FEATURE – It was once known as a “normal school,” but its foundation story is anything but.
Southern Utah University stands today as a “striking example of the extent of the commitment of Utah’s early pioneers to the cause of education,” the plaque on campus detailing the school’s foundation story reads.
The reminders of the school’s inspiring past are ubiquitous, from monuments on campus to the rhetoric of the school’s administration and faculty leaders, and that’s a good thing.
The faith-promoting founding
During its first full session after becoming a state in 1896, the Utah State Legislature authorized a branch of the state’s teacher training school to be located in Southern Utah. The main requirement for the community chosen was to deed the state 15 acres of land, and construct on that site a college building designed by the state architect.
Beaver and Cedar City were the top contenders, with Parowan and Paragonah also considered.
“Cedar City’s citizens sought the selection with great fervor and organization. The city’s fine educational record was in its favor, as was its central location in Southern Utah,” Janet Burton Seegmiller wrote in her book “A History of Iron County: Community Above Self.”
Another advantage Cedar City had was that the town did not have a saloon, a claim none of the other communities in contention could make.
When it won the bid, Cedar City had a population of fewer than 1,500 residents. It gave the state title to Academy Hill, the present site of the upper campus, but concluded that the town did not have the means to construct the building the state required. Instead, the community decided to utilize an existing building downtown, Ward Hall, which was still under construction.
Classes started at the Branch Normal School (BNS) in September 1897, with Milton Bennion as principal and Howard R. Driggs, Annie Spencer and George W. Decker as teachers, according to Seegmiller.
At first, this arrangement seemed to be working. Only two months into the first term’s classes, however, the Utah Attorney General refused the teachers’ payrolls, saying that the community had not complied with the state mandate, which required that the school have its own building on the land deeded to the state.
At that point, the state gave Cedar City an ultimatum; if it didn’t build a structure on that deeded land by September 1898, it would lose its school.
To resolve the issue, three Cedar City families secured a bank loan by mortgaging their homes to ensure the teachers were paid.
Constructing the building proved to be more difficult.
“The cost of building was equivalent to the town’s total business volume for an entire year and would require bucking the mountain snows to construct the new building,” the foundation story plaque on campus reads. “A building committee was appointed to which Cedar City pledged all its public and private resources, the committee being forced to dip into both generously.”
The community banded together and started gathering materials for the BNS building on Academy Hill. They started making bricks, quarrying sandstone and sawing lumber on Cedar Mountain and hauling it to town, but an early fall snowstorm shut down the operation, Seegmiller wrote.
Due to these initial difficulties in construction, Bennion traveled to Salt Lake City to meet with the Utah Board of Regents and ask for an extension of the deadline, but the board wouldn’t budge.
On New Year’s Day, 1898, Cedar City residents met to create a plan of attack, ultimately deciding that they were willing to try to get lumber from Heber Jensen’s sawmill at Mammoth Creek before the snow started to melt.
“Nothing so hazardous had ever been purposefully undertaken in Iron County,” Seegmiller wrote.
In her book, “Southern Utah University: The First 100 Years,” Anne Leavitt writes that residents realized if they waited until spring, they might be bogged down by mud or be too busy farming to make much of an effort. This contingent of brave men, none of whom would actually attend the school being built, decided it was best to make the attempt in winter when they did not have to worry about their crops.
A resident by the name of Neil Bladen led the expedition, in which they loaded the lumber from Mammoth Creek onto wagons and headed back to Cedar City. They had to leave the lumber on their wagons, however, because they were buried in snow after the first night’s camp.
“Howling winds had shaped the loose snow into drifts 10 to 15 feet deep and 75 to 100 yards long,” Seegmiller wrote.
It was in this tough situation that one of the most celebrated heroes of the school’s founding emerged.
He was a “big, rangy, 8-year-old draft horse, called Sorrel because of his color,” Leavitt wrote. “He was from Percheron grandsire, strong and steady. Described as ‘long-legged, long-necked and long-faced,’ he weighed about 1,600 pounds. … His reaction to the crisis was markedly different from other horses.”
While other horses worked the drifts and struggled to keep their noses above the snow, Old Sorrel “pushed and strained against the drifts until they gave way,” then “worked at the drifts until the wagons were out of danger,” Seegmiller wrote.
The operation was almost called off after this first try, but the community worked together to support the mountain crew bringing the lumber down, dividing the 30-mile trip from the sawmill to Cedar City into four segments.
