NMU established 125 years ago

Pictured here is a postcard with a view of the Northern State Normal School in Marquette from 1914, made by the Detroit Publishing Co. (Photo courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library via Digital Collections)

MARQUETTE — Northern Michigan University was founded on April 28, 1899, under the name Northern State Normal School.

Here’s its history:

In the late 19th century, the Upper Peninsula’s mining and logging industries flourished due to the influx of immigrants, but there was one problem. The workers’ children needed an education and the majority of teachers in the area had no formal training.

Marquette residents, including the notable Peter White, lobbied for what was called a “normal school” to train and certify teachers in the region. The state Legislature refused the first few proposals, but on April 28, 1899, Gov. Hazen Pingree signed a bill authorizing Northern State Normal School. The pen he used on that fateful day is stored at the Beaumier U.P. Heritage Center on campus.

The impetus for a final approval occurred a few months earlier, according to “Northern Michigan University: The First 75 Years” by the late Miriam Hilton.

On Jan. 30, 1899, Marquette’s leading citizens convened at the Hotel Marquette to host a dinner for more than 100 members of the Michigan Legislature. The delegation had accepted a state representative’s invitation to come see why Marquette was the best possible site for Michigan’s third “normal” school — a “recognized necessity for the public school system and a college for the common people,” as described in the Daily Mining Journal.

“The legislators’ train was delayed by the intense cold, which made the tracks slippery,” Hilton wrote. “It was well after 11 p.m. before dinner was over and Peter White, a leading banker and popular toastmaster, rose and regaled the company with the account of his efforts to get a ‘normal’ school for Marquette back in 1875 when he was a member of the state Senate.”

Despite favorable indications that the city’s goal would be achieved soon after the January 1899 dinner, five members of the House Education Committee traveled throughout the U.P. the following month for the express purpose of selecting a site.

Episcopal Bishop G. Mott Williams summarized the case for Marquette in an original poem. One of the 19 stanzas read: “Give us a school, a Normal School! Our children cry for learning / There’s work enough for hand and tool, and wages for the earning. / But when it comes to train the mind, we have to be like Dante / And find a guide to go below and stew in–Ypsilanti!”

Hilton wrote that Michigan’s state superintendent of public instruction was well aware of the need for teacher training and certification in the U.P., but the bills he drafted in 1895 and 1897 were both defeated. In 1899, Pingree’s pressures for legislation that would benefit the common person, combined with the determination of U.P. legislators, apparently persuaded other members of the House and Senate that the latest bill should be passed.

Northern State Normal School was chartered on April 28 of that year, and the first classes were held in September. The name persisted until 1927, and after a few other incarnations, ultimately transitioned to Northern Michigan University in 1963.

“Northern State Normal School had a big impact regionally because it allowed U.P. students to get trained as teachers close by without having to travel to one of the two other normal schools in the Lower Peninsula, and it provided U.P. schools with more qualified, certified teachers,” said NMU historian and professor emeritus Russ Magnaghi, who compiled “A Sense of Time: The Encyclopedia of Northern Michigan University.”

“Over the years, as Northern transitioned to a university, it became an economic force and an arts and cultural center of the region, strengthening its connection to the community,” he said.

In addition to Hilton’s book and Magnaghi’s encyclopedia, another source for information is “The Heart of Northern: A Brief History of Northern Michigan University” by 2021 NMU graduate Zoe Folsom and 2022 graduate Chloe Vander Laan.

For more on the NMU’s year-long 125th celebration, visit nmu.edu/125/home. To submit stories, reflections, photos and brief recordings that might be shared throughout the 125th anniversary year across various NMU platforms, visit nmu.edu/blog/share and select “125th Anniversary” from the “Choose One” drop-down menu.


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