To advance from being a mere village to a city, every Nebraska community strove to build an opera house and establish a college or university. Villages tended to establish along trails or natural points like streams. A few survived and grew, others withered and disappeared. Like small towns, Nebraska’s early colleges were often short lived.
With the birth of the Nebraska Territory in 1854 religious denotations felt the necessity of not only starting churches but establishing denominational colleges. The first was the Congregationalists’ 1855 Nebraska University at Fontanelle which was then in Dodge County though now in Washington, which failed and was resurrected as today’s Doane College in Crete.
In 1859 the Episcopal Church elected Rev. Joseph Talbot as missionary bishop over Nebraska Territory. Also, in 1859 the Presbyterians established Otoe University on land purchased from Russell, Majors & Waddell Freight Co. on Sioux Street (later Fourth Avenue) between 13th and 14th streets in Nebraska City.
The Civil War slowed interest in college development although the Episcopals bought 40 acres of land three miles west of Nebraska City on which Bishop Robert Clarkston founded a boys' school he named Talbot Hall and opened in 1867 with three boys and closed its first academic year with 30.
Early in 1868 one observer noted “Talbot Hall … has the appearance of an old institution” while during the same year the Nebraska legislature chartered the Episcopal Nebraska College & Divinity School at Nebraska City. That summer Talbot Hall became Nebraska College & Divinity School which, according to the Episcopal Church, was the “first college in Nebraska,” perhaps unaware of Nebraska University at Fontanelle. The main building at Nebraska College, still referred to as Talbot Hall, was also noted to have cost $20,000.
Nebraska College, though established by Bishop Clarkston, was actually organized by Rev. John Gasmann, and Rev. Robert Oliver. Gasmann became not only the school’s president but doubled as basketball coach, which the school claimed was “the first college athletic team in Nebraska.” Oliver then organized an adjunct school for girls named Schoenberger Hall which sat between Fifth and Sixth streets on Second Avenue in Nebraska City.
Almost at once a heated competition for students arose between Nebraska College and Otoe University. “Unfortunate bickering” between internal factions led to Otoe University’s closure and absorption by Nebraska College, which in 1872, purchased the building and grounds and moved to the Otoe University campus within Nebraska City.
With the consolidation, a new building, Nuckolls Hall, was constructed and the school proclaimed that “no better staff of educators can be found anywhere East or West.” The school’s catalog advertised the main building was of brick, two-stories and full basement which included a kitchen and dining room. The building to the west was of wood, 40 by 100 feet, two-stories tall with 16-rooms which were used as school rooms, a chapel and dormitories. Two other small wooden buildings completed the campus.
Tuition was decreased from $280 to $250 per semester including board in 1875 which was considered the school’s high point. That year the school debated moving to Lincoln, but the Nebraska City business community rallied, preserving their hosting of the college. Two years later the Episcopal Church announced that “Nebraska College and Brownell Hall [in Omaha] continued as powerful agencies of the church in this new country.”
In the late 1870s a nationwide depression crippled the Episcopal Church and its schools though in 1881 Nebraska College still claimed 71 students, 25 of which lived in the dormitories, and since its origin had graduated 25 men as Episcopal ministers. During the college’s 19th year Bishop George Worthington realized the school could no longer operate in a financially positive way and in 1885 “saw to it that it was closed.”
By 1954 the only visible remnants of Nebraska College were two apartment houses. The college itself on Fourth Avenue between 13th and 14th streets and Schoenberger Hall on the north side of Park Avenue Between Fifth and Sixth streets.
Brownell Talbot School moved from Saratoga into Omaha in 1863, changing addresses several times to its present location at 400 North Happy Hollow Blvd. in 1923, becoming co-educational in 1963. It became independent from the Episcopal Church and today terms itself “the oldest school in continuous operation in Nebraska.