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September 21, 2013

First Hartwick College event held 85 years ago at theater

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The Daily Star

---- — Several Oneontans gathered at the former Palace Theatre on Wednesday morning, Sept. 26, 1928, but it wasn’t to take in a movie. They were here instead to witness a piece of Oneonta’s history — the day Hartwick College opened its doors and began classes.

The Palace was found at the corner of Main Street and Ford Avenue, where Community Bank is today. Citizens, faculty and students of Hartwick College gathered at 10 a.m. for the first chapel exercises. They needed space such as a theater hall to hold everyone, because the first building on Oyaron Hill was under construction and would remain so for nearly another year, as the new college used temporary space at a former mansion on Main Street.

The day before classes began was a busy one at the Palace.

“The day yesterday,” according to The Oneonta Daily Star of Sept. 26, “was one of bustle and activity as the temporary quarters of the college in the Walling Mansion, where Dean (Olaf Morgan) Norlie was kept busy until late in the evening enrolling the incoming students.” This mansion was where the United Presbyterian (Red Door) Church stands today at the corner of Walling Avenue. By opening day, the freshman class had 100 enrolled, but six more were enrolled in the next few days.

“The students form a bright and attractive group,” the Star said, “and they seemed to take kindly to the arrangements made for the accommodation during the time first building is in the progress of erection on College hill. They are ready to make the best of conditions, which are not unfavorable to good work in the class rooms. The old mansion has been rearranged and beautified in the interior, electric lights and modern heating installed, and the class rooms will not be unattractive. The library is growing rapidly and steel fixtures have been installed for its convenient arrangement.”

“Friends of the institution have contributed quite generously, not only to the matter of books, but engravings and other articles of adornment for the walls have been donated.”

Norlie probably had a relieved feeling on the ride back to Oneonta from Albany on Monday, Sept. 24, as he’d spent the day in conferences with the state Education Department, getting final approval on the courses of study at Hartwick. A general invitation was issued to Oneonta residents to attend the Wednesday chapel exercise at The Palace.

“Exceedingly gratifying was the attendance of representative business men and residents of the city and to them equally pleasing was the one appearing body of young men and women who proceeded from the temporary college and took seats in the front of the auditorium,” it was reported. “They were roundly cheered as they marched down the center aisle and were seated. Preceding them and taking seats on the platform were President (Charles R.) Myers and the other members of the faculty, and a creditable delegation of the board of trustees. The large auditorium was well filled when Dr. Myers welcomed all and referred briefly to the significance of the hour.”

Among the many hymns, prayers and addresses by the speakers, a telegram that pleased many was read from the nearby town of Hartwick: “The faculty and students of Hartwick academy congratulate Hartwick college on its opening day. May Divine Providence continue to direct the newest development of the oldest Lutheran school in America.” 

This, of course, was from the Hartwick Seminary, which today has a memorial site just a few miles south of Cooperstown on state Route 28. The new college had explored the idea of building on the grounds nearby, but was lured by leading Oneonta citizens to build it in this city instead.

Norlie was the closing speaker that morning and announced that classes were to begin at 1:30 p.m.

According to a college catalog titled “Announcement,” tuition for 1928-29 was $100 per year, payable in two $50 installments. 

“Suitable rooms can be secured in private homes at from $2.00 per week up, board at from $6.00 up,” the catalog read.

On Monday: A look at several building and demolition projects in Oneonta during September 1973.

City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/marksimonson.