By Paul Mann

Humboldt State originated as a home-grown Normal School for training teachers. It was conceived by Humboldt citizens who nurtured its fruition, galvanized state support and buttressed their commitment with donations of land and funding. Now, 100 years later, Humboldt State has grown into a comprehensive university that attracts students from all over California, the nation and the world.

A group of students and faculty poses in front of Humboldt State Normal School’s temporary location on Arcata’s 11th Street.

When Humboldt State Normal School was signed into law in 1913, Arcata was still pretty much a frontier town. Dirt streets and wood sidewalks told a rough-hewn story. Cattle roamed more or less at will, although cows, goats and other livestock had been banned from the Plaza after a bandstand was installed in 1901. Eventually, mule corrals would become a thing of the past, too, but farming, gardening and ranching would always be vigorous enterprises.

There was scarcely a sign as the 20th century dawned that the former Union Town would become a thriving college community. Locals considered the tiny outpost on Arcata Bay a “burly” and “rowdy” place. It was known for its “rugged individualism,” consonant with what late 19th century historians called “the American frontier culture, forged by adversity.”

Frontier adversity yes, but Arcata was also a busy little center of trade and merchandising when Humboldt State Normal School opened months before World War I broke out in August 1914. Brizard’s retail emporium was known as “Humboldt’s Wonder Store.” It prefigured today’s Macy’s and Target, offering a broad array of goods.

Arcata’s business precincts included the macho-sounding Buck’s Saloon and Bull’s Meat Market, the California Barrel Company, Deluxe Cleaners, the Jacobsen Saloon (aka the Arcata Opera Hall), Augustus Jacoby’s Fine Market Store and McConnaha’s Humboldt Motor Stages.

The Minor Theatre, which would become the venue for the Normal School’s first graduation ceremonies, opened at the end of 1914. It joined the ranks of the Pickwick Stage Company, Seely & Titlow’s Dry Goods, Tilley’s & Simmon’s Drugstore, First National Bank of Arcata (now the Tin Can Mailman used book store), plus a cobbler’s shop, livery stables, a telegraph office and the inevitable undertaker.

The establishment of the Normal School sailed favorable currents in American history that energized both the school’s growth and Arcata’s. California was a leader in the nation’s Progressive Movement (1890-1930), which championed universal education. Philosopher John Dewey was the period’s ranking educational theorist. His outlook foretold the hands-on learning that would become a staple of Humboldt State’s curriculum.

The school’s legal birth—California Gov. Hiram Johnson signed the bill that would establish the school on June 16, 1913—coincided with the onrush of America’s post-Civil War industrialization and accelerating social change. The burgeoning automobile and aviation cultures were but two of the revolutionary changes, though a route called the Humboldt and Mendocino Wagon Road still took travelers south. The Internal Revenue Service began levying the federal income tax that year, transforming not only the nation’s tax structure, but also its governing ethos.

Also for the first time in 1913, a prize was snuggled away in a box of Cracker Jacks!

Kodak’s Brownie camera was “simple enough for children to use” and youngsters were growing up with Teddy Bears, introduced in 1902 and named after former President Theodore Roosevelt.

The California State Assembly appropriated $10,000 to fund Humboldt Normal School, expressly for the training and education of teachers. One of the school’s impacts was immediate. Railroads rearranged their schedules so that commuters from the Eel River Valley (as far away as Scotia) could make their classes and still be “home for supper.”

The Normal School’s doors opened on April 6, 1914, in facilities leased from Arcata Grammar School on 11th Street. The new movie theater at 10th and H streets, named after local business magnate Isaac Minor, opened in December. By then, Henry Ford had hiked the pay of his employees to $5 an hour, twice the average minimum wage nationwide. The city of Cleveland had installed the world’s first red and green traffic lights.

The Minor hosted the inaugural commencement on May 26, 1915, for the Normal School’s first graduating class. Fifteen women received certificates. In keeping with Arcata’s “rugged individualism,” they made their own gowns, although the fabric was provided. Their rigorous training comprised 70 weeks of practice student teaching in seven different subjects. They had to attend classes on Saturdays because they were so busy during the week.

The school’s first president, from 1914-1924, was Nelson Blieau Van Matre, who had earned his doctorate at the University of Chicago and taught in the Midwest and California for 15 years. Among the immediate problems he tackled: a shortage of housing in tiny Arcata, including his own. Van Matre leased the imposing and turreted dwelling at 10th and I streets, now the Crosswinds Restaurant.

