Iowa Agricultural College Old Main

Photo circa 1898

In the spring of 1864 funds became available to begin the construction of the first college building on the Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm near Ames.  Construction of the huge building began in spurts, delayed sometimes by harsh weather, inferior building materials, and sporadic appropriations.  The original foundation and basement were discarded and in 1866 construction resumed again according to the revised plans by architect Charles Dunham.  Eventually heating problems were addressed, a bell was installed in the belfry, and a well to supply water dug 300 yards west.  The College Building was dedicated on March 17, 1869, signifying that the Iowa Agricultural Model Farm was now a college.

Architect C.A. Dunham described the building:

The outline of the ground plan is that of the letter E, one hundred and fifty-six feet in length by seventy feet in width, through wings which are so arranged that they can be extended at any future time as may be desired.  The building is five stories in height - the first story nine feet, second story fourteen feet, third and fourth stories twelve feet, attic story ten feet six inches.  Forty-two feet of the central portion of principal front projects seven feet, with a veranda ten feet in width.  At the ends of the principal front there are two towers twenty-one feet square, projecting four feet from face of main walls.  The principal tower rises to the height of one hundred and thirty-six feet, and at the elevation of one hundred feet there is a bell-turret, with projecting balconies on the four sides, to accommodate those who wish to view one of the most beautiful prairie landscapes in the west.  The principal story is gained by ascending a flight of stone steps of ample dimensions, landing upon the veranda heretofore mentioned.  After passing through the entrance doors, which open into a hall eight feet in width, to the right is the reception room, sixteen feet by twenty-four feet; chamber, sixteen by sixteen feet, with ample closet room.  Opposite these rooms is the library, eighteen feet by forty, located in the central part of the building.

There is a corridor of ample width running through the center of the building and wings in each story.  After leaving the library room, turning to the left, on the right side of the corridor, is located the museum, eighteen by fifty-two feet, which is fitted with cases and shelves for specimens.  Returning back to the halls, to the right is the entrance to the lecture-room, which is in the north wing of the building, thirty-four by fifty feet, with seats around on the arcs of circles, radiating from the lecturer's stand.  In the rear of the lecturer's stand is a doorway communicating with the museum, for the more ready introduction of anatomical and other specimens upon the lecturer's desk and stand.  It is the design to have around the walls of this room a series of pictures, painted in oil, representing scenes in the life of the agriculturist and the arts and sciences.  Retracing our steps, we return to the corridor and approaching the library, to the right and on each end of the library room there will be found the two principal staircases, eight feet in width, circular in form, encased in two octagon towers leading from the basement to the attic story.  Further on down the corridor is to be found the recitation rooms.  At the ends of the veranda, on the principal front, stepping down four steps into an area of nearly the width of the veranda the principal entrance to the basement story, is found halls and corridors running the same as those described in the principal story.  After passing through the doorway to the left is the steward's room; to the right is the laboratory, and adjoining is the bathroom.  At the end of the long corridor, entrance is to be had to the dining room which is thirty-three feet by forty feet.  Passing on through the dining room, to the left is to be found the kitchen, twenty by twenty-four feet, fitted with range, sink, pump and boiler...

The building was quickly outgrown, so two additional wings were constructed in 1872.

Tragedy struck the Main about 3:30 in the morning of December 8, 1900, when fire, starting in the boiler room quickly spread to the north staircase and very soon the entire north tower and north wing were in flames, forcing most students to abandon practically all of their property as they fled from the building.  With help from the Boone fire department the fire was brought under control before the center section was entirely destroyed and before it reached the south tower and south wing.

And again:

The college had scarcely recovered from the shock of the first fire when disaster struck a second time.  On the morning of August 14, 1902 fire again broke out and demolished the south wing of Old Main.  Fortunately the botanical collection and most of the furniture was saved...  More information about the fires is available below.

This second fire forced the abandonment of Old Main, and a contract for a new fireproof building to be constructed on the same site was awarded in May of 1903.  This new structure was called the Central Building, later known as Beardshear Hall.  

