Rewriting history at SUNY?: Apparent change of founding date disregards involvement of village

State Normal School at Fredonia opened in September 1968 and burned on Dec. 14, 1900.

Village residents are fortunate and proud to have a State College in our village. It was the village and its residents who established the State College in Fredonia in 1868. The 1868 year has been the recognized and established founding date of the State College since 1868.

The State College is now adopting as its new founding date the year 1826, which is the date Fredonia Academy was founded. However, the Fredonia Academy was not the State College. It was a private school with its own shareholders, Charter, by-laws and was governed by its own Trustees. The State College was founded in 1868.

By adopting the 1826 year as its founding, the State College is now completely omitting from its history and from its publications, advertisements or web site the significant efforts and sacrifice of the Village of Fredonia and its residents in establishing the State College in Fredonia in 1868. This does a disservice to the history of the Village of Fredonia in founding the State College in 1868.

The State College also claims, incorrectly, the Fredonia Academy became known as the Fredonia Normal School. However, the Academy closed its doors as a school in 1867 and ceased to exist. It did not become known as the State Normal School.

The closing of the Academy was due to low enrollment caused by the Civil War. When then Academy closed, the students from the Academy were absorbed by the new State Normal School. After the Academy closed, the Academy building and land were sold to the Village. In 1890 the village constructed the present Village Hall at the site of the old Fredonia Academy.

Showing historical connections between institutions, corporation and even people is nothing unique and this can be done with the Fredonia Academy and State College. However, that does not justify the conclusion that the State College was the same as the Fredonia Academy and can therefore adopt its founding date of 1826. The State College did not exist in 1826.

Simply stated, the State College was not the former Fredonia Academy and the former Academy did not become the State College. The schools were separate institutions. The State College should not usurp the history of the Fredonia Academy in an effort to make itself appear older than facts can support.

Founding dates of organizations are evidenced by a Charter or law or some document creating the organization. If the State College was founded in 1826, where is the Charter, document or law that created the State College in 1826? There is none.

Historically, the State College has consistently used 1868 (sometimes 1867) as the year it was established.

There is no reason to change the founding year of the College to 1826, other than the College’s desire to appear 42 years older than its established year of 1868 and thus gain more prestige and move closer to a 200th year anniversary.

Accurately reporting the history of our village is important, including the history of the village in securing a State College for the village.

The Village, with a population of only 2,500, faced a very formidable and daunting task in 1866 to 1868 in securing a State College for our Village. The efforts of the Village officials and its residents in accomplishing this significant task is inspiring and should not be forgotten.

Below is a history of the founding of the State College as best as I can put together from various documents I have reviewed over the past years. I feel it is important that this history not be forgotten.

The State College was authorized by an act of law by the State of New in 1866 and by the State accepting the proposal of the Village and the deed from the Village to the first State College building (Old Main) in 1868.

In 1866 the State of New York announced in Chapter 466 of the Laws of 1866 that it was offering four teachers Training Schools. The State invited proposals from any municipality or academy. After reviewing the proposals, the State would then select the best proposals for the sites of the four State Colleges.

With this announcement in 1866, a petition was signed by an overwhelming number of Fredonia residents to hold a public meeting in the Village to be held on September 28, 1866 “to consider the establishment of a State normal school in this village.”

At the public meeting, the Village trustees were authorized to secure one of the four schools offered by the State of New York. This was the beginning of an ambitious and arduous effort by the Village of Fredonia, not the Academy, to secure a State College for Fredonia.

It is important to note that, although it was authorized by State legislation to do so, the Fredonia Academy did not submit a proposal for a State College. However, the Village of Fredonia did submit a proposal in 1866 to the State and it was accepted.

Twelve proposals were submitted to the State for one of four offerings for a State College. The Village of Fredonia submitted an impressive proposal.

The Village Board’s proposal to the State is set forth in the Fredonia Board of Trustees resolution adopted on December 26,1866.

The 1866 Village Board resolution stated:

“The Village offers to convey to the State for the establishment of a State Normal School five acres of land the site to be selected by the Village to be granted and belong to the State for the purpose of a Normal and Training school and to raise and expend the sum of $75,000.00 (later increased by the Village to $100,000.00) exclusive of the land for the erection of a suitable building for such school and the furnishing thereof with furniture, apparatus and anything necessary to its support and management.”

To make a personal plea to the State, in 1866 the Mayor and other Village officials traveled to Albany as a delegation to convince the State to select Fredonia as a site for one of the four State Colleges. In 1866, this had to be a very difficult trip.