As for students, a home-finding panel was set up to locate lodging where they could obtain room and board for $20-$27 a month. Luckily, 62 students showed up for the opening day of school.

Of necessity, Van Matre was a multi-tasker. In a newborn institution so small, he had to serve at various times as academic advisor, admissions officer, financial controller and registrar. He also had to cope with the drop in enrollment brought on by World War I, when President Woodrow Wilson committed troops to the conflict in the spring of 1917.

Notwithstanding the 1914 “War to End All Wars” in Europe, a donation of 51 acres of land provided a fixed location on Preston Ridge for the Normal School’s new home. Business mogul William Preston and the Union Water Company provided the ridge-top property, while Preston resided where the Humboldt State Library now stands. Construction started in 1915, after crews removed countless old-growth stumps left behind by timber harvests. Arcata was indeed “rough-hewn,” like the lumber that fueled its economy.

“Town” as well as “gown” construction was in progress. The Hotel Arcata opened in April, 1915 at 9th and G streets. Cost: $80,000. Lunch was 35 cents, dinner the same.

By 1922, the Normal School’s faculty numbered 16 and the campus’ first permanent building bestrode Preston Ridge. Seven years had passed since the foundations had been laid. It was known as the Main Building or Administration Building, until it was renamed Founders Hall in 1959.

BELOW Humboldt State Normal School boosters rallied support in Eureka, Arcata and Fortuna.

Humboldt Normal School

ABOVE In this photo from the early 1920s, temporary buildings sit atop the parcel of ridge-top land donated by William Preston. Construction on Founders Hall was completed in 1922. BELOW The first graduating class of Humboldt State Normal School received their diplomas on May 19, 1915. Graduates were (in alphabetical order) Lucy Acheson, Anna Averill, Nellie Baldwin, Susie Baker, Grace Bloemer, May Brauer, Elizabeth Eklund, Katherine Fulwiler, Alice J. Gale, Viola Gunn, Orpha Heinback, Ruth Hill, Alma Johansen, Laura Myers and Phea Sage.

Early class at HSU

ABOVE This 1939 botany lab was packed into a classroom in the basement of Founders Hall.

The year Founders opened, President Warren Harding became the first chief executive to use radio in the White House—it was February, 1922. That was also the year air conditioning was invented, scientists split the atom and Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.

Humboldt State Normal School became Humboldt State Teachers College and Junior College in the 1920s, offering a four-year teacher training course. President Van Matre retired in 1924, handing the leadership to Stanford graduate Ralph Swetman, who led students and faculty on the nature hikes he loved.

During his six-year term, Swetman hired the school’s first zoology instructor and appointed the first college librarian in 1925. Athletic competitions became part of campus life and Humboldt played its first intercollegiate football game, losing 33-0 to Southern Oregon Normal School. Humboldt’s Elta Cartwright became the school’s first sports star, making it all the way to the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, following victories in local, state and national competitions.

Founders Hall donned its red tile roof in 1925. That same year, its open-air archways were glassed in, to the relief of students and faculty. In addition to college classes, the building housed a training school for 250 children.

As the 1920s advanced, Arcata business owners created the Humboldt State Teachers College Improvement Association. The group bought land for the site of a college elementary school, today’s Gist Hall. The association also supplied band uniforms, loans and research grants, scholarships, travel funds and further land donations.

Gist Hall takes its name from Humboldt’s third president (1930-1950,) Arthur Gist, a graduate of the University of Washington, an author and a former director of education at San Francisco State Teachers College. Under his leadership, the campus continued to grow, despite the shattering economic and military crises that plagued his first decade and a half in office.  

When Gist took over in 1930, the Jazz Age and New York’s Harlem Renaissance were well advanced. Jazz Age slang included “Joe College.” Dance marathons were all the rage.

Although the Jazz Age was famed for the unleashing of artistic and cultural license as well as excellence, Humboldt’s student body of the pre-World War II period was conservative. According to the campus’s official history, A View from the Hill, a controversy erupted about whether to allow classroom discussion of President Franklin Roosevelt’s unprecedented New Deal in the 1930s, which vastly enlarged federal spending and social support programs aimed at blunting the Depression.

Gist’s tenure coincided with immense governmental, social and technological change, which was transforming the country.  Frontier life was decidedly on the way out, as broadcasting knit the nation together. Some 80 percent of Americans owned a radio.

