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Home on the Range
First Families of OAMC 1892-1951
By David C. Peters, Oklahoma State University Archives
The first on-campus housing at the Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College was designed for two employees, the college president and the farm manager of the Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station. One home, for the president and his family, was built on the campus; a smaller home went up on the Experiment Station for the farm manager. It would be 17 years before residential housing would be available for students, but in 1892 it wasn’t needed with over 95 percent of the student body residing in Stillwater with their families.
The Oklahoma Territorial Legislature did not allocate any funding for construction in 1892 but the United States Hatch Act, which had been passed to support extension work at land grant colleges, provided $3,000 to the young college. These funds were used to complete the College Barn, Experiment Station Laboratory and the two homes. The president's home and the college barn were the two most expensive structures completed that first year. Both were built by local carpenters using college students as laborers.
The home for the college president was ready for occupancy during the fall of 1892, but President Robert Barker was hesitant to move his family into the house located in the southeast corner of campus on Knoblock, south of Morrill Avenue. It was a great distance from the nearest residents in Stillwater. But Barker was more concerned that he might lose his homestead in Logan County and his residency in the county that had elected him to the territorial legislative assembly. His participation in the legislative assembly had placed him on the board for the college and his role on the board had put him into the presidency.
These connections might crumble if Barker took up residency in Stillwater and Payne County. He also didn’t want to disrupt his wife and four children from the farm home they had established only three years earlier during the April land run of 1889. He opted instead to rent an apartment in town, and the president’s home was used instead by the family of Oklahoma Experiment Station State Director Dr. James C. Neal.
Dr. Neal was intimately involved with the 200-acre campus, most of which was being utilized by the experiment station with only five acres for the college campus. Dr. and Mrs. Neal, with their two daughters, Kate and Amie, moved into the house during the fall semester.
The first president’s home was constructed in a modified Queen Anne style, which was popular beginning about 1880 and lasted until the first decade of the 1900s. One of the Victorian-era styles, Queen Anne homes were embellished with bay windows and wrap-around porches covering a front façade decorated with columns and brackets. These homes were asymmetrical and frequently had a dominant front-facing gable. Chimneys were in the interior of the home with the central fireplace as the main source of heat.
Stillwater carpenters were hired to build the home which was considered lavish for the new community just three years after settlement. The two-story structure faced east, with a front porch that wrapped around to the north, three bedrooms upstairs and large living spaces on the first floor. Before a bathroom conversion took place inside the home, there was an outhouse located out back, and an underground tornado shelter was dug between the experiment station barn and the home. The tornado shelter also served as a cellar to store canned fruits, vegetables and wine. The college vineyard and orchard were established just north of Morrill Avenue, but initially there wasn’t a tree anywhere near the home.
Amie Neal described their new family home: “At the front was the living room, and to the right of it was Father’s office, which also had an outside door. A large fireplace in the living room was supposed to heat all that part of the house. Back of the living room was the dining room. There, the stairway rose to the second floor – as no doubt did most of the heat! The dining room had a side porch on the north, and there, in a barrel, was stored drinking water, brought from the village by students in the farm wagon. Porch steps led to a gate and to the road or lane running west to the big barn. The kitchen had a door and side porch facing south. There was a pantry and another room, later to serve as a bathroom. Space was ample.”
Dr. Neal and his family were forced out of the home when he was removed as experiment station director in 1895. President Barker had resigned during the summer of 1894 and been replaced by Henry E. Alvord. Neal had supported Alvord’s efforts to combat corruption and inefficiency. But when Alvord resigned after only six months in Stillwater, Neal lost his main supporter from the college administration. After attending a lecture on campus with his two daughters in December 1895, Dr. Neal felt ill during their walk back home. He died five days later of heart failure at age 52. Mrs. Neal, Kate and Amie left Stillwater in January 1896. Kate Neal was only one semester shy of graduation with the first senior class.
The house was converted for much needed laboratory and classroom use. As the college was preparing to construct a new auditorium at this site in 1910, the home was moved about 200 yards northwest, remodeled and refurbished for use as a home for the commandant of cadets. The house was south of the new Boys’ Dormitory, the first residence hall for male students on campus. Although the house was built for the college presidents and their families, none of them ever lived there.
In 1910, plans were initiated to begin construction of a new presidential home on campus. It was estimated to cost $10,000 for a structure located in the small wooded area southwest of what is now Old Central. But once again political turmoil erupted, and the project was delayed another seven years. Finally, in the fall of 1917, funds were designated for construction. The wood-framed structure was estimated to cost $7,000, but the Board of Agriculture allocated only $6,000. The funding gap was resolved by utilizing college staff as carpenters, skilled vocational training students and student laborers. Minor adjustments to the design also reduced expenditures, and materials were purchased locally. Millwork was assigned to DeWitt T. Hunt and completed in the shops on campus. Hunt was the industrial arts and engineering shops department head. College building superintendent Edgar E. Brewer supervised the construction site.
The home was built on Hester, just north of what is now University Avenue. A little grove of trees served as a home for a small family of deer kept at that location surrounded by fences. Some of the trees were removed for construction, but the shaded setting and quiet location seemed a fitting spot for the president’s home. This would allow the president and his family to live on campus, be readily available for college activities, and yet be close to neighbors and services provided by businesses from the community that were filling in the southern and eastern boundaries of the college.
