians noticed an increasing need for better agriculture education in the state. Two men, Hugh McAllister Beaver (sound familiar?) and Frederick Watts piloted the campaign to bring awareness to this need.

“Both men believed that higher education should be available to other classes than merely the wealthy, and also that a special sort of education should exist for the sons of farmers,” Kathleen Wunderly, local historian and Centre County Historical Society member, said. “Studying literature and classics might expand young men’s horizons, but did nothing to perfect practical farming skills.”

On April 13, 1854, Governor William Bigler signed the official agreement to create the Farmer’s High School of Pennsylvania, and thus, Penn State was born. This is where Irvin’s role in Penn State’s history begins to get a little more interesting.

In 1855, Irvin wrote a letter to the Agricultural Society, offering up Centre Furnace’s land for the site of the school.

“I take this opportunity of proposing through you to the trustees, to give the Institution a tract of improved Land containing from Two hundred to Two hundred fifty acres (The Land is good limestone clay soil, situate in Harris Township Centre County) provided the Farmers High School of Pennsylvania, be located thereon,” Irvin wrote.

Thompson and Irvin offered 200 acres of land to the Agricultural Society if they chose Centre County as the location. Although other offers promised more land, Centre Furnace was ultimately chosen as the location for the school thanks to Irvin’s political connections and the furnace’s isolated location in the center of the state.

The Farmer’s High School of Pennsylvania opened to students on February 19, 1859. Dr. Evan Pugh served as president alongside William Waring as superintendent.

In winter 1860, the high school changed its name to the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania. It later became the Pennsylvania State College in 1874, and, finally, the Pennsylvania State University in 1955.

Courtesy of the Centre County Historical Society

Construction on the original Old Main finished in 1863. McAllister designed the original building to withhold classrooms, labs, offices, a chapel, and residential space. Today, Old Main houses administrative offices for many university officials.

One hundred and sixty-one years and more than 6,700 acres later, Penn State is still standing. Next time you pass by a dining hall or building with a name like Curtin, Irvin, McAllister, or many more, think back to how this university started with just 200 acres of land and an agricultural high school.

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About the Author

Ryen Gailey

Ryen is a senior early childhood education major from "right outside of Philly" - or in exact words, from 23.0 miles outside of Philly. She loves all things Penn State and has been a huge Penn State gal since before she could walk. Send her pictures of puppies, or hate mail at [email protected]

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