Industrial breakthroughs proceeded in spite of hard times: improved food refrigeration arrived on the scene, along with the development of synthetics like cellophane, nylon and plexiglass. A new manufacturing technique called polymerization bolstered gasoline production.

The Great Depression set in during the 1930s and accordingly, most students remained local. The Humboldt Alumnus, first published in 1934, recorded the strong ties enjoyed between “town and gown.” Many alumni social activities were community ones.

Renamed Humboldt State College in 1935, the campus was authorized to offer a bachelor’s degree in Education two years later. Despite economic privation and ruinous unemployment coast to coast—25 percent—the cheeseburger was invented in 1934 and Parker Brothers began selling its immensely popular board game, Monopoly. Americans were hard up and parlor games were an inexpensive pastime. The Golden Gate Bridge opened, Superman premiered in comic books and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” became the first full-length animated cartoon.

In the Depression years, a loaf of bread cost 9 cents. Milk was 14 cents a quart. Times were so tough that President Gist gave students permission to submit IOU’s for one semester to cope with rising tuition fees.

On the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the onset of World War II, curriculum expanded and construction began on a new dormitory, Nelson Hall. There was one wing for men, one for women. However, women occupied both wings (76 bed spaces) due to the men going off to war. Dean Monica Hadley recalled that the “coeds” wanted rules imposed—for the fun of breaking them. She reproached her charges for chewing gum in public. She found freshmen especially prone to this “offensive and vulgar behavior.” Just the same, Hadley took the young women to the Naval Air Station in McKinleyville to dance with wartime sailors.

Students carrying large axe

ABOVE: Football players show off an axe highlighting the rivalry between Humboldt State and the Chico State Wildcats.

There was one other irksome complaint: “Students necking on the first date.”

Arcata established a wartime defense council and Humboldt State College was included in its evacuation plans, set forth in 1942. Residents feared Founders Hall might become a target of Japanese submarines and the council proposed camouflaging it with green paint. The walls remained “a bilious green” until 1948, three years after the war ended.

Also after the war, a G.I. Wives Club sprang up and the Lumberjack covered its activities. Vets who had lost part of their childhood to the war happily resorted to good-natured pranks, among them herding cows onto the second floor of Nelson Hall. It quickly became obvious that bovines ascend stairs more readily than they descend them. Another stunt was billed as “the infamous Whistling Pete caper.” A handful of students carted an anatomy class cadaver to Nelson Hall and propped “Pete” against the front door of the women’s dormitory. The mischief-makers rang the bell and ran. “The screams could be heard all over Arcata,” according to A View from the Hill.

Parking violations were a problem as the 1940s drew on. The war generated an influx of older students who drove. Not infrequently, they were summoned from class to move their illegally parked vehicles.

III.The Korean War, the infamous Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare dominated national headlines as the 1950s unfolded. President Arthur Gist handed the reins to Cornelius Siemens, who was president for nearly a quarter century, 1950-1973. During that time, more than 30 buildings went up that are still in use today. And with good reason: postwar enrollment skyrocketed to 6,000-plus from a mere 750. By 1970, the school was deluged with 10,000 applications for 1,600 new student slots.

The natural sciences and environmental studies moved center stage under Siemens’ leadership and the arts prospered, too. The campus reached out to local schools with music and drama festivals. Charles Fulkerson enlarged the Humboldt Symphony to about 60 musicians, including many local ones.

Typical collegiate pranks remained typically unexplained. One day, a goat was found grazing in the flowers of the Founders Hall courtyard. Later, in a separate incident, the goat was succeeded by a burro. Then there was the legendary caper pulled in 1954, four years after Siemens took office. Managers of Arcata’s Veterans Building at 14th & J streets had placed a Japanese artillery cannon on the front lawn. One day, this iron-heavy weapon turned up chained to the railing in front of Founders Hall. Some 48 hours later, the cannon reappeared in its original setting downtown. The who and how of this mystery are secrets to this day. As the 1960s dawned, Elvis Presley returned from military service, but before long he would be sharing the musical spotlight and his adoring teenage fans with the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Motown–the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Martha and the Vandellas, Diana Ross and the Supremes and Stevie Wonder. KHSC-FM became California’s first state college radio station. A generation after that, KHSU emerged.