“Men made bobsleds or sleighs, and women made sheepskin-lined coats, long underwear and caps with ear protectors,” Seegmiller wrote.
Even regular snowstorms and temperatures reaching 40 degrees below zero did not stop the operation, which fortuitously resulted in no serious injuries to the 33 men involved and only three horse deaths.
The entire population of the town helped the construction in some way. From cutting stones for the foundation, to sharpening tools, to providing food for the workmen.
“It is said that women ran the town businesses and other operations while the men were engaged at the school,” Seegmiller wrote.
The result of their work is what is now known as Old Main, completed in September 1898. At the time, it was called BNS, and later it was the library. The building was remodeled after a fire in 1948.
In 2003, the building was vacated because of seismic safety and dysfunctional utilities, which led to the raising of funds to save the historic structure. It was remodeled and rededicated in 2008 along with the Carter Carillon and Emma Eccles Jones Education Building, constructed next to it.
In 2015, SUU communications professor Jon Smith headed up and produced a documentary entitled “Back Up the Mountain” that dramatizes the foundation story, which university leaders and faculty regularly recount today to make connections to the past.
The story is a message about the close relationship between the local community and the university, history professor Laura Davis said.
“Without the support and commitment of Cedar City residents, Branch Normal School would have never opened in 1897,” Davis explained. “These close ties have continued over the years as both the college and the city grew and expanded. They still remain strong to this day, to the benefit of everyone.”
For the first 56 years of its existence, what is now SUU was a branch of another in-state school.
From its founding in 1897 to 1913, it was a branch of the University of Utah and offered high school instruction. Its graduates went on to teach at schools in Southern Utah while some moved on to the college level.
As the only state-supported high school in Utah, the BNS continually had to fight for its survival. Legislators from neighboring counties contended that the state should not maintain a high school in Cedar City while they had to pay for their high schools by means of local taxes and donations, Seegmiller wrote.
Under the auspices of the University of Utah, the normal school could not offer higher education classes, to which Cedar City residents opposed, feeling that was the school’s expressed purpose from its founding. In 1913, to rectify the situation, Iron County state representative Wilford Day drove a bill through the legislature that transferred the school from the University of Utah to the Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University) in Logan, becoming known by the moniker Branch Agricultural College, or BAC.
However, with this move, Cedar City residents feared that teacher programs would go by the wayside in favor of agricultural programs, but that proved to be unfounded as the school retained its teacher courses and also added science, arts, business, music, and of course, agricultural programs.
For a little over two decades after becoming BAC, the school still taught high school students. That changed in the fall of 1941 when the high school was separated from the college and all high schoolers were moved to the new Cedar High School.
Predictably, enrollment declined during World War II and some thought it might signal the end of the college. But former Cedar City Mayor Walter Granger was serving as Utah’s congressman at the time, and had a major influence in establishing an air corps training program in Cedar City, which helped keep the school going, Seegmiller wrote.
At the war’s end, enrollment hit new highs and over the next decade, there was an average of 400 to 500 students on campus every school year.
One of the challenges during the school’s earlier years was providing housing and jobs for its students. Some students were fortunate to live with relatives, and others had parents who moved to Cedar City to give their children the chance to attend school there.
“Almost every fall for years, articles in the ‘Iron County Record’ begged members of the community to open their homes to incoming students,” Seegmiller wrote.
As enrollment increased rapidly during the post-war years, war surplus buildings, trailers and barracks from military bases became solutions for housing. At least four buildings from the Topaz Japanese Internment Camp near Delta became student housing.
To Vice President for Alumni and Community Relations Mindy Benson, the BAC was a center of culture and education, not only for Cedar City and Iron County, but also for the surrounding communities.
“Alumni who attended the BAC from 1913-1953 have immense pride in the ‘Grand Old BAC’ and they truly identified with that institution,” Benson said. “I think a lot of history was created during those years of students receiving a quality education with professors who cared and provided personal attention, a hallmark for SUU even today.”
In 1953, the era of the BAC came to an end as the school became the College of Southern Utah but was still under the auspices of Utah State University. This title fit more than its previous monikers as 72% of the students in 1955 came outside of Cedar City and 90% of that number were from Southern Utah. That year, the school had less than fifty faculty and staff members and 427 students. But by 1963, with the first of the baby-boomer generation attending college, enrollment skyrocketed to over 1,000.
Since their school was first established, Cedar City residents had a vision of an independent, four-year higher education institution. And by the late 1950s, the community established a committee, chaired by Dixie Leavitt, to work toward that goal.