Evidently, the plans for the Iowa Agricultural College's Old Main were sent to Fayetteville, Arkansas, where another Old Main was constructed in 1875. 


Ames Daily Tribune, ISC Special Centennial Section - March 3, 1958

A building which served as library, museum, chapel, classrooms and dormitory was Iowa State’s Old Main.  In fact, the Old Main of 1867 WAS the college.

Old Main was an unusual dormitory in that it housed not only faculty members, but also men and women students.  Men lived on the third and fourth floors and women on second.  The men were obliged to enter by the side or back doors except on Saturday afternoons when they could use the front door.  "Thus far shalt thou go, and no farther" was one of the first rules given to the students.

The students did not arrive at college overburdened with lamps, radios, typewriters and headboards.  Instead, they brought a mattress, bedding and a few toilet articles.

At the entrance to Old Main was a supply of clean straw.  The girls usually prevailed upon the boys to fill their mattresses or bed ticks with this straw.  Then the boys would carry the ticks up to the girls’ rooms. Beds had to be "made" with a new supply of straw, for when the straw broke into short pieces, as it often did, the slats beneath poked through.  They must have often thought about their soft feather bed... (illegible on photocopy)... scantly furnished rooms contained two straight-backed chairs, a bed, wardrobe, study table, washbowl, pitcher and a waste basket.  If they wished, they were allowed to bring carpets for the floors.  There was a shelf fastened to the wall for shaving things, ornaments, etc.  Some students hung pictures of notable persons on their bare walls.  These pictures ran the gamut from presidents and popes to highly colored plates from Godey’s Ladies Book!

Rooms were heated by hot air which came from a furnace in the sub-basement.  Those living on the top floor suffered from the heat, or lack of it.  During cold weather, seldom were the top floor rooms heated above 60 degrees. Light was furnished by gas generated from naptha.  This was even inferior to the kerosene lamps which provided light in most of their homes.  Often there was insufficient air and compression and the light flickered unsteadily.  The incandescent mantels had not made their appearance and illumination from gas was poor. If the gas didn’t burn, the students used candles stuck between nails on a board.  Such conditions did not make studying easier.

Water was pumping from a spring north of the farm barns to a supply tank in the top story of Old Main’s south wing.  This water was not well distributed throughout the dorm.  Congestion reigned when too many appeared at the same time to fill their water pitchers. Toilet facilities were maintained within the building and when the pipes worked and equipment was in order, the system was sanitary. Bathtubs were relatively unknown at this time, but there was one in the basement of Old Main.  It cost 25 cents to use it, so most students bathed from a bowl and pitcher.  If warm water was needed, and it’s doubtful if the students of 1868 liked cold water baths, the water had to be heated on stoves.  In season, Squaw Creek took the place of many basins and pitchers.


Iowa State graduated at least a dozen classes before the advent of the telephone came to the college.  The students were, of course, without today’s modern luxuries, but they made the best of what they had.

The food served in the dining hall was wholesome, homemade and certainly prepared on a much smaller scale than today.  The menu differed from time to time as the conditions in the market permitted.  The students were served coffee, tea and milk regularly and sweets occasionally.  Since food canning was not in extensive practice, dried foods were used when fresh weren’t available.

The girls would eat together at a table with a faculty woman at one end and a boy to do the carving at the other.  Usually one chair was left vacant at each table in case guests should stop by.  The students’ manners were carefully watched.  They were told to sit straight so as not to touch the back of their chair. After dinner, the girls cleared the table, washed and dried the dishes.  The entire work of caring for the household fell upon the girls.  Their tasks included baking, laundering, ironing and dusting.  This manual labor was required of them as part of their studies.

