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Friends in High Places
The United States Presidential Election of 1892 and Oklahoma's First Land Grant College
By David C. Peters, Oklahoma State University Edmon Low Library Collections
For over 200 years, presidential elections have been contentious events in the United States. The election of 1892 was distinctive in that it was the only time a former president, Grover Cleveland, faced a sitting president, Benjamin Harrison. It was a rematch, with a third party addition, of the election four years earlier in 1888 when Harrison defeated Cleveland.
In that first election between the two, Cleveland won the popular vote, but Harrison prevailed in the Electoral College. The 1892 election would feature a third political party, the Populists and their candidate James Weaver, who would collect 8.5 percent of the popular vote and gather 22 electoral votes by winning Kansas, Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and one elector each from North Dakota and Oregon.
Citizens in the Oklahoma and Indian Territories could not vote in the presidential election of 1892, but the results of this contest would lead to the ouster of their land grant college’s first Board of Regents, replacement of its president, and halt the construction of Old Central, the first permanent building on the campus of the Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College.
Many Payne County and Stillwater citizens carried political persuasions along with their possession into the Indian and Oklahoma Territories. Populists came from Kansas and Colorado; Democrats from Texas, Arkansas and Missouri; and Republicans from Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New England. These conflicting partisan differences were often aired in local newspapers.
The citizens of Payne County and Stillwater had voted in numerous elections that had become the foundation of the evolving Oklahoma Territory. Local officals and other representatives were elected; town charter and local ordinances were enacted; and revenue streams and financial resources were approved through taxes, bonds, fines and fees. The election process did not always run smoothly. Some measures needed adjustments; others failed or were reworked and proposed again. One such case had been the securing of bonds to provide funding for the first permanent building at OAMC.
One reason Stillwater had been selected as the successful candidate for the new home of the college was the city's promise to provide $10,000 for contruction of a college building. For an infant community comprised exclusively of recent homesteaders, the only feasible way to raise these funds was the sale of revenue bonds. After some early stumbles, the city succeeded, and the bonds were sold. But it was understood that this amount wouldy only comprise the seed money for the project, and an additional allocation would be needed from the new Oklahoma Territory to complete construction.
Initially, the college had been designated for Payne County but not located on a specific site. The February 1891 bond issue to approve the $10,000 funding source failed overwhelmingly with less than 33 percent of the countrywide vote. In April 1891, Stillwater residents voted to incorporate as a town. By a unanimous vote of 132-0, city voters approved the bonds the next month. The territorial site selection committee recommended the Stillwater site in Payne County to the territorial governor during the first week of July 1891. The electoral process seemed to be leading towards the successful establishment of the college in Stillwater and construction of its first permanent building.
U.S. presidents appointed territorial governors. President Harrison, a Republican, appointed a fellow Republican, George Washington Steele as the first Oklahoma territorial governor. Steele’s responsibilities included appointing the Board of Regents for the land grant college in Stillwater. Steele, who served as an ex officio member of the board, named five individuals. The territorial legislature approved four, and a substitute appointment was later accepted. All the board members were Republicans. Several members were also territorial legislators.
Board members frequently served in several capacities. One board member in several additional rolls was John Wimberley, who served as a legislator and in two paid positions on the Board of Regents. He served as purchasing agent and superintendent of the college building program. The secretary of the board was designated to serve as the college president, so Robert Barker, another legislator, instantly became the first college president when he was selected as the secretary. Barker would also serve on the faculty as professor of moral and mental science. Amos Ewing was chosen as board treasurer and college treasurer at this same meeting when the board first gathered at Guthrie in June 1891. These numerous entwinements of the legislature, board and campus officials along with their affiliations with the Republican Party proved to be both assets and liabilities.
The Board of Regents took ownership of 200 acres in November 1891; the next month, it authorized construction of three wood-framed buildings using federal funds provided through the Land Grant Act of 1862, commonly known as the Morrill Act. The federal funds were deposited in accounts at Ewing’s Guthrie bank.
Although the Stillwater construction bonds for the college building had been approved in May 1891, they had not been sold by March 1892. The town didn’t have property valuations sufficient to support the sale of these bonds, and they were rendered invalid. A specially appointed town assessor generated a new valuation for city property that exceeded the necessary minimum.
Another Stillwater election took place in July 1892, and the second bond proposal passed, 167-6. But it was understood that the $10,000 in construction bonds would still need the allocation from the new Oklahoma Territorial Legislature. After these early stumbles, Stillwater civic leaders were optimistic the campus building process was about to start.
However, the mechanism for selling the Stillwater construction bonds was not approved by the territorial legislature until March 1893. At the same time, the legislature also approved $15,000 in territorial bonds for the new OAMC building. In late April 1893, Guthrie banker Joseph W. McNeal purchased the Stillwater bonds and sold half to the new Oklahoma Territorial Governor Abraham Jefferson Seay who had been appointed by President Harrison in February 1892. Seay, a fellow Republican and Union veteran, had investments in a Kingfisher bank and left the governor’s office on May 7, 1893. Funds from the sale of these construction bonds were deposited in accounts in both Guthrie and Kingfisher, and controlled by Ewing.