The new Library was completed, the Science building was enlarged, the Forestry building went up and the old Library (today’s Van Matre Hall) was converted into an engineering building. A new psychology and education headquarters was erected, today’s Harry Griffith Hall.

Campus and community links were as close as ever. Hammond Lumber Company donated a truck to haul forestry students to and from the woods. Pacific Lumber charged the College Improvement Association just one dollar for a 20-year lease on land near Freshwater to be used by the Forestry Department.

Male residents inaugurated “Moon Nights” in Redwood Hall. Not to be outdone, the female students undertook to disrobe in front of their windows, pulling the blinds down just in the nick of time …

Members of the Secret Comb Society stuffed comb teeth into the locks of the new administration building, Siemens Hall. They also claimed to have shoved and wrestled a Volkswagen into the hallway in front of Siemens’ office. The miscreants admitted who they were just before graduation, and as Dean of Students Don Karshner had suspected all along, their ranks included top student leaders.

Founders Hall, the oldest building on campus, got a facelift in 1969-70. The Natural Resources and Sciences Building went up in 1972 and the Forbes Physical Education Complex was completed in 1973.

Throughout the late 1960s and into the 1970s, the antiwar movement engulfed colleges and universities nationwide as the Vietnam War dragged on. The Arcata campus was the scene of protest, too. At least one rally drew thousands, peacefully assembled.

But for all the disillusionment of the period, the lighter side of life had its day. Fads included mood rings, lava lamps, the Rubik’s cube, smiley face stickers and pet rocks. Americans and people around the globe were glued to their (mostly) black and white television sets, transfixed by the images of humans on the moon in 1969.

Recombinant DNA technology, unveiled in 1973, led to research in genetic engineering. The electronic book appeared in 1971, the year after Earth Day was first celebrated to foster environmental protection. A UNESCO Conference in San Francisco in 1969 helped lay the groundwork for the inaugural date, March 21, 1970, followed by a separate Earth Day inspired by a U.S. senator as an environmental “teach-in” on April 22, 1970.

The Los Angeles Times christened Humboldt State the “Cinderella of the North” and the University’s landscape was known for the three R’s—redwoods, rhodies and roses.

Residence halls became coed in 1969.

In 1972, the year before President Siemens retired, the campus was renamed again to California State University, Humboldt. Siemens had been at the helm during the school’s maturity to “adulthood” during the post-war boom in babies and greenbacks, nearly 60 years after the Normal School’s founding.

The campus was going green in the environmental sense also. Alistair McCrone followed Siemens in the president’s role in 1974, and the Campus Center for Appropriate Technology, an eco-demonstration house, was created in 1978 from a battered house renovated by students. This cemented HSU’s reputation for environmentalism, along with students creating the Graduation Pledge of social and environmental responsibility. The pledge caught on coast-to-coast and overseas as the impacts of environmental issues reached from the poles to the equator and into the ocean depths.

McCrone and the faculty of the time, including the late George Allen, brought to fruition the Arcata Marsh enhancement project, an enduring part of the University’s green legacy. Likewise, curriculum grew with ecological, ethnic and women’s studies, as well as the CSU system’s first Native American studies major. Arcata initiated a transit service for students, boosting public transportation and conservation.

The “shop-‘tip-you-drop” 1980s brought to the fore leveraged buyouts, mega-mergers and new billionaires, Donald Trump and Leona Helmsley among them. Pop culture embraced aerobics, camcorders, Madonna, minivans and video games. Kermit the Frog endeared himself to the masses and ET phoned home.

In the second half of the ’80s, the McCrone administration dealt with diminished state budgets, but managed to keep new construction on track. Multiple buildings, including the Library, were remodeled or given facelifts and the geodesic greenhouse was built. The campus returned to the semester system in 1986. Lumberjack Days—canoe jousting, logrolling and wheelbarrow races—was a premier fall event.

McCrone and his colleagues successfully launched the Partnership Campaign, which brought millions in financial donations to the cash-strapped university from 1983 to 1993. Contributions came not only from parents and alumni, but also from the Humboldt community and civic groups. The money enabled HSU to recruit more students and purchase instructional materials and equipment unfunded by the state.

As for student role models, nerds were the decade’s new heroes—or anti-heroes, depending on your point of view. “Nerdiness” pervaded the movies and television (“Revenge of the Nerds,” “Head of the Class”). Smurfs and cabbage patch dolls inhabited the playrooms of the younger set. Cable was born and MTV became a household term.

