Imagine Corvallis today without the university. That is what the citizens of Benton County faced in 1885.
Their college — Corvallis College — had just relinquished the right, granted in 1868, to be the state agricultural college of Oregon. Other towns, including Albany with its Albany College, would be happy to step in. Benton County’s state senator, Thomas E. Cauthorn, successfully guided a bill through the state Legislature which confirmed Corvallis as the location for the college, but it stipulated that the citizens of Benton County “shall erect a building on the college farm costing $25,000 by January 1, 1887, free from all debt.”
Nine leading citizens, including five former Corvallis mayors, incorporated the State Agricultural College Association on Feb. 15, 1885 and set out to raise $30,000 by seeking 300 subscribers at $100 each. These citizens were Judge John Burnett, John R. Bryson, M.S. Woodcock, Frederick A. Horning, Morris Jacobs, Daniel Carlile, Thomas J. Buford, Punderson Avery, and Dr. J.B. Lee. It would be a challenge — Corvallis had a population in 1880 of just 1,128. Benton County, then including today’s Lincoln County, had a population of 6,403, representing about 1,400 households.
“The people will, no doubt, respond to this, because it would be a disgrace to a county for so valuable a school to be taken away from any county for lack of enterprise of her citizens,” opined the Weekly Corvallis Gazette.
College president Benjamin Arnold stepped up immediately with a donation of $1,000, as did Punderson Avery. President Arnold was asked to canvass the town for subscriptions of $500. By October, the association resolved to ask the Legislature “to extend two years further time.” The Legislature granted that request and reduced the amount to $20,000. Then, in March 1886, the association reincorporated with a goal of $23,000 with donations of $25 from 920 subscribers. It was an ongoing struggle, but they did not give up. By May, they had raised $9,000, by December, $14,000. Philomath farmer Andrew Gellatly gave $8.38 on May 4, 1887, the second payment on his $25 donation. How they finally raised the required funds is lost in the missing issues of the Corvallis Weekly Gazette.
But, they did it and celebrated their accomplishment. The cornerstone was laid on Aug. 17, 1887 in a ceremony attended by the townspeople and dignitaries from out of town. A sumptuous meal was served at the Opera House at Fourth and Madison. The building was “a symbol of community cooperation,” said one citizen.
They faced adversity and did not shrink from the challenge. They encountered setbacks and revised their plan and, ultimately, succeeded, to the joy of everyone in town. Their accomplishment was recognized in 1947 when the Administration Building was renamed Benton Hall in honor of the citizens of the county.
The citizens’ story is inspiring for anyone who faces challenges in life. It holds many lessons for success and one that this descendant hopes the student activists can embrace and rejoice in, just as the citizens of 1885 did.
In 1930, Professor J.B. Horner described their accomplishment: “The sacrifice required for the Administration Building was so great that it came like heart’s blood from the makers of the college. This condition … has been such that were the buildings threatened, the donors and their descendants would protest with one voice….”
This descendant is protesting and urges the university, in its sesquicentennial year, to preserve the citizens’ legacy by keeping the name of Benton Hall on this, the oldest building of the university.
Yes, to the students and citizens of Benton County of 2017, try to imagine Corvallis without the university — impossible.