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.
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.
The first commencement was held in 1883.
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
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.