Montana State College procession

A line of people walks toward Montana Hall through tall grain in this 1898 photo from the Montana State University Historical Photographs Collection. The people were delegates at a state Epworth League Convention.

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In 1893 when Bozeman won the chance to host the state’s agricultural college, town fathers were rather glum, says Montana State University historian Robert Rydell.

It was their wives who were really excited.

Montana became a state in 1889, sparking a big political fight between Anaconda, Helena, Butte, Great Falls and Bozeman, all vying to become the state capital.

“All hell breaks loose,” Rydell said. When Helena won the capital, “the people most disappointed were probably in Bozeman.”

Other towns won bigger prizes — Deer Lodge got the state prison, Missoula the state university. Bozeman got — a cow college.

“The men in the community went into a very deep sulk,” Rydell said.

But their wives — women like Laurie Koch, Ellen Story and Emma Willson — were all for it. In the 1870s and 1880s, he said, “Bozeman was a feral place — violent, unpleasant. Women wanted the college badly to have this place civilized.”

So the Montana Agricultural and Mechanical College opened 124 years ago. Rydell, who is updating the history of MSU for next year’s 125th anniversary celebration, recently gave a campus lecture on the topic to about 100 people, including Honors College students.

Land for the agricultural college was found on a hill at the top of South Eighth Avenue, the street originally laid out for the capital building. As the late historian Phyllis Smith wrote in “Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley, a History,” the county was cajoled into donating the 160-acre poor farm for the college.

Local citizens ponied up money to buy 40 acres, with Nelson Story, the town’s richest man, contributing $1,500. Story also offered use of his downtown roller rink, the site of today’s Holy Rosary Church, so the first college classes could start in 1893 and meet a deadline for winning federal money available for land-grant colleges.

Land-grant colleges owe their existence to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War Congress that passed the Morrill Act in 1862. It authorized a college in each state to educate not the elites but the sons and daughters of the middle and working classes.

By 1913, Montana’s agricultural college was a going concern, and updated its motto to “Education for Efficiency.”

“It was aspirational,” Rydell said. “It was about bringing modern ideas to Montana.”

The faculty was expected to pass on existing knowledge, not make new discoveries. Women students were expected to meet suitable husbands and learn how to modernize their households.

Two illustrious students were Chet Huntley, student sports editor, who didn’t graduate but went on to become co-anchor at the “NBC Nightly News” and later to promote creation of the Big Sky resort. Maurice Hilleman, a kid from Miles City, graduated at the top of his class in 1941, became a scientist and one of the world’s leading developers of vaccines — against measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis, pneumonia and flu — that have saved millions of lives.

After World War II, MSU underwent a huge transformation from a college to a university — from teaching conventional knowledge to making new scientific discoveries. Rydell traced the catalyst to 1957, when the Russians put the first satellite into space.

“I remember my parents freaked out totally,” he said. So did the U.S. government, panicked to have fallen behind its nuclear rival in the space race. Washington started pumping money into science education, and research was no longer confined to elite universities.

In 1965, Montana State College wanted badly to change its name to university to recognize its rising status. The battle was bitter to wrest the name away from the Missoula campus, which in the end changed to the University of Montana.

“The football rivalry is child’s play,” Rydell said, “compared to the battle in 1964-1965 over the renaming.”

MSU presidents Bill Tietz, Mike Malone and Geoff Gamble all promoted expanding MSU’s research efforts. By 2006, the campus was recognized as one of the top 100 research universities in the nation, which was “wondrous,” Rydell said.

By 2093, when MSU celebrates its 200th birthday, Rydell said, it may have twice as many students as today’s 16,000, and Bozeman’s population may quadruple.

“This campus is going to expand in ways we can hardly conceive of now,” Rydell said. “Think about how wondrous a place Montana State University can be.”

This story was changed April 25 to correct the name of Laurentze "Laurie" Koch, who was misidentified as Nellie in "In the People's Interest: A Centennial History of Montana State University."

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