The University held its 75th anniversary observance in 1989, the same year the Lumberjack marked 60 years of publication and the Berlin Wall fell. Anniversary events included a special Homecoming celebration, a golf tournament and an exhibit honoring the accomplishments of the school’s namesake, the world-renowned 19th century scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt.

As the 1990s unfurled, the HSU Library installed a computerized catalog system and the campus hosted “Jesus Christ Awareness Week.” The Creekview Apartments were completed. Fortunately, the big earthquake that struck Humboldt County in April 1992 did little damage to the campus and that August the newly remodeled Bookstore opened.

1992 also marked the widespread adoption of the World Wide Web. Observers dubbed the ’90s the electronic age. Humboldt State and the world adopted a new vocabulary of Internet lingo: spam, plug-ins, “the server’s down!” Online was all the craze and the stock market reached an all-time high as a booming economy produced record low unemployment. Student-powered “eco-cycles” with wagons attached gathered campus recyclables. Grunge and preppie were fashion rivals, dress-down Fridays spread through the workplace and beyond, and Distance Education programs were poised to revolutionize the academy. 

President McCrone retired in 2002 to be succeeded by Rollin Richmond as the new millennium blossomed. HSU’s sixth president took an instant liking—at his 2003 inauguration—to the bright green-and-gold hard hats sported by the Marching Lumberjacks Band. Richmond promptly donned one himself, symbolically preparing for a decade of state budget knocks the campus would face during much of his presidency.

Yet the campus prospered and grew, both in physical plant and policy reach, despite budget cuts. Richmond oversaw the construction of the five-story, first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) gold-certified structure in the 23-campus California State University system, the Behavioral and Social Sciences Building. The state-of-the-art Kinesiology and Athletics Building went up next door to Redwood Bowl and the new 430- bed College Creek residence halls were completed along L.K. Wood Boulevard, adding luster to campus vistas.

Richmond’s stewardship has also seen the installation of the Humboldt Bay Aquatic Center on the Eureka Waterfront, and the revered Schatz Energy Research Center moved into modern quarters adjoining the Behavioral and Social Sciences Building.

In the policy realm, Humboldt State has become home of the California Center for Rural Policy, a linchpin of campus/community cooperation with the entire North Coast region, and the Klamath Watershed Institute, which contributes scientific policy analysis for preserving, restoring and sustaining the Klamath Basin’s resources.

HSU now boasts its first endowed chair, the Kenneth L. Fisher Chair in Redwood Forest Ecology, created in 2006. It is named after the founder and CEO of Fisher Investments, Inc., a multibillion-dollar global money management firm. Fisher (’72) and wife Sherri were transfer students to Humboldt State and married atop Fickle Hill. The chair they created is held by Professor Stephen Sillett, known worldwide for his groundbreaking research on redwood forest canopies. Sillett and his research team have been featured in two National Geographic cover stories.

During the Richmond years, the campus has consistently been named a Best Western College and a “College with a Conscience” by Princeton Review, among other recognition. It also has been recognized repeatedly as an enduring source of recruits to the Peace Corps, dating to its establishment in 1961.

Richmond continues to champion online learning, new classroom technologies and student-focused teaching methods. “Teaching excellence is as important as learning excellence,” he says. He focuses the campus as well on the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He attends many a sporting event and, of course, cheers the Marching Lumberjacks Band as well as the teams.

BELOW LEFT Students gather around a Humboldt State College sign on a campus workday. BELOW RIGHT An airship hovers near a camouflaged Founders Hall during World War II.

Blimp flies over Founders Hall

ABOVE Students purchase supplies at the COOP, a precursor to the campus bookstore. BELOW A pair of Coca Cola delivery truck drivers attracts student attention.

Coke truck outside founders

ABOVE: Cheerleaders pose for a shot.
BELOW: Humboldt State College cheerleaders show off their stunts.

Cheer leaders

ABOVE: President Cornelius Siemens, center, with his wife, Olga, presents a carved redwood bowl to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
BELOW Students protest the 1970 Cambodian Incursion.

Early personal computer

ABOVE: A student shows off a keyboard in a then state-of-the-art computer lab.
BELOW Wheelbarrow races were part of the popular Lumberjack Days.

Early personal computer

ABOVE: A muddy tug of war was another highlight of the Lumberjack Days. • A student shows off a keybo

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