Journalist Amos Bixby was on the Scene During University’s First Year

by Silvia Pettem (published in the Daily Camera, September 1, 1998)

Of all the articles on the University of Colorado’s early history, my favorite is the one written by the late J. Raymond Brackett, in 1903, for the Coloradoan, CU’s yearbook.

In “Little Journeys in the Year One,” Brackett states, “Amos Bixby had visions of the coming loveliness of Boulder valley and wrote them up for his newspaper [the “Boulder County News”]. He also had dreams for the new university before there was one, and after the building was located, he made little journeys to the site, inspiring those who had an eye for the future and encouraging those who were disheartened.”

When the University first opened, in 1877, Boulder had approximately 3,000 people. Two railroads had reached the town in 1873, assuring its permanent settlement. On Pearl Street, the early false-fronted frame buildings were being replaced by new ones of brick and stone.

The University’s future was less secure. Bixby’s first “little journey” was on opening day, September 5, 1877.

Old Main was the only building. It was made of brick and faced Boulder from its stark surroundings on a barren mesa. The University’s bell had not even been hoisted into the bell tower. Instead, it was rung from “its place of humility” on the building’s stone steps.

The bell signaled a procession to start up the 12th Street (now Broadway) hill. Gilman’s brass band led the way with selections including “We Hail Thee! Great Fountain of Learning and Light.” Accompanying the band were three companies of firemen in brilliantly colored uniforms, members of the Columbia Lodge of Masons, and distinguished guests from Denver.

Following the procession were crowds of men, women, and children from Boulder. Bixby called them “a cloud of witnesses from the surrounding country.”

In his oration, President Joseph Sewall spoke of his (and Bixby’s) hopes for the future. Sewall warned against “judging the University on its body any more than judging a man on his form,” and said “the real test of the University, like that of man, would be its character.” He spoke of the need for “honor, fidelity, and stainless integrity.”

One guest was so pessimistic that he was reported to have said of  Sewall, “He must either fail or be God. He has got to make something out of nothing.”

According to Brackett, Bixby took his next little journey “to see exactly what was going on.” He found 38 young men and 27 young ladies. Fifteen of them were in the normal department, which prepared them for teaching careers, while the remaining 50 were in the college preparatory department. They all were high school students. That first year there were no college students at all.

During the first term of the first year, all of the teaching was shared by President Sewall and fellow professor Justin Dow. Mary Rippon became the third teacher at the beginning of the second term, in January, 1878.

Of Rippon, Brackett quoted Bixby as writing, “She had relinquished a good position in Detroit with some hesitation, for a preacher returning from Boulder to Michigan had warned her friends that she would enter the new University building [Old Main] at the risk of her life. Very soon it would fall and kill all within it.”

On another journey Bixby reported on the Buckingham library, a room in the southwest corner of the second floor Old Main. The room was filled with books purchased by a $2,000 donation from banker Charles Buckingham. Bixby wrote, “There may be costlier libraries in the state, but none other with such an indispensable selection of new books and a place so pleasant in its furnishings and surroundings.”

Just as he was at the University on opening day, Bixby was present for closing exercises in June, 1878. He praised the students for their “exemplary demeanor and scholarly aspiration.” Ten of the students went on to form the first freshman university class beginning in September, 1878.

On his remaining journey, Bixby remarked on the grounds. Old Main was surrounded by a wire fence intended to keep out free-ranging cattle. It also kept in the Sewalls’ cow. Everyone entering the building had to climb over a stile made of a board over two half barrels, then a board over two whole barrels, and on the other side, another board over two half barrels.

After climbing over the fence, students and teachers crossed a high, rough bridge over a ravine. That first year Bixby predicted, “One day this ravine will be filled with lakes and little cascades. On its banks will grow every flower that is native to Colorado. There will be wondrous thickets of shrubbery. Stone walks will wind among them, shaded by every tree of our hills and streams.”

Bixby died in 1894, late enough to begin to see his visions for CU come true. The buildings and enrollment had grown, Old Main did not fall down, and students and faculty had planted the first shrubs and trees. As predicted, the ravine was even dammed-up and made into Varsity Pond.

What would he think of the campus today?

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