Frederick W. Redlich, from the architectural engineering department, had worked closely with OAMC President James Cantwell on earlier campus construction projects and was selected to provide the blueprints for the home. Beginning in the spring of 1917, Redlich collaborated on the design of the home with C. H. Cowgill, formerly a member of the architecture faculty. Senior architecture student Eldridge Steward assisted. In the fall of 1917, the detached garage was the first structure built at the back of the site. Hunt directed the efforts of vocational training students in their work on the garage, and college carpenter Ed Hogel was involved at all stages of construction.
Deep concrete footings were poured in November 1917, and the wood-frame structure began to take shape. The front of the two-story home faced east. The foundation measured 39 feet by 40 feet, and brick was laid from the ground level to the first floor. The exterior of the first floor was covered with wood clapboards with wood shingles used on the second floor. The home looked like a large cottage with the first floor featuring a large living room with fireplace,
dining room, kitchen with pantry, breakfast nook and a bathroom. The first floor interior trim and flooring was constructed using oak lumber, especially in public areas used for entertaining. Ed Brewer purchased the white oak during a special trip to Wichita, Kansas.
The bedrooms were all on the second floor. A second bathroom was located on the top floor along with three bedrooms and a serving room. Yellow pine was used for the flooring and trim on the second floor. Hardware for the home was brought from Oklahoma City. There was also an unfinished basement, which later served as a laundry area. A large screened-in porch with windows on three sides also served as a sleeping room. The home was built more than 30 years before air conditioning would be installed in campus facilities, and the second-floor porch provided a cooler place for the president’s family to rest during Oklahoma summers. The shade from surrounding trees, light summer breezes, and screens to keep out insects made the porch a popular family gathering place.
James W. Cantwell was the college’s seventh president when he was hired to begin work on July 1, 1915. Three years later, the Cantwell family was the first to reside in the new presidential home in the fall of 1918, and he became the first college president to reside on campus. After two houses, seven presidents and 28 years since its creation, the college finally had a resident “first family.” Cantwell and his wife, Ada, had five children — James, who was 21; Caroline, 19; Robert, 16; Christine, 15; and Conan, 10, occupied the three-bedroom home. James and Caroline were both OAMC students. Caroline would soon move to Guthrie after she became a school teacher, and the family was joined by their niece, Wynona Robbins.
James B. Eskridge replaced Cantwell as president in 1921. Eskridge and his wife, Nancy, had two of their four children with them when they moved into the president’s home: their youngest son, Joseph, 22, and Mary, 19. The Eskridge family resided in the home for two years before Eskridge’s dismissal during the political turbulence of Oklahoma Governor Jack Walton’s era. Eskridge’s replacement, George Wilson, only served as the college president for eight weeks before he was removed and never established a permanent residence in Stillwater.
Some stability returned to campus with the appointment of Bradford Knapp as the next college president beginning September 24, 1923. Knapp and his wife, Mary Estella, resided at the home with their children: Bradford, 17; Marion, 16; DeWitt, 13; Roger, 11; and Virginia, 4. During the next five years, Knapp provided a calm and steady hand leading the land grant college. The oldest two children would enroll in classes before Knapp accepted the presidency at another institution in 1928.
The selection of Henry Garland Bennett as the next president in 1928 would provide the dawn of a new age for the college. He would become the institution’s longest-serving president, and the Bennett family would occupy the campus home for 23 years. The Bennetts, Henry and Vera, moved in on July 1, 1928, with their five children: Henry, 14; Phil, 12; Liberty, 10; and 7-year-old twins Mary and Thomas. Dr. Bennett’s father, Thomas, also resided with the family.
Of the many guests who stayed in the OAMC President’s home, one of the most famous was United States President William Howard Taft. Tom Bennett remembered hearing that former President Taft had been provided a room at the house during a campus visit and rested in the bedroom located in the northeast corner. Taft was a guest of OAMC President Cantwell and spoke on campus February 19, 1920. At this time, Taft was the chief justice of the Supreme Court and had presented a lecture on the League of Nations in the college auditorium, less than a block from the home.
The White House
The house served as the home for four families covering 33 years: Cantwells, Eskridges, Knapps, and Bennetts. Numerous breakfasts, receptions and teas were held here — some guests invited though others arrived quite unexpectedly. Crowds of students would sometimes fill the front yard in appeals to cancel classes in celebration of victorious athletic teams. College students during the Great Depression were known to show up at the front door looking for work. Dr. and Mrs. Bennett would find some small job they could perform at the house to earn a little money or help them find more permanent work on campus.
At the time of the Bennetts’ tragic death in December 1951, the couple were the home’s last residents. Their children had married and had moved out years earlier. The home was vacant for a short time. It was renamed the White House in 1953 after it was converted for use by several college religious organizations including the YMCA, Pi Zeta Kappa and Kappa Tau Pi. It also housed offices for the Religious Emphasis Week Committee and the Student Religious Council. The building was razed in 1954.
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Published in STATE Magazine, Volume 12, Number 3 by STATE Editor Elizabeth Keys
Uploaded on May 1, 2017