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Penn State History Lesson: Alternative Original Campus Locations

University Park. State College. Happy Valley.

Whatever you call it, this area is home to many of your favorite locations, from Beaver Stadium to the HUB Lawn, The Waffle Shop, and Berkey Creamery. But what if Penn State wasn’t located in Centre County at all?

Roger L. Williams, the former executive director of the Penn State Alumni Association and associate vice president of the university, recently published a biography on one of its pivotal founding figures, Frederick Watts. Williams explained in the book that Centre County was far from the first proposed location for the university.

Watts was a busy man in the mid-1800s and was primarily interested in agriculture. He set up groups across Pennsylvania made up of prominent farmers and scientists to share knowledge and discuss the best ways to produce crops.

Watts founded and was promptly elected president of the Pennsylvania State Agricultural Society in 1851. As the years passed, he decided that it would be beneficial for current and future generations to create a school where young men could go and learn all of the important aspects of farming.

And so, the Farmers’ High School was born.

In February of 1855, Watts traveled to Harrisburg with his board of trustees. They were ready to select a site for Farmers’ High School, which was to be anywhere from 200 to 1,000 acres. For reference, the University Park campus now spans nearly 8,000 acres.

Landowners came from all over the state to offer their plots — for a price, of course. After hearing the proposals, Watts and several members of the board of trustees traveled around the state to examine each plot of land and determine if it was fit to host the school.

Joseph Bailey, a state senator and future U.S. House representative, offered to sell 2,000 acres of land in Perry County, which sits just northwest of the state capitol. Details of the exact location of that land or the rate per acre aren’t available today.

Another offer came from George Bayard, who lived near Pittsburgh in Allegheny County. The businessman offered a smaller, 600-acre plot, with a going rate of $35 per acre.

Some men were gracious enough to donate land, but only in small doses. James Miles, a board of trustees member, offered 200 acres in Girard Township, which sits on Lake Erie. Later, Miles offered up an additional 200 acres at a rate of $60 per acre. This location was appealing due to its proximity to the water and to the seaport that Erie had become.

Elias Baker was a prominent ironmaster in Blair County, which is near Altoona. At the time, Altoona was a booming railroad city. Baker also offered to donate 200 acres of land, plus a second set of 200 acres that could be purchased at $25 per acre.

James Irvin, another notable ironmaster, also offered 200 acres of land in Blair’s neighbor, Centre County. Like his competitors, Irvin also put up an additional 200 acres to be rented and eventually purchased at a rate of $60 per acre.

Watts, Governor James Pollock, and various members of the board of trustees tried to make quick work of traveling around the state to examine all of the potential sites. While they traveled, though, even more proposals came in.

W. H. Easton, of Franklin County, offered a donation of 200 acres, similar to his competitors. By the time Watts and the other leadership visited the property and discussed its viability, the citizens of Mercersburg had become so eager to bring the Farmers’ High School to Franklin County that they raised enough money between them to purchase a second plot of land to increase the donation.

Yet another donation offer came from Huntingdon County, this time for a 200-acre farm near Shade Gap that even today sits on largely empty land.

Finally, an offer came from Union County, which borders a branch of the Susquehanna River and contains notable towns such as Lewisburg, for 265 acres. It wasn’t farmland, but it was better than nothing.

To make the decision even harder, the existing offerers tried to sweeten the deal while new proposals were still coming in. Blair County citizens, for example, offered a $10,000 donation to the school with no strings attached.

Centre County’s James Irvin countered with a payment plan for the land that he was selling since he knew that Watts and the trustees didn’t have mounds of cash to work with. On top of that, Irvin promised a $10,000 donation to the school if they put the school in Centre County.

While members of the board of trustees proposed motions to accept the bids in Franklin, Blair, and Allegheny Counties, Watts’ motion to accept the Centre County bid ended up passing.

Irvin had arguably been laying the plans for this decision for years. He was not only a notable state politician, having served two terms in Congress, but a prominent member of the Whig party and one of the wealthiest men in Pennsylvania.

Irvin had reportedly been discussing the idea of a farming school in Centre County as early as 1850, so it follows that his county would get first dibs on Watts’ project while taking his status in the Commonwealth into account.

Critics of the move argued that it was a logistical nightmare. The location was inaccessible by railroads, had no running water, and was thought by some to have poor soil for farming.

Watts and his associates ardently defended their decision, claiming that the soil was actually some of the best in the state, which turned out to be true. They also argued that the remote location would keep the young men focused on their studies and away from temptation. We’re not sure how well that one held up, but it’s the thought that counts.

Over the next few years, Watts and the board of trustees engineered a new mail route to the school and completed construction on the College Building (the equivalent of Old Main today). At long last, the Farmers’ High School welcomed its first class of students in 1859.

Over the years, the tiny school in central Pennsylvania grew into what we know today as the Pennsylvania State University. While its founders didn’t know it then, hundreds of thousands of people all over the world would come to regard this area as home.

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About the Author

Haylee Yocum

Haylee is a junior studying immunology and infectious disease. She is from Mifflintown, PA, a tiny town south of State College. She is a coffee addict, loves Taylor Swift, and can't wait to go to a concert again. Any questions can be directed to @hayleeq8 on Twitter or emailed to [email protected]

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