June 17, 2020 — Doctor Webster Merrifield became UND’s third president on this date in 1891. He refused for a number of years before finally accepting the position.
Merrifield grew up in Vermont and graduated from Yale in 1877. For the next two years, he taught in a private school at Newburg, NY, and then spent the next four as a Greek and Latin tutor at Yale. He moved to Dakota Territory in 1883 to fill the chair of Latin and Greek at the newly established University of North Dakota, where he also taught literature and political science. He was secretary of the faculty, the University’s first librarian, and a driving force behind adopting a liberal arts curriculum rather than offering a more practical education.
UND’s early years were particularly difficult, as they were for all the state’s schools. The state had taken on too many costly institutions without enough people to support the tax base needed to fund them. In 1885, President Blackburn was dismissed, and Merrifield was asked to take over. Instead, Merrifield found UND’s second president, Homer Sprague, to take over. By 1891, Merrifield couldn’t hold off the offer any longer and took over the position of president, which he held for the next 15 years.
Merrifield faced the same challenges as his peers and predecessors – lack of money and resources. The territory was struggling toward statehood, there were political problems and the economy was on the downturn. In 1894, an outbreak of typhoid fever paralyzed both the university and the city of Grand Forks. The following year, the governor refused to appropriate any money for UND, and it looked like it would have to close its doors.
The University of Montana saw an opportunity and tempted Merrifield to become its president and to bring his entire faculty along with him. The city of Grand Forks rallied, however, raising $26,000, and the teaching staff voted to accept a 25% pay cut.
During Merrifield’s presidency, UND’s system was reorganized and actually expanded. The School of Mines opened in 1897, and two years later the Law School opened. 1901 saw the creation of the College of Mining Engineering, and of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering, and also the College of Liberal Arts and the Normal College took shape. In 1905, a two-year School of Medicine was established, and in 1906, Merrifield and the president of Wesley College agreed to essentially share their resources with each other.
Freshmen dubbed the first campus telephone the “class tree” and “got back and forth to Grand Forks on daily afternoon trains or a horse and carriage bus called the “Black Maria.” The few students who lived on campus during those earliest years occupied two large barracks called the Bull Pen and the Ram Pasture. One story tells of a pious classman who loudly delivered bedtime prayers that included the names and misdeeds of everyone in the whole Bull Pen – loudly enough for professors to hear. It was reported that students “took matters into their own hands with a forced dip in a cold bathtub, which soon solved the problem.”
Merrifield also worked to develop and greatly improve curricular standards and graduation requirements for the state’s many fledgling high schools. In fact, at his retirement in 1912, he was honored as the “father of secondary schools” in North Dakota.
Doctor Webster Merrifield died in his Pasadena home in January 1916.
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.