Small-town colleges gone, but nostalgia remainsConverted buildings, assorted photos and memories are all that remain of three once-vibrant colleges in small towns in the Mitchell region. As visitors — and perhaps even younger residents — cruise through Wessington Springs, Freeman or Springfield, it may be difficult these days to casually detect the remnants of the colleges that once were the focal points of those communities, none of which today has more than 1,300 residents.
By: Austin Kaus, The Daily Republic
Converted buildings, assorted photos and memories are all that remain of three once-vibrant colleges in small towns in the Mitchell region.
As visitors — and perhaps even younger residents — cruise through Wessington Springs, Freeman or Springfield, it may be difficult these days to casually detect the remnants of the colleges that once were the focal points of those communities, none of which today has more than 1,300 residents.
Yet for former faculty and students, the memories of their schools permeate not only the communities themselves, but also the rest of the world.
“I don’t want to make it sound more than it is, but it really was impressive the graduates that went out of that place,” said Gail Arnott, who refers to himself and his wife, Susan, as unofficial Wessington Springs College historians. “It’s just amazing the impact that Wessington Springs College has had on the globe.”
Arnott’s glowing opinion of his alma mater is shared by those familiar with the former colleges in Freeman and Springfield.
It doesn’t take much prodding to get members of all three communities to share memories of the former campuses and describe how each of those three small communities handled the respective loss when the schools closed their doors.
No alcohol. No tobacco. No movies. No dancing.
These were the rules at Wessington Springs College, where Wessington Springs resident Gail Arnott received his college degree.
This didn’t mean, however, that the school was devoid of fun.
Arnott looks back fondly on his memories of music tours and a staff made up of teachers, missionaries and preachers dedicated to enforcing the school’s motto of “Education for Character” — even if students, and even Arnott, affectionately referred to it as “Education for Characters.”
“The teachers we had generally had pretty broad experiences,” Arnott said. “I wish everybody could have that opportunity to go through an … environment with dedicated teachers really caring, not just about my education but my character.”
The Free Methodist college, which began as the Wessington Springs Seminary in 1887 — was known as Wessington Springs Junior College from 1918 to 1932. From 1932 until the discontinuation of the program in 1964, the school offered a two-year junior college curriculum.
A four-year high school program was also offered and continued for four years after the university program had ended — all in a town that at the time had only 1,400 residents and today has about 1,000.
As enrollment and funding declined, Arnott said administrators — including his father, who served on the school’s board of directors — had to make an important decision. The Wessington Springs location and its sister school, Central Christian College of McPherson, Kan. — would have to lose one of their high school or college programs.
In the end, Wessington Springs lost its college program while CCC gave up its high school curriculum. Many students from each discontinued curriculum began attending classes at the alternate facility, and CCC is still in operation today.
Arnott said Wessington Springs is now unified with ideas of survival and improvement, but that wasn’t necessarily the case during the days of Wessington Springs College.
“Now, we feel like we’re in this together, (but) in the ’50s, (the college) was not totally community supported,” Arnott said. “Wessington Springs was maybe more segmented by numbers of different categories … like religious affiliation, business affiliation and people who lived in certain areas or had certain jobs.”
Still, many residents were caught off-guard when the school was closed. Arnott recalls his father returning from a board meeting with news of the college’s closure, instructing his son to keep the news quiet until the now-defunct Wessington Springs Independent newspaper could get the scoop.
The only portion of the campus that remains is a former athletic field — now privately owned — and the famed Shakespeare Garden, which contains the Anne Hathaway Cottage and which is a sightseeing stop for visitors to the town.
Hillcrest Heights, a senior living facility, occupies most of the former college site, which was nestled up against the Wessington Hills on the western edge of town.
Arnott remembers that Shakespeare Garden was frequented by WSC students.
“The garden was a popular place for holding hands,” said Arnott, “and other things.”
In the mind of local historian Norman Hofer, the act of arson that destroyed the Salem Lutheran Church was a death knell for Freeman’s college.
The church was one of the largest providers of financial support for the campus — known as Freeman College from 1910 to 1939 and Freeman Junior College until the closure in 1986 — and the decision by two young boys to burn the church meant the end for a school already suffering with enrollment and financing troubles.
“Some of us were standing watching the fire and …. I think a number of us knew at that point that this may very well be the end of the school,” Hofer said. “(It) was ultimately the final blow.”
As with many South Dakota colleges, teacher training was a focus at Freeman. It took eight years after Friederich C. Ortmann’s first dreamed of more teacher training facilities in the area for the South Dakota Mennonite College to be formally dedicated in 1903.
The name was changed to Freeman College in 1908. The institute produced more than 2,300 graduates before its closure.
Hofer said the combination college and high school was forced to make a decision familiar to many involved with small-town colleges: close the two-year junior college or the four-year high school.
In the end, administrators decided to eliminate the college curriculum.
“They decided that with the type of enrollment we have, we’d almost have to do nationwide recruiting to try to get enough students to make it work financially,” Hofer said. “It was a heart-wrenching decision because the school meant a lot to lot of people.”
Those with memories of, or a simple curiosity about, the former college have a chance to learn about it on Wednesdays and Sundays at the Heritage Hall Museum on the campus of the Freeman Academy, a private middle and high school whose campus still utilizes buildings from the school’s inception.
Hofer said he still hears from the college’s graduates.
“Many have said ‘What I got in Freeman those first two years of my college literally flavored my entire life,’ ” Hofer said.
The Mike Durfee State Prison now stands on the edge of Springfield where the former University of South Dakota at Springfield once held classes.
For those unfamiliar with the history of the Bon Homme County town, it may be hard to imagine that some of the buildings holding prisoners at the prison were once filled with students eager for higher education.
Jon Westling, a former coach and teacher at the university, has worked hard since the school’s controversial closure to ensure that the university’s history is not lost to the ages.
“Just about everything I experienced there was positive,” said Westling, a current member of the Springfield College Museum board of directors. “It was just a small-college atmosphere that was very, very close-knit.”
The school began as Southern State Normal School in 1881, becoming Southern State Teachers College in 1947 and Southern State College in 1964. It was known as the University of South Dakota at Springfield from 1971 until the school’s closure in 1984.
A monument in the Springfield park shows that approximately 50,000 students attended the college during its history.
Westling saw both sides of the university process in Springfield. After receiving his degree, he returned to the school in 1968 and spent the next eight years as a coach and teacher.
While he looks fondly upon his years spent at the university, he also remembers his and others’ defense of the university when the state began considering its closure. Ultimately, the state Legislature closed the institution in 1984 and converted it to a medium-security prison that currently houses 1,248 male and female prisoners.
“There was a very bitter battle fought which lasted for several months and townspeople, faculty, legislators and alumni fought … and came in second,” Westling said. “In the minds of those who wanted to close it, I guess it wouldn’t be missed.”
Gone were the sports teams that competed in the old South Dakota Intercollegiate Conference. Gone was the college atmosphere that prevailed in the town that now doesn’t even have its own high school.
The immediate effects of the closure were “rather negative,” Westling said, with some businesses suffering from the sudden decrease in population.
However, the establishment of the prison helped fill the employment and income gap left open by the school’s closure.
“That probably gave some stability to the situation,” Westling said. “In the minds of the people, it didn’t necessarily replace the college by any means, but it did provide some employment.
While the surviving number of graduates of the school grows lower every year, Westling said remaining alumni are an extremely loyal group who receive a newsletter distributed by Westling and his wife.
Those former students sometimes visit the college’s museum on Springfield’s Main Street.
“All the graduates … really had a close attachment to the school or the community,” Westling said.