The boys also had manual labor required of them.  They had to build fences, clear the college farm tracts, plant trees on the campus, care for livestock and clean the barns. Most of the work was done just to get it done.  They felt that much time was consumed in having to bathe and change clothes each time they worked outside.  In general, this required labor was not enjoyed by the students.
Saturday Inspections

The girls’ rooms were cleaned on Saturday mornings for inspection by a professor and two men students.  Likewise, a professor and two women students inspected the boys’ rooms.  Then in the evening after dinner, each side would tell what they had seen amiss in other rooms.  No names were mentioned!  Supervision of social conduct was exercised with rigid discipline.  There was a social hour after dinner, but there were restrictions.  For example, there were certain places students could and couldn’t go on campus.

On Saturday afternoon, the taboos were withdrawn and the young people were given social privileges on the campus.  It’s doubtful if they talked about agriculture and home economics, for on such occasions "matches were made on campus and not just in heaven."  Sunday services were of great importance to the students.  Speakers from around the country were brought in to conduct these services.

Lights were put out, if they didn’t go out before, at 10 p.m.  No one was to be out of their rooms "except for unavoidable reasons" after this time.  The rising bell was at 5:30 a.m.  The students would put their rooms in order and then study until 6:45.  After breakfast they went to chapel and classes and then proceeded with their studying, household and farm chores.  So went the days of old Iowa State.  Few students today would like to have been a part of them.


1898 view of the back of Old Main (right) from the water tower

Reminiscences of Iowa Agricultural College, written in 1896 by the step-daughter of Adonijah Welch

The memory-pictures of an imaginative child are clear cut and vivid. The colors with which they are painted never grow dim. But being seen through the eyes of childhood, untaught by experience and unbiased by prejudice, they are inaccurate and strongly unlike a grown person’s recollections of the same events. Therefore, if these bits from my childish memories differ from those of others, older and wiser than I, they must consider that the college and the campus, the students, and my home among them, filled all of my life, that for thirteen years I arose and lay down, ate, worked and played by the sound of the college bell, and was governed, even in my thoughts, by the rigid discipline that held the institution as in the hollow of one man’s hand. 

It was on a raw, rainy afternoon in September, 1869, that a little girl of [mine], weary with the long journey from Florida, peered over the side of the big lumber wagon that was sent to escort in state, the president of the Iowa Agricultural College from Ames to his new home.  As the patient mule team plodded wearily through the mud (it had been a rainy summer, and there was no raised grade between Ames and the college then), she caught her first glimpse of the college building.  Only half of the Main Building was completed, the wings being added later, and it was set in a broad expanse of rough, unbroken prairie.  There her eyes took in the old Farm House, and the barns, the only other buildings upon the farm, and the dozen stunted apple trees and a row of willows in front of the Farm House, which were the only trees upon the grounds.  Shortly the wagon stopped before the Farm House door, and stiff and tired with the dreary ride, a delicate woman, and four little children were ushered into the office and welcomed by the bluff, big-hearted Scotchman who was the superintendent of the farm.  I think I can recall every article of furniture in that room, as plainly as if I saw it yesterday.  A long office table with heavy wooden chairs around it, a dirty inkstand and some disreputable looking pens, a newspaper or two, and some state reports, a great rusty iron soft coal stove, two cases of books, also mostly state reports, and a big thermometer.  The floor was bare save for the muddy tracks of workmen’s boots, and the air was heavy with stale tobacco smoke.  The rest of the Farm House was as unfurnished and dreary, but in one of its upper rooms, uncarpeted and half-heated, with two beds, and the barest necessaries of chairs and wash-stand, Dr. Welch wrote his inaugural address, and worked out in his own mind the plans for the new school of Iowa, along the lines which have since been followed.

The industrial education was as yet almost untried, the co-education of the sexes was viewed with suspicion and dislike by most of the prominent educators of the day, but it was in no half-hearted manner that he undertook to work out the practical application of what were then only theories. From the moment when, from the veranda of the Farm House, he looked about him on his new domain that rainy afternoon, his great heart was filled with a love for this school, which was the strongest characteristic of his later years. That devotion, which was greater than his ambition, was unfaltering through years of the most arduous labor, through successes and failures, in health and in illness, until the day when he closed his eyes on all earthly labor in far-off Sunny California. Whatever was for the good of the college, that must be compassed at any cost. Whatever retarded her genuine growth and development must be ruthlessly cut off without fear of favor. In that atmosphere of love and devotion, I grew from little girlhood in to womanhood. I have seen out beautiful campus gradually pass from wild prairie to a paradise. How well do I remember my father saying, "The finger of the Lord has dimpled it for out use; we have only to clothe it with sward and adorn it with trees to bring beauty out of ugliness."

