Aerial view of the University of Rhode Island campus

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Aerial view of the University of Rhode Island campus


Aerial image of the University of Rhode Island campus located in South Kingstown (Kingston), Rhode Island.

In July 1888, the Board of Managers met at the Farm in Kingston for the first time, and in May 1889, engaged John H. Washburn as Principal of the State Agricultural School. He assumed his duties in October 1889, and began at once to organize the school, which opened in September 1890. A few weeks earlier, Congress passed an amendment to the Land Grant Act--known as the "Second Morrill Act--" authorizing substantial, annual, federal appropriation in support of colleges established under the Act of 1862.

In 1889, the Agricultural Experiment Station building, later named Taft Hall for Governor Royal C. Taft, was completed to house the faculty and laboratories of the Agricultural Experiment Station. Later in 1890 and 1891, South Hall, College Hall (including the first library) and the Ladd Laboratory, named after Governor Herbert W. Ladd, were completed to house the agricultural school students and faculty.

With strong support from the state's Grange organizations and an infusion of federal funds from the Second Morrill Act, on May 19, 1892 the name of the State Agricultural School was changed to the Rhode Island College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts (RICA&M). It was a day of great rejoicing in Kingston ,-- a cannon now located on the southwest corner of the quadrangle, was borrowed for the celebration from a sympathetic townsperson. Student enthusiasm, however, excelled the tensile strength of the cannon, as is evidenced by the present fragmented condition of "Old Ben Butler." The first class of 17 members (including URI's first graduate (alphabetically) George E. Adams who later in 1917 became dean of the School of Agriculture) graduated two years later. Dr. Washburn (being Principal of the State Agricultural School) became the first president of the college. In September 1892, the college opened with its courses of study in Agriculture and in Mechanics (or mechanical engineering) extended to four years.

The year 1894 was an important one in the life of the new college. In May, an agreement was entered into between the State and Brown University whereby the Morrill Land Grant Funds became available to the College, establishing RICA&M as Rhode Island 's Land Grant College. Another highlight of the year was the appointment, of Captain William Wallace Wotherspoon, as the first Professor of Military Science and Tactics. His services were terminated by his transfer to the Spanish-American War three years later. But during his brief assignment, he had seen the construction and completion of Lippitt Hall (named after Governor Charles W. Lippitt) as a drill hall and armory in 1897. And in his words, "by sparing no effort to instill into the cadets a sense of the importance of the work begun" he had established URI's military tradition that continues on today in our ROTC Program. Captain Wotherspoon gave further inspiration and stimulus to military work at the college by his own advancement to Major General in 1912, and to Army Chief of Staff in 1914.

The year 1895 promised to be one of marked growth for the college. But the situation soon changed! On Sunday, January 27, 1895 , while most of the young men and faculty were at church, College Hall caught on fire. With wind blowing at 40 miles an hour, the building was consumed in forty-five minutes. The institution had received a staggering blow. However, with united effort, faculty and students set themselves to the task of rehabilitating the college. The report of President Washburn bears the following testimony, "Within a week after the fire we had completed the carpenter shop; in two weeks we built the barracks, also a building for laboratory and classroom work in botany ----- all temporary buildings". College Hall was rebuilt as Davis Hall in honor of Governor John W. Davis.

In 1896, the National Land-Grant College Association (the forerunner of the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges) adopted the report of its Committee on Entrance Requirements, Courses of Study and Degrees. This report emphasized the desirability of degrees awarded by the land-grant colleges, representing work that would be approximately uniform in character and scope. This action made it necessary for RICA&M, to raise admission standards, despite the fact that many of Rhode Island 's country high schools were not prepared to furnish candidates that met the higher requirements. This led to the decision to establish a two-year preparatory high school department, in 1898, with Marshall H. Tyler as Headmaster. This preparatory school was continued for ten years until 1908, when Tyler moved on to chair the college's Mathematics Department.

Also in 1896, the Agricultural Experiment Station established Rhode Island 's first marine laboratory at the end of Succotash Road in the village of Jerusalem. After particularly intense fishkills in Point Judith Pond during the summer of 1895, fishermen and oyster farmers of the pond approached scientists at the Rhode Island Agricultural Experiment Station to inquire if they could explore the reasons for the fishkill and somehow solve the problem. As a result of this inquiry, Dr. G.A. Field of the Experiment Station established Jerusalem to study oyster and lobster biology, and recommendations from the lab led to the establishment of a permanent breachway to the pond and establishment of the Port of Galilee. This laboratory, now known as the Jerusalem Coastal Fisheries Laboratory operated by the RI DEM Division of Fish and Wildlife, is the one of the oldest continuously operating marine laboratories in the United States. The RIAES Marine Laboratory was predated only by the U.S. Fisheries Commission Laboratory in Woods Hole, founded in 1875 by U.S. Fisheries Commissioner Spencer F. Baird, and the Marine Biological Laboratory, also founded in Woods Hole in 1888 by the famed Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz.

At the turn of the 20th century, the growth of the college slowed, with few additions to the facilities for over a decade. The enthusiasm and support for the college of many influential citizens waned, and indifference was evident with many of the agricultural leaders of the state. Dr. Washburn, whose work had been so effective in organizing the State Agricultural School , and who served as president of the college for over ten years, resigned in August, 1902. His work for the college had been that of a pioneer. Among his noteworthy contributions was the establishment of special short courses in agriculture for Rhode Island 's farmers. Among these was the first in the country six-week Poultry School focusing on husbandry of the famed Rhode Island Red. Other early studies initiated by Washburn included analysis of soils and development of fertilizers, improvements in production of potatoes and apples, as well as dairy studies and the studies of grasses and other forage and pasture crops.

