UMF's history is firmly rooted in the early nineteenth century. Though generations of changes have come and gone, many of the ideals behind its founding are as fresh and important today as they were then.
Critics of education in the early 1800's noted that too many of the state's children were taught by untrained, sometimes incompetent teachers. In 1854 the legislature established the position of State Superintendent of the Common Schools, and every early superintendent called for the development of normal schools. Many Maine teachers were attending fledgling normal schools in Massachusetts, lacking suitable facilities in their home state.
In 1857, a convention of teachers from Franklin County resolved, "That the interests of our common schools, and the teachers having them in charge, not only require the fostering care of the State, but most imperatively demand the immediate establishment of that long neglected source of improvement, a State Normal School... and as teachers of Franklin County, we would respectfully, yet earnestly, request the early attention of our present Legislature to the endowment and establishment of such an institution."
In March 1863, amidst much heated argument, a Normal School Act finally passed into law, and that fall, Farmington was chosen from a list of possible locations for the first normal school. Why Farmington? For a start, the then-failing Farmington Academy had offered the use of its site and building, unfortunately in nearly hopeless disrepair after years of penny-pinching neglect. Besides, Farmington, or at least West Farmington, was connected by rail to the rest of Maine and the "character of the community and healthfulness of the location" fit the requirements of the Normal School Act.
The old Farmington Academy building, at the present site of Merrill Hall, became the ell for a new structure, started but not completed by the opening day of the Western State Normal School on August 24, 1864. On that day, 31 students gathered in an attic above a downtown commercial building, called Beal's Hall, where they met until they were able to move into their new building that winter. The new home of what was to be called the Farmington Normal School was described as "rough, crude, and plenty humble" by UMF historian Richard P. Mallett. Today, Merrill Hall, UMF's original Main Street home and now the oldest public building on a Maine campus, is anything but rough, crude, and humble.
When the first class graduated from the Western State Normal School on May 25, 1866, State Superintendent Rev. Dr. Ballard said,
"The whole drew forth warm commendation from the literary gentlemen present, and all felt satisfied that the diploma given to each member of the graduating class was indeed a testimonial to good character, diligence in study, ample attainments, and a compliance with the rules of the school. The persons most interested in its work and care, saw on that day a rich compensation for the solicitude of the enterprise, which had thus far, at least, been regarded as an experiment..."
Ballard's remarks show that success was not a foregone conclusion, and there was much room for satisfaction among those who had fought for Maine's first teachers' college.
The Western State Normal School stood out among teachers' colleges for its commitment to integrating a strong liberal arts program into teacher training, for it was thought that only those with a strong background in the liberal arts could effectively teach the arts and sciences. Obvious as this may seem, it was not the rule among teachers of the time. The classic emphasis on memorizing lessons may have grown from the danger of exposing unlettered teachers to inquisitive pupils.
Many early graduates attended the school for its liberal arts offerings alone. Among these were the Stanley brothers, famous for building the Stanley Steamer automobile, and John Stevens, engineer of the Panama Canal. Interest in the liberal arts continued unabated until the college offered its first degree programs in the liberal arts in 1971. By the 1974-75 school year, nearly 300 students were enrolled in liberal arts majors.
The Western State Normal School passed through many incarnations in its first 106 years, finally merging into the University of Maine System in 1968 to become the University of Maine at Farmington. During the past quarter century, UMF has maintained its fine tradition in teacher preparation while adding and enhancing other majors in the arts and sciences, health, and rehabilitation. More than a century of changes have left several features constant, however: UMF continues to live by the ideals which inspired the Normal School movement in the mid-nineteenth century: a democracy can survive only if its citizens have a sense of history, a working understanding of issues affecting the present, and a vision for the future. UMF addresses these requirements in at least two ways, by ensuring that all our students graduate with a firm grounding in the liberal arts and by sending new graduates into the world with the tools essential to passing liberal arts traditions on to new generations.
The faculty, staff, and students of UMF take this challenge very seriously. Ours is a campus which not only values academic achievement but also places learning in the context of service to the society beyond our walls. Our students make us proud both before and after they graduate. We cherish the meeting of minds in courses and activities on campus as we come to know our students in ways impossible at larger universities. Then, as our students move into their chosen careers, we take pleasure in the value of their accomplishments to a larger society. This devotion to service is another legacy of our Normal School origins.
Following in these traditions, UMF is a founding member of COPLAC, the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges*. This exclusive national group of nineteen public colleges and universities is dedicated to the liberal arts tradition, the creation of teaching and learning communities, and to the expansion of access to an undergraduate liberal arts education. COPLAC members offer their students the quality of programs normally associated with small, independent colleges. Proud to be among these forward-looking institutions as we prepare our students for the twenty-first century, we are also proud of the values that have given us an enduring sense of purpose since the nineteenth.
* In addition to UMF, the following institutions are also members of COPLAC: College of Charleston (SC), The Evergreen State College (WA), Fort Lewis College (CO), Georgia College and State University, Henderson State University (AR), Keene State College (NH), Mary Washington College (VA), Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, New College of Florida, Ramapo College of New Jersey, St. Mary's College of Maryland, Sonoma State University (CA), Southern Oregon University, SUNY College at Geneseo (NY), Truman State University (MO), University of Minnesota-Morris, University of Montevallo (AL), University of North Carolina at Asheville, and University of Wisconsin-Superior.
Much of the information in this section was obtained from, and might be explored at greater depth in, University of Maine at Farmington: A Study in Educational Change (1864-1974), by Richard P. Mallett (Bond Wheelwright Co., 1974); and History of the State Normal School, Farmington, Maine, by George C. Purington (Knowlton, McLeary & Co., 1889).