The students of the early classes will remember with me, how eager he was to prove his words to be true.  How, summer after summer, with his boys and girls gathered about him, he taught them practical landscape gardening, lecturing, setting trees, planning roadways, and setting apart building sites with the eye of an artist.

In November we removed to the college building and shivered through that first bitter winter, when the building was heated by the Rutan system of furnaces.  We played in our overcoats and mittens and went to bed when we were too cold to play.  I do not remember when the gas was first ready to use, but for a long time our only light was tallow candles, coal oil being forbidden in the building by order of the Board of Trustees.  The candle-sticks were primitive, being made by driving three nails into a square piece of pine, and the long halls were lighted by three or four of these brilliant arrangements, which were set upon the floor.


(image from a glass plate negative)

Some time during this winter, before Christmas, I think, the first social occurred.  Some of the students were awkward and uncouth, unused to society, and untaught as to social matters.  To such the president’s kind heart was especially drawn.  He desired to send forth his graduates equipped at all points for the battle of life, and as the number was small, he could and did make himself the teacher and friend of each.  He arranged this social to take place in the chapel, but after getting the students gathered together he was at a loss what to do with them.  The boys ranged themselves along the west wall and looked out of the windows, and the three or four girls huddled together near the door, as if ready to flee if approached.  He was in despair, until Mrs. Welch suggested that he bring in a fine music box which he had bought in Florence.  No sooner was it placed upon the stage and its tinkling music fairly started, than the boys and girls gathered around it, and I have not heard that there has since been any difficulty in persuading them to associate freely together. It was this winter [1868] also that the Philomathean Society was organized. I remember it well, because I stood on a table in the chapel and spoke my first piece in public, as part of the program.

In the spring of 1870 we again took up quarters in the Farm House, in rooms made home-like and pleasant for us, expecting soon to have out home in South Hall, then nearly completed. But alas! The concrete brick, of which it was being built, was unproperly constructed, and one morning while we were at breakfast, a man rushed into the room crying, "The house is falling, the house is falling!" In great excitement we ran out, to find his words too true. The new house had quietly collapsed and only a pile of dust and timbers was left. Fortunately it was early in the day and only one man was slightly injured. Two other houses, one where Professor Stanton’s home now stands, and another a little west of it, were also in process of building with the same material, but were torn down to be rebuilt of more substantial brick. It is curious to remember that the first South Hall was built facing east, and would, if it had remained standing, presented its back door to the college. The concrete brick was very handsome, being in large blocks and very white. It was finally pulverized and used in making the road-bed of the first drive between the Farm House and college. The motor [dinkey] track follows it pretty closely now.

It must have been in 1870, that the business of lawn making was seriously commenced.  Turnips were sown upon the campus and as the roots grew in size and sweetness they were in great demand by students and teachers alike.  So much so that it was rare to meet one strolling about the grounds without a turnip in one hand and a jack-knife in the other.  This was, you must remember, long before the days of the strawberry bed.  Professor Budd and his apple trees, and Jerry Sexton and his grape vines, were still hid in the lap of the future. In 1871, the turnips gave place to potatoes, and that, if I remember rightly, was the first year the Colorado potato beetle visited the state. They camped down on the college grounds. A potato field in a prosperous condition, coming close to the house one very side, is not a bad state of affairs, but when it is covered by millions of crawling, creeping striped bugs it is simply horrible. Then, as now, the education of the children on campus, was a serious question.  The little district school was ill taught and Ames was thrice as far away as now, when the motor makes hourly trips.  So we were taught at home by students, mostly, and placed in college classes whenever possible.  In the latter case we were required to bring home our daily standings on a slip of paper, and it was not well with us if those standings were anything less than 4.  Professor Bessey understood this very well, and undertook, out of the kindness of his heart, to make the poor grades attractive to us by drawing beautiful little wreathes of flowers about the ugly little 3.50 or 3.75 he was sometimes forced to give us.  How happy we always were when he would take a rough scrap of paper and hurriedly scratch off a 4.00, and how our hearts fell when he cut out a neat little square with his pen-knife and daintily began to scroll it all around, I need not say.

