Allen R. Benton found the prairie village rising from the salt flats to his liking.

Arriving in May 1871, time enough to settle in before his appointment as the University of Nebraska chancellor began in June, Benton described the grouping of homes, stores and hotels calling itself Lincoln as “first-rate.”

“All the family are pleased, and the climate is charming,” Benton wrote to his father on June 20, 1871, one of 19 letters he authored during his tenure as the university chancellor.

Previously president of Northwestern Christian University — what is now known as Butler University — in Indianapolis, Benton told his father he had arrived at a meeting of the Board of Regents in June ready to impress his new bosses.

“They seemed satisfied with me and my plans for work,” Benton wrote. “They appropriated me $13,000 for furnishing and apparatus most of which I shall expend for the University. This is a large trust.”

As construction on University Hall — the stately Franco Italianate academic and residence building that would undergo repairs from the beginning — neared completion and the first students prepared to enter the state’s newest institution in September, Benton seemed to anticipate the significance of the moment.

His task was nothing more than transforming the concept of a land-grant university — passed into law in 1863 and chartered by the Nebraska Legislature in 1869 — into a tangible place and community.

With reserved confidence, Benton signed off to his father.

“My work is going to be heavy before the opening of the University but I hope to bear it so as to keep healthy."

Telling UNL's story

Benton's letters, along with meeting minutes from the Board of Regents, are some of the only documents detailing life in the university's infancy.

They are just a small tale in the hundreds of thousands of stories that tell UNL's 150-year history, said Mary Ellen Ducey, an associate professor of University Libraries and curator of the depository.

NU Archive Treasures, 1.31

Mary Ellen Ducey, an associate professor of University Libraries, looks over one of the many pieces in the university's archives in Love Library South. 

Lining shelves in the basement of Love Library are collections of papers from the university's leadership through the decades, speeches given by chancellors, outlines of programs by deans and directors, and resource material used by faculty members, Ducey said.

The archive maintains student transcripts, the Hesperian Student newspaper dating back to Benton's tenure, old Daily Nebraskans and Cornhusker annuals, as well as records from literary societies, registered student organizations and athletic teams.

"We have so many stories to tell," Ducey said.

There are physical artifacts, like the Russian samovar used as a trophy for women's athletics in the 1910s, 4-H awards from long-forgotten livestock-judging contests, and the recognition of Mari Sandoz's admission into the International Cowgirl Hall of Fame.

Some are valuable, like Willa Cather's copy of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," or First Folios of Shakespeare, while others, like Benton's letters, are worth little more than the paper and ink used to print them.

In all, the archive would span 54 football fields if spread end-to-end.

As the 150th anniversary approached, University Libraries opened some of its archives to the public through crowdsourcing opportunities, allowing history majors and history buffs to flesh out the history contained in old yearbooks and authorized accounts of the university's past.

"We really focused on creating the tools so people could find the pivotal pieces that start to get to the underlying stories," Ducey said.

The actual university charter, passed by the Legislature on Feb. 15, 1869, as well as the first annual report by the Board of Regents, will move from event to event this week, giving students, faculty, alumni and others a peek into the history of "Dear Old Nebraska U."

To present day

There are still stories being written about the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, however.

Although the campus and the city that swallowed it looks a lot different than it did in Benton's day, Chancellor Ronnie Green said UNL is in many ways the same.

State of the University

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green delivers the State of the University speech on Jan. 15 at the Lied Center.

"There's this feeling in Nebraska — we talk about this all the time and it's very real — of the state identifying with the university and vice versa," he said in an interview last week. "I've lived in four states, and it's different here than anywhere else I've been."

Nebraska's status as a "big-small place," an expansive geographic area stretching hundreds of miles, but with a similar connection, exists to this day, Green said.

And the same support of the university exists today as when Nebraskans threw in behind Benton — who wrote to his father "I do not believe any man is more popular in the state than I am, when acquainted" — in the infancy of the institution.

Green, an animal geneticist by training, said while he's always had a love of history, and has delighted in learning more about UNL's history for years, he's focused attention on the growth and development of the university in anticipation of the 150th anniversary.

Common themes have emerged, like Clifford Hardin's pursuit of growth both in enrollment and physical space in the 1950s and '60s, or the attempts of Samuel Avery and Martin Massengale to navigate difficult economic times in the 1910s and '20s, and 1980s, respectively.

All that history matters, Green said, because the University of Nebraska belongs to the people.

"It's the core DNA of this place," he said.

Into the future

Future historians may look for clues about the university's development in its 150th year the same way historians today hold up Benton, Avery and Hardin as examples.

"It has been very insightful to think back through what each of those leaders were doing to think about moving the university forward given the contexts of the time they were dealing with," Green said.

Ducey said the university's archives anticipate capturing the digital records created by university leaders, faculty and students the same way they gathered the physical records of the past.

That means ahead of the University of Nebraska's 300th anniversary, Nebraskans could be combing through ancient tweets, "Perls of Knowledge," or online petitions to cancel classes because of bitterly cold weather.

"I hadn't thought about the way it would be captured," Green said. "But I certainly hope those generations will look back and see this as a seminal moment for the university in how we're envisioning the next generation."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.


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