Stillwater citizens met at the home of the Agricultural Experiment Station Director James Neal on June 1, 1893, to discuss a site for the new building. The site was proposed to the Board of Regents at their meeting on June 20, 1893. The board approved the suggestion and awarded a bid for construction to Henderson Ryan, a building contractor from Fort Smith, Arkansas. Ryan bid $14,948 for construction that did not include a heating system. The board anticipated a total of $25,000 was coming from all bond sales. The members allocated $5,000 for equipment and several months later approved a ventilation and heating contract for $3,490. Construction commenced.
While Stillwater citizens had been preoccupied with local and territorial politics regarding the birth and development of the college, the impact of the national election from November 1892 was about to reach their town. Cleveland, the candidate from the Democratic Party, had narrowly won the popular vote but had overwhelmed Harrison and Weaver in the Electoral College. The election had been spirited until the death of Harrison’s wife, Caroline, two weeks before the voting was to begin. All campaigning ceased during the final two weeks.
It was the first presidential election with women voters. Wyoming, a state for only two years, allowed women to vote. Wyoming went for Harrison, but Cleveland won the presidency. He would be the only Democrat elected U.S. president between 1856 and 1912.
Cleveland was inaugurated for the second time March 4, 1893. As with his first administration, he began to fill presidential appointments across the country including new territorial governors for Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah. He appointed fellow Democrat William C. Renfrow as governor of the Oklahoma Territory on May 7, 1893, the only Democrat to serve as governor during the Oklahoma territorial period between 1890 and 1907. Renfrow, a Norman banker, was a Confederate veteran who had moved west after the war and would serve four years as territorial governor until 1897.
Governor Renfrow, in turn, began filling appointments that were authorized by his position, including new members for the OAMC Board of Regents during the summer of 1893. He replaced the entire Republican board, except for college President Robert Barker, with Democrats. However, board members refused to leave at first. During the following months, they resigned one by one, with treasurer Amos Ewing being one of the last. He was listed as the designated agent on the college accounts and did not authorize the transfer of any remaining federal funds to the new Democratic board out of the college accounts found in Guthrie and Kingfisher banks, where he also held investments. The college depended upon these federal resources and at this point had received very little from the territorial government. Ewing also controlled access to the funds raised by the sale of the Stillwater construction bonds. The Republican board continued to make monthly payments to building contractor Ryan until funds ran out.
The Democratic board controlled the territorial construction bonds and any new federal funds. The broker for the territorial bonds was Martin L. Turner, a Guthrie banker and a devoted Democrat. Turner, collaborating with Renfrow, responded by failing to issue the bonds.
Work on Old Central stopped. There were claims that Governor Renfrow was also delaying the sale of the territorial bonds until he could appoint a new treasurer who would be willing to deposit these funds in Renfrow’s Norman bank where he hoped to use them as collateral. When the federal government forwarded the annual $19,000 Morrill Act funds for the college to the territorial treasurer in December 1893, Ewing filed legal papers claiming those funds were to come to him. They had gone to Martin Turner, who by then had been named by Renfrow to serve as territorial treasurer.
On December 1, 1893, Barker told the Republican board that the governor said the territorial bonds were printed and awaiting his signature. He didn’t sign them until January 25, almost two months later, and even then, the construction bonds were controlled by Turner, who didn’t sell the bonds until March 1894 when the funds were deposited into Renfrow’s bank.
Construction at the Old Central site had stopped in November 1893 when the funds from the city bond ran out and the territorial funds were still in limbo. Contractor Henderson Ryan had used all of the city bond funds available to him and the building still lacked a roof. Construction was at a critical phase and vulnerable during the winter months with no available resources. Stillwater city merchants were also holding Ryan’s checks presented for the purchase of construction materials, fearing there were insufficient funds remaining in accounts to cover the deposits.
Territorial newspapers assigned blame for the challenges facing the land grant college according to their political persuasions. Republican papers faulted Renfrow who was described as “being mentally incapacitated to properly perform the function of his high office” and his Democratic bankers, friends and cronies. Papers supporting the Democrats blamed the Republicans in the territorial legislature, the Republican board and its Republican bankers, friends and cronies associated with the previous territorial governors Steele and Seay. By the spring of 1894, one-fourth of all college funds were held at a bank in Guthrie; the rest was in Renfrow’s Norman bank.
In March 1894, Renfrow and Ewing reached an understanding that allowed funds to be released to complete enough construction at the facility for it to host a dedication and commencement on June 14, 1894. President Barker presided at the event, which served as his final official act. He left office on June 30, 1894, the last of the original regents appointed in 1891. Within the next year, the administration and faculty would become a revolving door with three college presidents.
A resulting investigation revealed a series of fiscal irregularities, inadequate record keeping, insufficient planning and poor accounting practices — not illegal but probably unethical. The situation was perplexing considering the numbers of businessmen and bankers involved, and neither political party was immune from charges of favoritism and patronage. Ultimately, this early experience for the Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College should be described as a story of competition, cronyism, conflict and compromise.
More stories like this are available for members of the OSU Alumni Association. STATE magazine is a benefit of membership in the OSU Alumni Association. To join or update your membership, go to orangeconnection.org/join, or call 405-744-5368.
Uploaded September 1, 2016