After reviewing the 12 proposals, the State of New York selected the Village of Fredonia to be the site for one of the four State Colleges. After being selected by the State of New York, the Village then proceeded to construct the first college building called “Old Main.”

Other Villages who submitted proposals had assistance from their respective counties. No grants or aid of any kind were given to the Village of Fredonia to construct the original College building known as Old Main. Fredonia alone offered to donate the site and erect a suitable building. The population of the Village at the time was only 2500. The Village bonded itself to pay $100,000.00 for the cost of the acquisition of land and construction of the building. In 1867, $100,000.00 amounted to 10% of the total assessed value of the Village. This was a significant debt for the Village taxpayers to assume in 1867. Today, 10% of the Village’s total taxable assessed value would equate to $8 million.

The Village taxpayers faithfully paid the debt in full with interest at 7%. Upon completion of the building and its transfer by the Village to the State of New York in 1868, the State agreed to have a State College in Fredonia.

On November 23,1868, Fredonia Mayor Thomas Higgins, with unanimous consent of the Village Board, signed the deed to the land and building to the State of New York with the agreement by the State of New York to have a State College in Fredonia. The deed was recorded in the Chautauqua County Clerk’s Office on December 19,1868. This was the beginning of the State College in Fredonia.

The cornerstone for the State College (Old Main) was laid on August 8, 1867. This was a proud day for the people of the Village and the occasion for a very large celebration in the Village.

Included is a photo of the State College building which was included in the College’s 50th year State College semi-centennial commemorative book published in 1919 which shows the beginning of the State College in 1868. Will the State College change its next commemorative book to 1826? Assuming the State College desires to correctly represent its history, it should continue the recognized 1868 founding year.

In the Observer’s College Edition news article published September 12, 1967, the College announced its centennial year celebration with the headline “CENTENNIAL YEAR AT FREDONIA 1867-1967.” The seal of the College shown in the article has the years 1867-1967. The College Edition in outlining the College’s history in the Observer states in its headline “FREDONIA COLLEGE SPRANG FROM ACT OF LEGISLATURE IN 1860s.” No mention was made of the Fredonia Academy or the year 1826.

Below are two photos of the cornerstones to the original State College known as ” Old Main” or “Normal School” constructed by the Village between 1866 and 1868.

The original cornerstones of Old Main still stand today as a testament to the efforts of the people of the Village of Fredonia in constructing and donating the original College building to the State of New York in 1868. The two cornerstones are located at the corner of Temple and Barker Streets in the building that replaced the original State Normal School after the tragic fire.

One of the cornerstones reads “ERECTED BY THE VILLAGE OF FREDONIA AND DONATED TO THE STATE OF NEW YORK.” The other adjacent cornerstone testifies to the LAYING OF THE CORNERSTONE ON AUGUST 8, 1867.

According to the Centennial History of Chautauqua County, the corner stone of Old Main was laid August 8, 1867 “with imposing civic and Masonic ceremonies.” “From 10,000 to 15,000 people were present and it was an occasion long to be remembered.”

Tragically, the original Old Main building constructed by the Village and deeded to the State in 1868 was destroyed in a fire on December 14, 1900 with the loss of the lives of 6 college students and the custodian who tried to save them.

In 2017 the State College and President Virginia Horvath recognized 1868 as the year the State College was established by celebrating Founder’s Day and recognizing the Village efforts in securing a State College for Fredonia in 1868. President Horvath did the right thing.

By claiming the State College was founded in 1826, the College has now completely omitted any reference to the contributions of the Village of Fredonia and its residents in founding the State College in 1868.

As a beginning to correct the history of the State College, the State College should change its founding year to 1868 in its web site and any other advertisements or publications to recognize the founding of the State College by the Village of Fredonia and its residents.

The remarkable and impressive efforts of the Village of Fredonia and its residents in bringing the State College to Fredonia should not be forgotten or diminished in any way. Those efforts need to be honored and acknowledged and preserved for future generations.

I apologize for the length of this article, but for the sake of helping to preserve the history of our Village in founding the State College in 1868, I feel it needs to be written.

Samuel Drayo Jr. is a Fredonia resident.

Sources for this article include Village of Fredonia Board minutes, deed from Village of Fredonia to State of New York, Fredonia Academy minutes, Fredonia Darwin R. Barker Library Historical Museum, various historical articles.


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