It wasn’t long after the founding and the construction of the first humble building, now known as Forest Hall, that the vision of Wabash College’s Board of Trustees expanded. Williamson Dunn’s gift of 15 acres was a start, but to really grow, it was clear that more land would be needed. Crawfordsville was still a tiny town and in 1835 Wabash purchased a quarter section of land, 160 acres, from Ambrose Whitlock. This parcel included our current campus.
The trustees of the college immediately held an auction, sold 100 acres off the parcel and made money. This profit was used to start the construction of the building known simply as “The College,” as there were no other buildings on this site. In a letter from November of 1835, Mary Hovey, wife of Edmund O. Hovey, tells her sister that they have purchased 7-8 acres of land and will build a house, what we call Hovey Cottage. In 1836 Caleb Mills built his lovely home and for the rest of their lives these two men lived and worked side by side.
This is a section of an 1857 lithograph showing the College, built of brick and consisting of four floors. The first three floors housed only student rooms as this building served also as a dormitory.
This is a floor plan of the fourth floor showing student rooms, classrooms and the Chapel. Where the student rooms backed onto one another there were shutter openings in the brick walls for ventilation. Each floor was divided into three “Divisions” North, Middle and South. The two walls which created the three divisions were built as a unit from the basement to the roof. The south end of the 4th floor contained the Chapel, recitation rooms and the library. At the time it was built, South Hall was a very large building and much admired. As it was considered to be as nearly fireproof as possible, it was not insured.
The fire of September 23, 1838 very nearly killed Wabash. Mary Hovey in a letter to her brother-in-law Charles White describes the fire, “The scenes of last Saturday morning can never be blotted from our memory. But the day before our beautiful college building – which cost sixteen thousand dollars – stood as the ornament of our town and pleased the eye of every beholder. The building was not entirely completed, but would have been this fall. Accommodations were already provided for sixty students. The building contained libraries and apparatus valued at six thousand dollars. At half past two on that morning we were awakened by the cry, “The College is on fire!” The flames had then burst through all the windows in the north-end which was unfinished and this whole roof was one sheet of fire. For a moment building library and all were forgotten in the thought Where are the students? We knew some were sleeping in the third and perhaps fourth stories and the fire was rapidly descending the staircases. But – we rejoice to add that the lives of all were saved, though many left all of their worldly goods behind to be consumed by the fire….”
From her wonderfully detailed letter we learn that the fire apparently started on the roof of the north division from a furnace being used by the “tinners” finishing the tin roof. It was largely due to the unique construction of the building utilizing the separate divisions of brick walls, basement to roof, that most of the damage was limited to the middle and north divisions. The exterior and interior walls held the fire somewhat in check. However, all of the library and the scientific equipment were destroyed. It was thought at first that this was the end, or in Mary’s words, “For a few hours our feelings were, ‘Wabash College is dead, henceforth it will exist only in memory’….that which was so speedily destroyed seemed to forbid any thought of rebuilding it. But the united voice of our citizens is it must not die.” Mary was writing this letter the day following the public meeting held between the college and the town. John Steel Thomson gave a rousing sermon which inspired the people of Crawfordsville to donate the money they had set aside for a female academy to begin the process of rebuilding Wabash. From E.O. Hovey’s entry in the faculty minutes, “The exterior walls…will do to stand, and the work of repairs will begin this week. This evening a spirited meeting has been held in behalf of the College and the word is rebuild.” It is for this outpouring of generosity that President Lew Salter, on the occasion of 150th Anniversary of the College, penned a thank you to the citizens of Crawfordsville. On the mall side of Baxter Hall (former site of South Hall) there is a small tablet that further expresses the gratitude of the college to the town.
This is a small section of a picture taken in the 1870’s, It shows us South Hall before the many renovations that were inflicted upon it.
The early years of our history were filled with struggle and all who labored to build this small school loved it as their own child. The story of Wabash throughout its many decades shows that the deep passion and abiding vision of our founders endures yet today. Still a small, private, liberal arts college for men, Wabash retains its strong work ethic, a bit of its pioneer spirit and its commitment, above all else, to its students.