MSU President's Column for Traill County Tribune

Mayville State's 125th anniversary is great cause for a community celebration


February 23, 2013

 “The establishment of a college in Mayville marked the end of a dream and the beginning of a grand adventure. The vision of the advantages inherent in higher education had long abided in the thoughts and yearnings of the pioneers who settled in eastern North Dakota. Far from being untutored sodbusters, many had tasted enough education to feel its allure, and more understood, however imperfectly, that their children could rise in life beyond the station of their parents through the power of knowledge.

“The coming of a normal school, or college of teacher education, seemed the answer to half whispered prayers and dimly defined hopes in the town of Mayville in 1890. The little city, really no more than a flourishing village at the time, was not yet ten years of age.

“A few straggling houses could be seen on the banks of the Goose River before 1881, but nothing which passed for a town was observable before that year. And then in a few short years Mayville became a thriving market town. It was a time of westward advance generally, with settlers leaving the forested land of the older Middle West and spilling out onto the plains, where they found a variety of natural conditions with which they were ill equipped to cope. It was also the years of the great Norwegian migration to the United States, and that exodus brought the bulk of the settlers who peopled the Mayville area.”

The above excerpts from James Warren Neilson’s “The School Of Personal Service, A History of Mayville State College” set the scene in Mayville during the late 1800s, even before North Dakota became a state. Churches were being built, a public school was organized and a brick school house was erected. An opera house made the scene. The town was growing.

The people of the young, proud community wanted a college. Such a thing would be very unique in a country market town on the prairie, but it was important enough that the community leaders would invest their efforts to make it happen.

Through the work of the Fifty-first Congress, Dakota Territory, which had existed as an administrative unit for more than 25 years, was split and the two Dakotas were brought into the Union as the states of North Dakota and South Dakota.

The voters of North Dakota elected 75 delegates to a state constitutional convention in May of 1889. The convention convened in Bismarck on July 4, 1889, with, of course, the major agenda item of drafting a constitution. Article 19 of their constitution provided for the location of 14 state institutions, including normal schools at Mayville and at Valley City. The voters overwhelmingly ratified the new constitution for North Dakota in October, and the first legislature met in a special session held in November of 1889.

And so, Mayville Normal School, now Mayville State University, was born. By October of 1890, the institution was advertising the fact that it would soon open its doors to students, and by the first of December classes were meeting. The Mayville City Hall, actually a firehouse with rooms on the second floor, provided quarters for the first classes.

A total of 85 students enrolled for classes at Mayville Normal School in the first full academic year which began in 1891. Things were going well. This gave leaders the confidence to move forward with a building project, and some 145 students enrolled and the number of faculty members grew to nine during the second full year of operation.  

Early in October of 1985, the operations of Mayville Normal moved to the new lone building, the east wing of what we currently know as “Old Main.” The building featured steam heating, an office, a library, and classrooms. A few upper story rooms were used for dormitory purposes.

“And the rest,” as they say, “is history.”

We’ve come a long way and have much to celebrate as we approach the 125th anniversary of the establishment of a normal school at Mayville, November 2, 2014. Our campus has grown and improved greatly since the first half of Old Main was completed years ago. We have beautiful residential, instructional, and activity-focused facilities. We’ve consistently set new enrollment records across the board for the last several years, including surpassing the 1,000-student headcount mark last fall semester. We have fantastic academic programs and our faculty are always at work to provide the best education possible for our students. Things are going well and we look to the future with hope and enthusiasm.

Last week, I invited Mayville State faculty and staff to join me in a brainstorming session to talk about ways in which we could celebrate Mayville State’s 125th anniversary. We came up with a nice list of possibilities, and now I look to you in the community for your input and involvement. The privilege of having an institution of higher education in Mayville is truly a reason for all of us to celebrate! The notion of higher education was of great importance to the pioneers of Mayville, and I believe that ideal stands with community members today. We’d love for the 125th anniversary of Mayville State to be a celebration for the entire community.

Some time soon I will be arranging for a brainstorming session with community members. Put your thinking caps on now and start thinking about how you and/or the organizations and groups with which you are associated might want to get involved. This is a great opportunity for the campus and community to collaborate. I look forward to a fantastic celebration! In the meantime, if you have questions or ideas you’d like to share, please feel free to contact Beth Swenson, director of marketing and public relations, at 701-788-4750 or