Pictures of those early days when buildings and apparatus were few and poor, when real privations came to all of us, when students and teachers limited in number, but eager and enthusiastic, were like one big family, come flocking to mind faster than my pen can write for you. But there is a limit to the space you can spare me, and I must leave the half untold. 

Winifred Dudley Shaw, Class of ’76


Westward view of campus from the north tower of Old Main

Ames Daily Tribune, ISC Special Centennial Section - March 3, 1958

COED STYLES HAVE CHANGED DRASTICALLY AS WOMEN'S INTEREST VARIED SINCE 1860'S - While Iowa State’s first coeds were hurrying across campus with long skirts flapping about their ankles, leaders of the infant women’s suffrage movement on the east coast of the U. S. were beginning their campaign to change feminine styles.  The past 100 years of collegiate fashion reflect drastic changes in the activities of women and their ideas about dress.

Early coeds wore the same outfit for class, tennis and participation in the required college work program.  This outfit consisted of a skirt which arched over boned underskirts and reached from high laced boots to a bodice with a high tightly-wrapped neckline and voluminous leg-o’-mutton sleeves.  Hats were important parts of any costume – in class or out.

The 70’s started a series of skirt exaggerations which have become famous.  This was the age of the bustle, which soon gave way to other extremes of long, wide and heavy skirts.  College girls during this decade wore dark serviceable dresses which, in pictures, look like they might have benefited from a good pressing.  Decoration was of utmost importance and hardly a dress was without lace, tucks or ruffles.

Toward the turn of the century, coeds and women across the country adopted the skirt and blouse combination which has continued in importance to the present day.  Typical outfits were often topped with a short fitted jacket. Colors gradually left the somber range and continued to another extreme – several brilliant shades combined in a single garment.  The college girlish favorite, the sweater, also put in its appearance in the early 1900’s.

The rapid fashion changes in the early 1900’s reflected the changing status of women.  The century began with the bell-shaped skirt, high-necked blouse and leg-o’-mutton sleeves.  Then came the large double-puff sleeves, pompadours and picture hats bedecked with ostrich plumes and ribbons.  Gradually these gave way to gored and pleated skirts and the stiffly starched "Gibson Girl" blouse, marking an American contribution to fashion.  Skirts were only an inch off the ground but puffing and padding were being discarded in favor of a more tailored silhouette...

For more information about the early days of ISU, 
read Farm House, College Farm to University Museum by Mary Atherly.

Ames Times, December 13, 1900

Saturday morning at 3:45 the citizens of Ames were aroused by the repeated and long continued whistle of the fire alarm, which ceased only to give the signal of four whistles, showing the fire to be in the fourth ward of the city, which meant at the college.  The whistle was reinforced by the engines of the Northwestern in the yards and also by the ringing of the college chimes.  The aroused citizens got into their clothes as hastily as possible and hacks, the motor line and even Shank’s mare, were brought into requisition to cover the mile and a half from town to college.  The fire was at once located as being in the Main building, the oldest and largest building on the campus, which has been the college landmark for thirty-six years being visible for many miles, especially at night when lights gleamed from its hundreds of windows, shedding their brightness over the surrounding country, like a light house on an ocean ledge.  The fire was first discovered by Paul Morn, the fireman of the building, at 3:30, who was awakened by the smoke and fire and at once gave the alarm by ringing the bell back of the building...  Learn more about the fires that hit Old Main.