Dr. Homer J. Wheeler was made Acting-President upon the resignation of Dr. Washburn, and served for seven months. During this short period, he made a contribution of far-reaching importance by securing a $3, 000 state appropriation for student labor. This appropriation continued for many years and helped many young men and women to secure an education.

The shortest administration in the history of the University was that of Kenyon L. Butterfield beginning in April, 1903, and ending in June, 1906. President Butterfield was an enthusiastic leader, distinguished by his breadth of view and his marked administrative ability. He strove to make the college of greater service, to greater numbers of Rhode Islanders. This led to the organization of an extension department in the college in April, 1904, with Professor A. E. Stene as Superintendent of College Extension. A much expanded extension service continues today as Rhode Island Cooperative Extension. URI, like all Land Grant Universities , is now organized on the three cardinal points, -- research, classroom instruction and extension work, as first pioneered by President Butterfield. Butterfield left Rhode Island to assume the presidency of the Massachusetts Agricultural College (MAC, now University of Massachusetts), where he established an extension program there as well. While at MAC he assisted in the drafting of the federal Smith-Lever Act of 1914 that established a Cooperative Extension Service at all Land Grant Colleges nationwide. Thus President Butterfield and RICA&M made an indelible mark on how publicly funded higher education is carried out throughout the United States.

Undoubtedly, President Butterfield had much to do with the selection of Dr. Howard Edwards as his successor. The choice was a most fortunate one for the college and the state and resulted in an administration that carried the college steadily forward for nearly a quarter of a century.

In his first annual report as President, Dr. Edwards discussed the need of revising the academic program of the college and proposed Home Economics as a women's course of study, thus admitting women into the college. President Edwards' method of providing the physical accommodations necessary for the Home Economics course was unique. He asked for a special state appropriation of $80, 000, to build a new men's dormitory. The appropriation, although greatly reduced in amount, gave the college its first major building (East Hall) in over ten years. Use of East Hall as the men's dormitory permitted the remodeling of Davis Hall and its use as a women's dormitory, which in turn made it possible to offer the Home Economics course in the fall of 1909.

It was during the Edwards Presidency that the first master's degree was awarded in 1907. A year later in 1908, the fraternity system began on campus, with the first fraternity, Rho Iota Kappa, followed by the first national fraternity (Theta Chi) in 1910, and the first fraternity house built by Beta Phi in 1912.

In addition to beginning graduate education, the Greek system and admission of women to RICA&M, President Edwards in 1908 was responsible for urging a study commission to assess the value of the college in contributing to the economic well-being of the state. In April, 1909, the study commission, headed by the Dr. Walter E. Ranger, State Commissioner of Schools, presented its report. The commission's report was a strong endorsement of the college, recommending greatly increased financial support from the state. The commission concluded its report with fifteen specific recommendations to increase the value of the college to the State. The first recommendation, immediately adopted in 1909, was the change in name to Rhode Island State College.

As Commissioner of Education, it fell to Dr. Ranger to formulate the commission's recommendations. But later as President of the Board of Managers, he gave generously of his time and of his energies in helping to carry out the commission's recommendations. His great vision and services to the college and to the state are honored by Ranger Hall, named so upon its completion in 1913.

World War I in 1917 provided trying times for the college. A total of 301 young men from the college served in the war, many of whom were trained in the Student Army Training Corps. Due to the war and very few students on campus, classes were suspended between April 28, 1918 and January 2, 1919. President Edwards wrote of the student sacrifice, "The college is poor, in physical wealth, and resources; it numbers among its friends, few of high position, large possessions, or powerful influence, but it has here, evidence of a wealth, of capable service, of high sense of duty, of heroic sacrifice, that must forever be preserved, as its most cherished tradition, and that compels, the gratitude and respect of the people of our state. Somewhere, somehow, we must preserve this story, in imperishable stone and bronze."

In June, 1922, President Edwards dedicated the college war memorial, "in memory of a gallantry, devotion, and sacrifice that has been surpassed, never and nowhere". The memorial, near the upper entrance to the campus consists of a huge granite boulder bearing a large bronze plaque on which are recorded, twenty-three names of students who perished in Europe. In June, 1928, the Memorial Gateway on Upper College Road was dedicated as a part of this War Memorial.

The decade of the 1920s was a period of considerable growth for Rhode Island State College. The faculty and staff of the College of Agriculture and the Agricultural Experiment Station were outgrowing their quarters in Taft Hall, so they moved in 1921 into Washburn Hall upon its completion. A major building campaign led to the completion in 1928 of Bliss Hall (named after Zenias Bliss, a state legislator instrumental in securing funding) to house the Engineering classrooms and laboratories. Also that year, Rodman Hall was completed as a gymnasium, and Edwards Auditorium opened as the largest lecture hall and performing arts center on campus. Additionally in 1928, East Farm, one mile south of campus on Kingstown Road, was acquired and became the site for orchard crop and poultry research.

Upon the death of President Edwards in April 1930, John Barlow, Dean of Science, was appointed as Acting President. In this capacity, he served the college faithfully for more than a year. Ten years later in 1940, he was again called to serve in a similar capacity for a more extended period.
Source: University of Rhode Island-URI History and Timeline




Rhode Island State Archives




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Rhode Island. Department of Transportation., "Aerial view of the University of Rhode Island campus," in Virtual Exhibits, Item #238, (accessed June 17, 2019).