Grand Island, like many successful Midwestern cities, had not one but several colleges in its early years. The Baptist College, established there in 1892, did not survive the Great Depression and today only the Grand Island Community College survives as part of a multi-campus regional school.
In June of 1885, when Grand Island’s population was around 5,000, the Grand Island Business & Normal School was opened by Andrew Hargis with professors Hargis, Evans and Rucker constituting the original faculty. The first class catalog listed an almost bewildering number of classes including the general subjects of bookkeeping, mathematics, common law, penmanship, English, banking, art and shorthand with at least the same number of subdivisions but interestingly no mention of any normal/teacher training subjects.
Although specific enrollment numbers are elusive, the business community was obviously on board with the concept and although the first years reported “an insignificant number of pupils, some citizens came to the (school’s) assistance by buying certificates of scholarship though they had no immediate need for them.” There was, however, enough enrollment that almost at once Hargis’ wife Mabel and Evans’ sister were added to the teaching staff.
Within two years the three-story Glover Building at Third and Spruce streets was completed with a dry goods store on the first floor and the college filling the upper two. Around 1900 the school reported having “several hundred students,” advertised board at $1.50 per week and offered a college catalog which would be mailed for six cents. “Students from farms and ranches were admitted without entrance exams” and a three-story frame girl’s dormitory was built five blocks from the school at 721 West Second Street, about Second and Eddy.
Still expanding, the college moved to the four-story State Building on Locust Street utilizing the upper floors above the Lyric Theatre. During the 1905-06 school year an extensive advertising campaign was circulated in Nebraska and surrounding states which again built enrollment and the college’s football team announced they had defeated Grand Island and Wood River’s high school teams as well as those at Red Cloud and Hastings colleges.
In 1913 the college, with about 300 students in attendance, was acquired by Professor A. L. Dunn while the Hargis family retired to California. By 1920 the school’s name lost reference to any normal school affiliation, concentrated on business related courses and noted it was located in a five-story building on South Locust Street between Second and Third streets.
After the Great Depression, the college became part of the Bradford School, also a for-profit institution which sold to the Spencer School of Business. A 1955 advertisement in the Lincoln Star said the college, at 73 years of age, was the “oldest and largest business training school in the Midwest (whose) graduates were among the highest paid in the nation.” School president Harry Anderson added that “classes are arranged so a student may begin at any time.” The school became employee owned, changing its name to Grand Island College in 1996. On Nov. 17, 1999, without any forewarning, the school suddenly closed, citing declining enrollments.
In 1898 Andrew and Mabel Hargis bought lots at Second and Lincoln streets in Grand Island and hired Knoxville, Tennessee architect George Franklin Barber, who had designed houses in Tekamah, Lexington and Auburn to draw plans for a house. Nearly 1,500 wagon loads of fill dirt were moved to elevate the property and, in 1899 the house was completed. The two-story, turreted Queen Anne mansion with third floor ballroom proved to be one of Grand Island’s most elegant.
When the Hargis family retired to California in 1913 the house was purchased by Grand Island banker F. J. Coates. Dr. Johnson later remodeled the house, removing the ballroom and used it as a hospital then sold it with it again being altered as Christ Lutheran Church.
In June 18, 1919 about 50 women met to form a new organization as the Grand Island Woman’s Club. Their initial purpose stated they were “not exactly an auxiliary of the commercial club (but) intended to carry on similar objects” viz. fellowship and education while improving social and moral conditions. Their 117 charter members, under President Mrs. C. G. Ryan, immediately affiliated with other state and national federations of women’s clubs.
In 1953 the Hargis house was acquired by the Grand Island Woman’s Club which maintained and restored the property through the years, and in 1978 it was admitted to the National Register of Historic Places. The girl’s dormitory of the Grand Island Business & Normal School was razed in the 1990s leaving the Hargis house as the most visible remnant of the once thriving college.