Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


John Fletcher recently asked, "Did you know that Birmingham had a college or university?" I shook my head in surprise, but discovered College Street on an old 1918 plat map, then found that the street still exists in Birmingham. A little research into the subject has produced some interesting data.

Webster’s Dictionary describes an academy as a high school or college that offers special subjects or skills. Funk and Wagnall’s Encyclopedia sets the academy apart as an institution offering degrees. Not all subject matter studied and taught at academies were college level courses, and there was sometimes a fine line separating upper and lower level subject matter. It is fascinating that the early settlers of Iowa were intent on establishing such institutions of higher learning. Clem Topping, Lester Lindsay, and Beulah Scott compiled a History of Birmingham that is available on the Internet. According to them, an academy was established in 1857 by a United Presbyterian minister named McArthur, called "The Collegiate Institute." It is referred to by most sources as a college and as such has claimed to be the only college ever established in Van Buren County.

However, several other academies existed in Van Buren County with curriculum and/or degrees offered that allowed them also to be considered as colleges.

McArthur’s College was promoted as a stock company and finally wound up in the hands of Professor J. W. Wolf. Many leading citizens received all or part of their education from Wolf’s Academy. Soon after a public school in Birmingham was established in 1871 and the academy was driven out of business. The first high school graduate in 1888 died before receiving his diploma, but by 1890 the Birmingham Alumni Association was established with twelve graduates as members. 

In researching early schools and colleges in Iowa, I found many discrepancies. For example, W. L. Wallace (Story of Iowa, Klipto Loose Leaf Co., Mason City, Iowa, 1931, page 70) says that the first college started in Iowa was Denmark Academy in Lee County in 1845. But the State Historical Society of Iowa (Palimpsest, March 1946) says that the first academy was nine years earlier at Yellow Spring, Des Moines County, in 1836.

Elementary schools dotted the landscape as quickly as people entered the territory. Galland, a pioneer settler of Lee County in 1829, opened Iowa’s first school in 1830 before Iowa was open for settlement. Early schools offered a basic curriculum of reading, arithmetic, writing, spelling, and geography. Private school academies (which were usually boarding schools) offered secondary and college courses, and students were often permitted to take whatever courses they desired. The Wisconsin Territory passed legislation at Burlington in January, 1838 that established seminaries or colleges for teaching science and literature at Davenport, Dubuque, Mt. Pleasant, Farmington, Augusta, Union, West Point, and Fort Madison. By 1850, law in this manner had created fifty colleges although some never materialized beyond the planning stage. The only two of these early colleges to survive to the present are Iowa Wesleyan and Grinnell College.

Although elementary schools were needed on the frontier instead of colleges, at least eight academies were approved for Van Buren County. Between 1838 and 1846, incorporation acts had been made for academies or seminaries in Bonaparte, Bentonsport, Keosauqua and Farmington. Palimpsest did not mention the location of the other four, so perhaps they never developed.

Probably the best known academy was the one at Bentonsport established in 1851. The first principal was John Allen, and this college attracted students from a wide area. Some of the distinguished graduates included William Mason, a prominent U.S. Senator from Illinois, and William Clark, Montana’s millionaire copper producer. Bentonsport Academy eventually became a public grade school but retained the name academy until it closed in 1950. Bonaparte, Farmington and Keosauqua academies each had a brief existence. Wolf’s Academy in Birmingham is probably the only other academy to open its doors. Thanks to Topping, Lindsay, and Scott we have some insight into the efforts made by pioneer communities to provide first class secondary education. Although it should not claim to be the only college established in Van Buren County, the Collegiate Institute in Birmingham deserves a spotlight in county history. Today, modern college courses are offered in Van Buren County from Indian Hills College, through the Keosauqua Center.

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick