The early years
An intense effort was made to establish a University of Minnesota agricultural high school on the Morris campus in the early 1900s. Local legislator Lewis C. Spooner rallied the community, legislature, governor and the University of Minnesota regents in support of the new school. E. C. Higbie was hired as the first superintendent and on October 3, 1910, the West Central School of Agriculture and Experiment Station opened to 103 students.
The WCSA’s mission was to educate west central Minnesota youth on contemporary agriculture and homemaking methods and provide core academic instruction. Students accepted were at least 14 years of age and eighth grade graduates. Students enrolled in a three-year course of study that ran from early October after the fall harvest until late March before spring planting. Students continued projects at home during the summer, and visiting instructors monitored progress. Summer projects allowed students to share new agriculture practices with their parents. Typical classes included animal husbandry, cooking, sewing, carpentry, as well as English, math, and music. Short courses were offered for students who could only attend for brief periods.
WCSA students enthusiastically participated in activities outside of the classroom. Literary societies allowed opportunities to discuss literature and to share readings of their favorite works. Debate and declamation competitions were held and class plays performed. Athletic teams provided friendly competition. Basketball teams were organized for both boys and girls. The football team played its first game in 1910, losing to Morris High School by a score of 10-0. During Field Days, the community was invited to campus to learn about new agriculture techniques from Experiment Station and WCSA faculty.
The mid years
The WCSA was a conglomeration of new experiences for many students: living on their own for the first time, eating in the dining hall, class schedules and roommates they had never met before. For some students, running water and electricity were new amenities. A steam whistle blew at 6:30 a.m. to wake the students and again at 7 a.m. to signal the start of breakfast.
New friendships were formed. Students whose farm homes were only a few miles from one another often met for the first time at the WCSA. Like all aspects of life in Minnesota and across the nation, the Great Depression affected the WCSA. Enrollment fell from 388 students in 1929 to 187 in 1932 as students and their families struggled to find means to pay tuition.
An optional four-year program was added to the curriculum in 1938. In 1940, a flight training program, Civilian Pilot Training, was started. Ground and air instruction was offered at the new Morris airport. During World War II, it was renamed the War Training Service.
WCSA: times of change
During World War II, the WCSA faced many difficulties. Students and administration adapted to rationing of food, tires, and gasoline. Students were no longer allowed to drive cars to school. WCSA stayed in touch with their service men and women by sending them the West Central School News.
The postwar years between the mid 1940s and the mid 1950s were relatively stable for the WCSA. Enrollment grew to an all-time high of 455 in 1947. The students enjoyed excellent academic opportunities and cherished memories were made through friendships, athletics, social events, and extracurricular activities.
But change was imminent. While the first WCSA students arrived by horse and wagon, the high school students of the 1950s traveled by bus or car to schools in their own communities. By the late 1950s, telephone, radio, and television were standard means of communication, and the technology explosion was just beginning. In the mid 1950s, the University of Minnesota began discussing the future of the high school agriculture programs. By 1959, WCSA enrollment was falling, perhaps in part due to the possibility that the school would indeed close. In November 1959, the new superintendent, Rodney Briggs, confirmed that the WCSA would be phased out and college classes at the new University of Minnesota, Morris would begin the fall of 1960.
After the University of Minnesota, Morris opening announcement was made, new WCSA students were not admitted. As enrolled students completed their course work, classes were phased out. On March 28, 1963, WCSA held its last graduation ceremony, marking the end of an era and the closing of a school that more than 7,000 students attended. WCSA faculty, staff, and students mourned the loss of their school and celebrated the opening of a college in west central Minnesota.
Recognized by National Register of Historic Places
In 2001 during a WCSA Alumni Association board meeting, the directors wondered about the historic significance of their alma mater and the uniqueness of its mission as a U of M agricultural boarding school. They discussed preservation of the beautiful old buildings that served the WCSA. That casual conversation initiated an intensive two-year project, a collaboration between UMM and the Minnesota State Historical Society, to research WCSA history and to apply for National Register placement. In the spring of 2003, The National Register of Historic Places recognized the campus as the West Central School of Agriculture and Experiment Station Historic District. The district is composed of 18 buildings and 42 acres that served the WCSA between 1910 and 1963 and continue to serve the campus today.
Dennis Gimmestad '73, Minnesota Historical Society preservation officer states: "The Historic District is one of the best preserved agricultural high school campuses in the United States, and it has important associations with progressive education and research efforts in our agricultural history. Architect Clarence Johnston Sr.'s craftsman and colonial style buildings, set in Morell and Nichols' orderly landscape plan, served the high school for five decades. More recently, contemporary buildings have been added to the campus edges, while preserving the historic core as the heart of the University's liberal arts community."
The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of historic properties recognized by the United States Government as worthy of preservation for their significance in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering and culture.