It was exactly 150 years ago today, on Aug. 11, 1870, when a group of local Quakers purchased an unfinished building and plot of land on the eastern edge of Wilmington that became Wilmington College.
WC’s story actually began several years before its founding, when three brothers — Hugh, James and Thomas Garvin — established Franklin College in Athens County in 1863, right in the middle of the Civil War. Their noble vision was to make a college education possible for Civil War veterans and women without financial means. Since Ohio University, the state’s oldest private institution of higher education, was nearby, the brothers decided to move Franklin College west to Wilmington 1865.
As the brothers worked to procure pledges for land and the construction of the initial campus building, they held the first Franklin College classes in public places throughout the city of Wilmington, from the Clinton County Probate Court to the local Christian Church. By early 1866, the brothers had purchased 17.25 acres of land to the east of Wilmington, the previous site of the Clinton County Fairgrounds, on which to begin construction of Franklin College.
In July 1866, in an impressive groundbreaking ceremony, construction workers laid the cornerstone for the first building — “Old Main” — on the Franklin College campus. Thomas Garvin assumed the college’s presidency. Yet, in the aftermath of the Civil War, amid a struggling local and national economy, the construction of Old Main proceeded too slowly. The brothers failed to fulfill their pledges and were unable to pay the stone masons for the work they had completed on the building.
By the summer of 1869, the Garvins realized their dream would not be fulfilled. Franklin College eventually was put up for auction in order to pay its creditors.
Meanwhile, two local Quaker brothers, John Henry Douglas and Robert Douglas, convinced other Friends of the value of a Quaker-owned college in Wilmington. Together, the Douglas brothers, along with a young zealous Quaker, Jonathan Bailey, hitched up a white horse to a phaeton and pursued fundraising by visiting the area Quaker quarterly meetings (congregations).
Their efforts secured modest funds in time for the public auction of Franklin College on Aug. 11, 1870. They enlisted Wilmington Quaker and former Civil War Col. Azariah Doan to represent them as the bidding started. Legend has it that Doan led his Northern troops into battle on horseback without carrying a firearm. Doan, who was elected to the Ohio Senate following the war, returned to his hometown and lived in Wilmington’s easternmost house, just east of the College at 822 Fife Avenue in the stately home more recently owned by Hugh and Jean Heiland. The college now owns the historic property.
The Doan-led Quaker contingent’s bid of $11,334 won the day and set into motion the dynamic genesis of Wilmington College’s 150 years.
Wilmington College was comprised of a single building nestled on 33.25 acres. Old Main became “College Hall” and the new board of managers, drawn from the Fairfield, Center and Miami quarterly meetings, appropriated $260 dollars to complete the interior of the building. These funds were used to purchase 220 seats, 40 settees, four wood-burning stoves and the college bell.
The first classes began in April 1871 with recent Earlham College graduate Lewis Estes as the college’s first president. He and his family first resided in College Hall in 1873 as construction began on the new Twin Ash Hall, a privately owned boarding house due east of the main building. Estes was the only president to call College Hall home. However, students and faculty members lived there during many of the school’s early years.
In the fall of 1874, the board recruited 26-year old Benjamin Trueblood, a dynamic young Quaker and another recent Earlham College graduate, to serve as its next president. Trueblood came to Wilmington after marrying Clinton County Quaker Sarah Terrell. Under Trueblood, the college stabilized and began to flourish. In 1875, Wilmington College held its first commencement and graduated four students: Ellen C. Wright, Aaron L. Hunt, Elma C. Doster and Hannah A. Lewis. For the 1875-76 academic year, enrollment increased to 90 students and the college boasted a $5,929 endowment.
The academic atmosphere also matured under Trueblood, who drew to him an increasingly distinguished faculty, the most notable of which was the recently graduated Ellen C. Wright. She served Wilmington College for more than 40 years, during which time she developed the education program and taught students in Greek, Latin, rhetoric and English grammar. In 1875, in addition to graduating its first class, Wilmington College also became incorporated under Ohio laws so that it could officially operate under a board of trustees and a board of managers.
The academic year was divided into three terms of 12 weeks. An additional three weeks were added to the fall term so that its close would be near the Christmas holiday. Tuition was paid weekly at $1 per week. Students who resided on campus, paid 5 to 8 cents per meal and $1 per week to board. South Hall, a dormitory built by the college in 1876, and Twin Ash Hall were operated by matrons.
Randall Sarvis is the senior director of public relations at Wilmington College.