Portage Pathways: 'Town-gown' issue first raised in Kent a century ago when housing was scarce

by ROGER DIPAOLO | RECORD-COURIER EDITOR Published:

The moment Kent had been waiting for was almost at hand -- the opening of the state normal school, the teachers' training institute that the community had won against considerable odds in 1910.

The first two buildings on the hilltop campus were nearing completion in March 1913: the classroom building (now known as Merrill Hall) where the first students would receive their instruction, and the women's dormitory (now Lowry Hall), which would provide lodging for 70 students.

With President John McGilvrey estimating, somewhat optimistically, that enrollment at the new school could range anywhere from 500 to 800 students, it was obvious that a single dormitory -- one for women only -- couldn't possibly meet the housing needs of Kent's student body.

Where would several hundred students, most from communities beyond commuting distance, stay?

Kent State -- then known as "the Normal" -- turned to residents of Kent and surrounding communities for help. A house-to-house canvass of Kent, Ravenna and Cuyahoga Falls showed that 431 rooms were available in private residences, nearly 300 of them in Kent. "The outlook ... is not as favorable as it might be," the Kent Courier reported following the survey in late 1912.

With classes set to begin in mid-May 1913, the outlook hadn't brightened considerably.

The Men's Federation, an organization of the community's movers and shakers, had organized with the hope of getting a YMCA up and running in Kent.

The group was meeting regularly to hear speakers share their thoughts on community concerns, and one speaker -- admittedly an "outsider" -- brought a message that challenged the soon-to-be college town.

PROFESSOR R.W. Baucher was principal of the Davey Institute for Tree Surgery, the instructional arm of Davey Tree Expert Co., which attracted men from around the nation who came to Kent to learn the skills needed to work for the tree firm. He laid down a blunt verbal gauntlet during a speech to the Men's Federation in March 1913.

"I am a stranger, having lived in your midst for but three and a half months, and I may be here but for two or three weeks longer," Baucher said, adding that he had "moved so frequently that it is a question whether I can claim a legal residence anywhere."

Because of this, he said, he had an understanding of the problem Kent was facing as it prepared to welcome hundreds of students without any assurance that all could find lodging.

"Gentlemen, Kent is face to face with an important problem. If it is solved correctly, you will not know the place 10 years from now," he said. "If a serious mistake is made now, you will have no trouble recognizing it even 15 years from now, as it will take fully that long to outgrow the effects."

The challenge facing the community, he said, went beyond finding housing for the new arrivals. Welcoming them to the community was another important aspect of becoming a college town.

"What is Kent's attitude towards this large body of strangers coming here for the first time? What is to be their first impression of the town, of the people and of the school? The first impression is always the most lasting. What will they report to their friends?" he asked. "How are you going to receive them? Or don't you expect to receive them, but just let them come?"

As a transient, he said, he knew what it was like to arrive in a new community. "Do you know how it feels to land in a strange town and have to tramp the streets to find a place to stay?" he said. It's safe to say that most of the men in his audience, who were either born in Kent or longtime residents there, did not.

"DO YOU KNOW the gratitude one feels for the true friend, though a stranger, who receives you with a warm hand-clasp and makes you as comfortable as possible under the circumstances?" he continued.

Professor Baucher noted that President McGilvrey had said rooms had been located for about 300 students. "What is to become of the other 500?" he asked, if 800 students actually turned up to enroll at the new school.

The challenge facing Kent, he said, was to find a way to accommodate as many students as possible and to ensure that their stay in Kent was a pleasant one.

A positive community attitude, he said, "will mean much to Kent, to the Normal and to the students."

A negative one, he predicted, would result in "the greatest lot of dissatisfied, discouraged, downhearted and homesick people you will ever have seen."

Professor Baucher concluded by urging his listeners to rely on "organization, cooperation, determination and enthusiasm" to meet the immediate challenges Kent faced in becoming a successful college town.

Kent State Normal School welcomed its first students -- 47 pioneers, mostly women -- as classes opened on May 19, 1913. A second summer session drew a much larger turnout.

The housing crisis that Professor Baucher envisioned didn't materialize. Many Kent students found lodging in private residences as they would do during the first decades of the campus when dormitory space was at a premium.

His words to the Men's Federation were important, nevertheless, as he sounded the call for what became known as "town-gown" relations 100 years ago, before Kent State even opened its doors.

Email: rdipaolo@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9400 ext. 4164

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