Washington Agricultural College (predecessor to Washington State University) opens on January 13, 1892.

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 5/05/2004
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5695
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On January 13, 1892, the Agricultural College, Experiment Station, and School of Science of the State of Washington -- the descriptive if unwieldy name given to what eventually will become Washington State University -- opens its doors to an initial class of 59 students. The newest of the nation's land-grant institutions, the college consists of one tiny building on a treeless, 25-acre campus near the small town of Pullman. By the end of its first century it will be recognized as one of the top public research universities in the United States, serving more than 20,000 students statewide.

Agricultural and Mechanical Arts

Just months after Washington became a state on November 11, 1889, the first State Legislature took steps to claim a federal land grant for an agricultural college under the terms of the Morrill Act. This act, adopted in 1862 and revised in 1890, encouraged states to create colleges "to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts ... in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life" (Morrill Act). An Enabling Act, passed by the Legislature on March 28, 1890, made the state eligible for a grant of 190,000 acres. Governor Elisha P. Ferry (1825-1895) signed the bill into law few days later. The federal government also provided an annual cash payment of $15,000 (later increased to $25,000) to support the college.

The enabling legislation stipulated that the college be located in the southeastern corner of the state, but left the selection of a specific site up to a three-member committee, appointed by the governor. The committee visited several small towns in the region, including Pullman, but disbanded without making a recommendation. A second committee initially deadlocked between Yakima and Pullman but finally selected Pullman, perhaps swayed by the town's promise of a generous gift of some of its own land for the college. The decision, announced on April 27, 1891, set off a two-day celebration in the self-styled "little star of the Palouse," during which all the businesses closed -- except for the three saloons, considered "indispensable to the occasion" (Frykman, 2).

Arts and Sciences

Meanwhile, the Legislature passed a second law concerning the college, appointing a five-member Board of Regents and expanding the educational mission to include general arts and sciences in addition to agriculture. The regents quickly hired the school's first president, George W. Lilley, a Midwesterner who, in turn, hired a faculty of five. Construction of the first campus building began in May 1891. A one-story red brick building, standing all alone on an immense, treeless hill, it was nicknamed the "CRIB" -- the cradle of an infant college.

At a meeting in Pullman on December 1, 1891, the Regents decided the college would initially offer three major fields of study: agriculture, mechanical arts, and domestic science; along with a two-year non-degree pharmacy course and a one-year college preparatory department. The Regents stipulated that tuition would be free to residents of Washington State.

Of the original class of 59 students, only 13 were admitted as freshmen to the college itself; the rest were relegated to a preparatory department -- a reflection of the fact that the state had few high schools or academies that could prepare students for college. The students boarded with families in Pullman for most of the first year, until the completion of a five-story dormitory on campus. The cost of sharing a room in the dormitory was $17 a year; meals in the dining hall cost about $8 a month. A 225-acre college farm, adjacent to the campus, supplied both produce for the dining hall and training for the agricultural students.

Despite descriptions of an elaborate curriculum in the college catalog, the actual choices were limited. There was no clear distinction between the classes taken by the prep students and the matriculated freshmen. Much of the momentum for college's cultural life came from the students themselves. In short order, they organized a literary society, an athletic club, and a student newspaper. The relative isolation of the campus fostered a collegial spirit that would characterize Washington State students for decades to come.

Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, vidoes, and curriculum.


An Act Donating Public Lands to the Several States and Territories Which May Provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts (the Morrill Act), Statutes at Large, 12, ch. 130, p 504; George A. Frykman, Creating the People's University: Washington State University, 1890-1990 (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1990); William L. Stimson, Going to Washington State: A Century of Student Life (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1989).

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