After his election to the Utah Legislature, Leavitt went full-throttle on the issue and proposed two bills in the 1965 session, one granting the school the right to confer four-year degrees and the other to separate the school from USU as a new state college.
During the session’s last days, it didn’t look like these two bills would come up for debate. But Leavitt enlisted the help of Thorpe Waddington, the Senate majority leader from Delta, to get them on the docket. When the two bills came up for debate, they passed unanimously in both the House and the Senate.
“The move to independent status opened the way for growth for the community and the institution that share a unique relationship,” Seegmiller wrote. “Under the direction of (Dr. Royden C.) Braithwaite, the institution developed bachelor’s degree programs in more than 30 areas in addition to refining vocational programs and offering pre-professional training in dentistry, law, medicine, pharmacology and veterinary science.”
More changes came only four years after independent status, as the school became Southern Utah State College in 1969. By 1980, under the Division of Continuing Education, SUSC began offering classes outside of its main campus in St. George, Kanab, Richfield and Delta, Seegmiller wrote.
While enrollment growth stagnated in the 1970s, partly due to the lagging local economy, it started growing again after 1981 when alumnus Gerald R. Sherratt took the helm of the college.
Under his tenure, The Centrum, known today as the America First Event Center, was built in 1986 as a special events arena that hosts various sports programs, commencement exercises and other community events. That same year, Sherratt conceived the idea of the Utah Summer Games, a grass-roots Olympic-style sports festival based on campus involving amateur athletes from all over the state.
In 1990, a decision by the Utah Board of Regents and State Legislature completely fulfilled the dream of the community members of the late 19th century. The legislation approved university status, cementing the school’s status a comprehensive four-year institution, turning into what it is today, Southern Utah University.
“I think SUU always had an identity, even prior to its designation as College of Southern Utah,” Faculty Senate President and long-time Psychology Professor Steve Barney said. “The Branch Normal School was responsible to educate teachers in this geographic region. That tradition has lived on with our absolute commitment to preparing students to meet the demands and needs of our local, regional, national and international society.”
Over the course of its history, SUU has shown tremendous community spirit that has culminated in many worthwhile projects.
In the 1950s, the college and community came together to build what was then known as the College Cabin 11 miles up Cedar Canyon from Cedar City. Now known as the SUU Mountain Center, it has gone through remodels and improvements over the years and hosts many college, community and private events in a picturesque mountain setting.
The school’s Ashcroft Observatory is another example of the college and community working together on a worthwhile project. Opened in the 1970s, the observatory sits on a hill west of town and provides the opportunity for community members and school groups to learn about constellations and distant parts of the galaxy.
Many students find out about SUU through their experience attending one of the plays or workshops offered every year by the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
Benson shared the story of a current SUU gymnast who, in an Instagram post, said that attending the Shakespeare festival has been life-changing and a true joy, noting that all of her worries disappear as soon as she steps into one of its theaters.
“The festival is an important part of outside perceptions of SUU and Cedar City in general,” SUU history professor Mark Miller said. “It brings in a lot of talent and outside energy to the campus, especially when students come for competitions and people come to stay during the summer to attend the plays.”
Founded in 1962 by theater professor Fred Adams, the festival has grown from a small all-volunteer operation to a large non-profit arts organization with state-of-the-art facilities that attract nearly 100,000 patrons who view almost 300 plays each year.
The Southern Utah Museum of Art (SUMA) is one of the most recent additions to the University’s community offerings. Opened in 2016, the museum displays the artwork of regional landscape artists, SUU faculty and student artists as well as other distinguished artists from around the country.
SUU sponsors seventeen NCAA Division 1 athletic teams, seven men’s sports and 10 women’s sports, who compete in the Big Sky Conference. Known as the Thunderbirds today, the school’s mascot, just like its name, has gone through a few changes over the years. The mascot was frst known as the Aggies, to honor its parent school, and then the Broncos.
One of the most enjoyable things to do on campus is simply to stroll through it and take in its beauty with its mix of historic and modern buildings, fountains, waterfalls and native trees set in groves along pathways with benches. A statue immortalizing the efforts of Old Sorrel stands near the America First Event Center and the Sharwan Smith Student Center displays the “rescue wagon” used to get that integral lumber down the mountain to build the community’s beloved school.
About the series “Days”
“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.
“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.
Wadsworth has also released a book compilation of many of the historical features written about Washington County as well as a second volume containing stories about other places in Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Southern Nevada.
Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series
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