Dexter (Iowa) Essentially a College Town–Dexter Normal College

It’s been a surprise to learn that at one time, tiny Dexter, Iowa–with a population never over 800 citizens–used to be a university town.


Building the three-story Dexter Normal School was started the fall of 1878, and was ready for use by fall or winter of 1879. The brick structure measured 57 by 67 feet with a half mansard roof, tower, and all modern improvements. It sits on about three acres of land at the north end of Marshall Street, in Allen’s addition near the public school building.

Heated by hot air pipes, the school cost $6000 to build. Benjamin J. Bartlett of Des Moines was the architect, and was erected by a stock company, comprising the businessmen of Dexter and farmers from Dallas, Guthrie, Adair, and Madison Counties.

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The main building was a fine, three-story brick structure, fully equipped for educational work of the highest efficiency, according to publications, and provided with all the necessary modern educational methods. On the first floor of the building shown was the physical culture rooms, the laboratory and the offices devoted to the business department. The second floor held the rooms for recitation, a library, and college offices. The chapel hall, the art studio, the conservatory of music, and the musical practice rooms were on the third floor.

The dormitory was large and commodious, where the students enjoy all the comforts of home life. A large steam plant furnished heat to all the rooms. In the dining hall, the students sat down daily to excellent fare, in company with the president and seven other members of the faculty, who made it their home.

Six Different Courses of Study

Six different courses were included in the college curriculum–a Normal course, a Classical course, a Literary and Scientific course, a Business department, and departments of Music and Art.

The Normal course was one of the strongest in the college, and “much thought and time has been employed in its arrangement. It covers three school years of forty-four weeks each. The teachers in this department are all graduates of good normal schools, and special attention is paid to psychology and methodology.”

The Classical course also required three years to complete, but students were allowed to take advanced classes when, upon examination, they were found sufficiently advanced. This was also true of the Literary and Scientific course.

The Business department “fully prepared its graduates for business life, affording very full teaching in theory, as well as a very large amount of practice in accordance with the best modern methods.” The conservatory of music was modeled after the “best and most progressive institutions of the kind in the country.”  The art department, under the direction of competent instructors, taught drawing of all kinds, specializing in oil and water color painting.

Dexter Essentially a College Town

No Evil Influences to Counter-act the Good Ones of the School

Although the college was entirely non-sectarian, every member of the faculty was a member of some church. “All persuasive influences are employed to have the students attend some church during their residence at the college.” Dexter was essentially a college town, in which there were “no evil influences to counter-act the good ones of the school. Viewing the institution from every standpoint there are few schools in the country more desirable, and parents and guardians seeking a suitable college for educating their children should write for a catalogue giving full particulars.”

According to Ron Howell, initially the curriculum included civil government, rhetoric, grammar, natural philosophy, arithmetic, orthography, didactics, algebra and vocal music. Students were housed on campus at the Bisbee Dormitory, or they could find off-campus housing for $2.24 per week.

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Bisbee Dormitory. You can see the Normal College to the left.

The first commencement was held in 1883.

No names, no date.

From the 1890 Commencement Program, students were listed from Adel, Corning, Cottage, Correctionville, Danbury, Des Moines, Dexter, Earlham, Greenfield, Marne, Menlo, Maquoketa, Minburn, Newton, Redfield, Spencer, Shelby, Utica, Waukee, and Winterset.

In 1890, Dexter’s census was 607.

By 1892, enrollment neared 600 students, essentially doubling the town. The curriculum expanded by 1893, adding the departments for business, art, and music. The Normal department added sciences and mathematics. The curriculum also included Latin, Greek, French, and German.

Positions are Secured for Worthy Graduates

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But by 1895, the Dexter Normal School was no longer active. The building was demolished in 1905 to make room for a new high school on the same site.


Sources: Clipping from an 1893 Homestead publication, thanks to Byron Weesner.

1968 Dexter Centennial History pages 21 and 22.

“Normal College” by Ron Howell in the Rural Schools of Madison County, Iowa FB page, 2017.



  1. This reminds me of my old elementary school. Three stories and a basement, where three first-grade classes and the cafeteria were located. The sixth grade classes (as high as the school went) were on the third floor. I can still smell the odors of that building–oils on the woodwork, sawdust that the janitor used to clean up after a student had been sick, individual teachers’ perfumes! Sadly, many colleges today are known, not as Dexter Normal College was for their high-quality academics, but for their sports teams and party atmosphere. Do you think that students “back then” were more serious about their education than those of today? I especially appreciate the emphasis that that earlier school placed on religious influence. Today, colleges seem to want to drive out all religious influence. Thanks for sharing this glimpse of the past.

    • How could I forget about janitor sawdust! This building was near what became Dexter’s two-story school building with a basement–housed all 13 grades! It was the same building that the Wilson kids went to, with grade school on the first floor, junior and senior high upstairs. There were a couple of old country schools moved in for extra room when I was a kid.

    • Dennis, here’s part of a post on a thread about it on Facebook: . . . higher education in those days was different than how we think of it today. The Normal college was more of a trade school in a way, but with a flourish of victorian era fanciness about it.

  2. Our little university town is being held to ransom at the moment by students protesting: they do not want to pay fees; they will not let anyone onto the campus; some are disrupting online lectures … what these temporary residents of the town do not take account of is that the university is the largest source of employment here. If it shuts down and curls up its toes there will be an economic disaster. Neither do they realise that if no fees are paid the university will not be able to function. The main problem is that they are blaming the university for ills that ought to be laid at the door of government departments.

  3. I am surprised that the school was in operation for such a short time, only 18 years. And that beautiful building lasted only ten years more.

    • Me too! The thread on the Memories of Dexter FB page says it’s because the legislature decided that the state Normal School would be in Cedar Falls, Iowa. That became Iowa State Teachers College, then the State College of Iowa (for only 6 years–Guy and I were there for 4 of them), then the University of Northern Iowa.

  4. It sounds like the county had some high ambitions, but circumstances must have thwarted their efforts. A shame that the building came down, though.

  5. My grandmother attended a Normal School in Truro, Nova Scotia to earn a teaching credential after completing university in 1918. The building looked much the same as the Dexter Normal School, although the curriculum wasn’t nearly as extensive.

  6. I really love this. My relatives, including my grandmother, went to Western Normal School in Kalamazoo. That red brick building is gorgeous. I got kind of sad though thinking how when buildings like that were built it was state of the art and gorgeous and then those buildings came to be seen as as dark and hard to heat and keep cool, etc. 🙁

    • The bricks were used to build the big school where Grandma Ruby graduated in 1916, and both of my folks and their siblings during the 1930s. I even attended in the same building until 8th grade graduation. Schools were reorganized and the Dexter kids were scattered to three different schools. The big brick building was again torn down and a one-story grade school squats there now.

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