PLATTEVILLE — History isn’t always clearly defined.
So when officials at UW-Platteville chose a date upon which to base the school’s 150th anniversary, they selected 1866.
The state legislature created the Board of Regents of Normal Schools in 1857 and the Platteville Normal School designed to educate future teachers, was the first to open nine years later in Rountree Hall, a stone building at Main and Elm streets, just west of the city’s booming downtown.
“Normal” referred to standards that, back then, were sketchy at best and varied from one-room school house to one-room school house. Whitewater followed in 1868, Oshkosh in 1871, River Falls in 1874 with the last of the original nine, Eau Claire, in 1916.
When the doors of the Normal School opened, the state was less than 20 years old, miners had been working the area for nearly 40 years pulling lead out of the hills that surround the Platte River and the Potosi Brewery had been making beer for 14 years.
But higher education here is older than the school’s Sesquicentennial suggests. It predates the Normal School by 17 years, Wisconsin’s 1848 statehood by nine years and can be traced to the second floor of a building at Cedar and Bonson streets. The first floor was home to a Presbyterian church.
“It was a preparatory school for college,” said James Hibbard, an archivist in the Southwest Wisconsin Room, the university’s hub of history in the lower level of Ullsvik Hall. “In terms of general education in the area, it was definitely higher education at the time.”
The school was the Platteville Academy, founded in 1839 in what is now a non-descript apartment building with vinyl siding and a satellite dish affixed to the roof of a side porch. The academy moved to the newly built Rountree Hall in 1853 and became the precursor to the modern-day university after the state began selling swampland to finance what would become a state-wide Normal School movement.
The program would ultimately develop into the UW System, which was created in 1971 and now includes 13 four-year universities, 13 two-year campuses and the statewide UW-Extension. The System has an enrollment of 180,000 students and a $6 billion budget.
Hibbard, a Michigan native, has immersed himself in southwest Wisconsin’s history for the past 15 years. He has written books on the histories of Platteville and Lancaster and oversees the area’s historical collections.
The Southwest Wisconsin Room contains the university’s archives, the Wisconsin Historical Society’s Area Research Center and of the Southwest Wisconsin Collection, essentially a historical museum and archive for the region.
When we visited last week to get sense of the university’s history, Hibbard not only showed university history, including a handwritten student newspaper, but he provided a brief and fascinating look at the region’s history.
The items included the 1869 ledger from the John P. Lewis store in Lancaster, leather-covered tax rolls that actually were rolled up for easy transportation and a diary from Orlando Jones, who documented his daily activities and the weather from 1852 to 1902. This month in 1857, his journal showed that it rained on Oct. 15 and 18, that he gathered apples on Oct. 17 and hunted pheasants on Oct. 12.
One of the more surreal items in the collection is an envelope-sized folded document that was filed in April 1838 in Iowa County Circuit Court by Gov. Henry Dodge that freed his five slaves, Tom, Lear, Jim, Joe and Toby.
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“We have an enormous amount of materials to research from,” said Hibbard, who is fond of road surveys, some of which date to 1836. “They’re original records, and they’re just wonderful. They’re some of the first maps of the area.”
UW-Platteville has a rich history after its official founding a little more than a year after the end of the Civil War. That history is being celebrated for the next year with art exhibits, programs and lectures. “Pioneer Pete” bobbleheads are $20.
Hibbard has in the collection a breathing apparatus used by miners in the 1960s, surveying equipment from the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, and he was able to track down for permanent display in the museum the lectern used by then-Sen. John F. Kennedy for a speech he gave on campus in 1959.
There is also an odd collection of school yearbooks that in their early stages changed names nearly every year. The first, in 1896, was named the “Bone of Contention.” In 1897, it was “The Makio,” followed by the “Spectrum” in 1899, “The Bonhomie” in 1905, and so on. In 1910, a contest was held and “Pioneer” was chosen as a permanent name based on the school paving the way for teacher education. That was the same year the school’s seal — a pick ax, shovel and sledge hammer — was designed.
This is where, in 1936, students used whitewashed stone to build a large “M” on a hillside east of the city to celebrate and honor the school’s mining program, although today mining is no longer part of the curriculum.
The Wisconsin Mining Trade School opened in 1908 to train students in the region’s mining industry, became the Wisconsin Institute of Technology in 1939 and later merged with the Platteville State Teachers College in 1959 to become the Wisconsin State College and Institute of Technology at Platteville.
Sports have also played a big role on campus.
UW-Madison football coach Paul Chryst grew up on the campus where his father, George, was the football coach and the NFL’s Chicago Bears trained for 18 summers beginning in 1984.
But it’s Bo Ryan, the now Badgers basketball coach, who still is top of mind. He led the Pioneers to four NCAA Division III national championships and from 1984 to 1999 compiled a record of 353-76. In a poll of students as to who should be on the docket for a distinguished lecture series event next April, Ryan was the overwhelming choice. He will give his speech on the basketball court that bears his name.
“We knew we wanted someone who was connected to the university in more ways than one,” said Valerie Wetzel, assistant director of the Pioneer Involvement Center. “Students are excited.”
But, of course, academics here are front and center and the university is booming.
Mechanical engineering is the university’s most popular major and has undergone an explosion in enrollment with 1,187 students now compared to 548 in 2007, a 116 percent increase. Other top majors include business administration, criminal justice, industrial technology management and civil engineering. All have experienced at least 20 percent growth in enrollment since 2007, according to university data.
The school, which covers 821 acres, is experiencing overall enrollment growth. In the 2004-05 school year, undergraduate and graduate students totaled 6,192. Nearly 9,000 are enrolled today. The increases have meant multiple upgrades including the addition of Rountree Commons, which opened in 2012 and can house 620 students. Bridgeway Commons opened in 2013 and is home for 440 students and the campus’ all-you-care-to-eat dining facility.
That’s a long way from the Platteville Academy, where in 1848 tuition was $2.40 per quarter and classes included lectures on independence, the “signers of declaration,” slavery, science, math and music, according to an original catalog in Hibbard’s collection. He also has the time capsule from the cornerstone of Ullsvik Hall, built in 1958. The 4-inch-wide, 9-inch-high and 15-inch-long metal box remains welded shut.
“I suppose what I’ll find is the (school) catalog and the newspaper,” Hibbard said. “Maybe I’ll open it next year for the 150th.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.