Humble Families, Humble Beginnings
The donations of 900 Boone County residents 175 years ago keep paying dividends.
In 1839, about 900 Boone County residents donated cash or land to bring the University of Missouri to Columbia. Although 15 of the donations were $1,000 or more, nearly half of them, 429, were $25 or less. These founding families likely had little idea of the transformational seeds they were sowing — the generations of their descendants who would be educated, meet spouses and find their callings at the university, and how it would grow from a single building that would burn down in 50 years to a $2.1 billion world-class enterprise for teaching, research, medicine, athletics and entrepreneurship.
Burch Harrington first saw her 77 years ago, walking ahead of him on Waugh Street, wearing an attractive tan raincoat. He still remembers those kinds of details. He recalls the rain that Sunday morning around 10 and the date: Oct. 27, 1935. It was the day he met the love of his life.
He followed Ada Jones for a few steps, but it didn’t take long before she stopped to let him catch up. She asked if he was going to church. A state meeting for Baptist students was up the street where First Baptist Church used to meet. He was, he said. “ ‘Well, we might as well walk together,’ ” he remembers her saying.
That’s how it started. “We walked together for 68 years,” says Harrington, BS Ag ’37, of Chillicothe, Mo., now age 97.
The chance meeting was but one of many memories that seven generations of Harrington’s family have made at MU.
Nearly 100 years before that rainy October morning, Harrington’s great-great-grandfather Michael Robinson donated $50 to help bring the University of Missouri to Boone County. In a fundraising contest between six central Missouri counties to determine where the university would be built, Boone’s $117,921 in cash and land beat out Callaway’s $99,154 and the four other contenders.
MU patriarch James S. Rollins, the legislative architect of the contest, made sure Boone came out on top, according to Jonas Viles’ The University of Missouri: A Centennial History (University of Missouri, 1939). After getting word that Boone’s initial round of subscriptions would not be large enough, Rollins organized a countywide meeting to launch a second pledge drive. When not enough residents showed up, Rollins sent five people to round up more. At the meeting, a committee was appointed to determine each person’s appropriate donation, and if he had not pledged that amount, to “inform” him of the insufficiency. For good measure — and in response to Howard County inflating land values to boost their donation total — Rollins sold 222 acres of his own land for $25 an acre to Boone’s fundraising committee, which then reported its value at $75 an acre.
The result was a landslide for Boone County — and for Robinson, whose donation made possible a university education for a string of descendants that continues to this day with Adam Tilley, 21, a junior in business administration.
“It feels almost like it’s in my blood,” Tilley says of coming to Mizzou. “It’s interesting to think about where [my ancestors] plugged into campus, where they’ve left their footprints.”
The idea of “coming” to MU was strange for Cindy Miller Mustard, BA ’65. She was already here.
Her family’s roots in Columbia date to the 1820s, and her great-great-grandfather Benjamin Conley donated $200 to the university subscription effort in 1839. Mustard was raised in an eponymous enclave of the city: She grew up across the street from the Conley House, built in 1869 by Benjamin’s son Sanford F. Conley. It stands at the corner of Conley Avenue and Sanford Street two blocks southwest of Jesse Hall. Purchased by the university in 1980, it now houses the Campus Writing Program. The house was close enough to Francis Quadrangle that when Academic Hall burned Jan. 9, 1892, its still-smoldering ashes fell on the Conleys’ roof. Mustard’s grandmother Helen Conley, A&S 1900, who was 9 years old at the time, liked to tell how family members ran up with wet blankets to smother the cinders and keep them from sparking off the copper roof.
Mustard, now co-owner of Tiger Trolley Tours, which offers historic tours of MU and Columbia, attended the on-campus elementary and high school. University Elementary School operated from 1904 to 1978, and University High School operated from 1904 to 1973. They were designed to give MU’s education students real-world teaching experience. Mustard’s first-grade teacher was Mary Polk Jesse, BA 1910, BS Ed ’13, MA ’26, daughter of Richard Jesse, the namesake of Jesse Hall and president of MU during the Academic Hall fire. Mustard later learned that Mark Twain told bedtime stories to Mary and the other Jesse children while staying with the family before receiving an honorary degree in 1902.
As a child, Mustard thought of the university as her backyard. Conley Avenue, then a restaurant and retail hub, was her playground. But when it came time to choose a college, she initially picked Bradford Junior College, a now-defunct women’s school in Haverhill, Mass. It wasn’t a good fit, however; she left after a year to finish her degree at Mizzou.
“It was kind of like going away when I lived in a sorority house — but I could go home on Sunday and get my clothes washed,” Mustard says of her MU student days. “[But] you’d run into your folks sometimes when you didn’t need to run into them. I went to some party and my dad was the chaperone. That wasn’t good. But I tried to be as normal a college kid as any other.”
What struck Laura Pace Crane, BA ’58, MA ’71, about her forebears was that their children were never “normal college kids.” Yet they gave to the 1839 subscription drive anyway.
“They were small farmers who answered the door when James Rollins knocked at their house,” says Crane of Columbia. “I’ve always been a little shocked that [great-great-granduncle John Pace] would have forked over $100 — which was a heck of a lot of money at that time.”
Three Pace brothers gave to the university — John $100, Richard R. Pace $50 and Lineal (recorded on the subscription sheets as Samuel L. Pace) $10.
Richard, Crane’s great-great-grandfather, was a Primitive Baptist minister and would have had an appreciation for the benefits of education, Crane suspects. Nevertheless, it would be four generations before a descendent of his attended MU. But as a group, the brothers — as with the rest of Boone County — were unlikely champions of higher education.
And they proved faithful ones.
More than 30 years later, in 1870, the public was called on to give money to bring the prized College of Agriculture to Columbia. The county court and the city put forward $90,000 of taxpayer money to buy 640 acres for a research farm and construct a new education building.
After the Academic Hall fire in 1892, the community again came together to keep the university in Columbia when state lawmakers nearly moved it to Sedalia. Another mass meeting raised $52,736 and a promise to provide adequate fire protection.
“[Boone County] was pretty much a pioneer area until 1850,” Crane says. “I don’t think of them as good subscription candidates, but Rollins and his fleet of workers were optimistic.”