The old AC, as it was first known, was built on a hill overlooking Logan under the auspices of the Morrill Land-Grant Act, legislation that provided federal funding for colleges "to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life."
The story goes that Logan got the Utah State Agricultural College because Provo preferred the Utah State Mental Hospital, and legislators felt that no one city should have to put up with both.
Whatever the politics involved, construction began in 1888, and in 1890 the college opened for business. Some 22 students registered the first day; enrollment eventually climbed to 139 106 men and 33 women.
The man chosen to head the new institution was Jeremiah Wilson Sanborn, a New Hampshire farmer and educator.
Sanborn had been promised a five-room suite on the second floor of Old Main for his residence. But after he lobbied the Territorial Assembly for funds to build a model farmhouse on campus, and that house was built, Sanborn decided he preferred to live there even though the bottom floors of the house contained an ice house and dairy.
With Sanborn's appointment, his wife, Belle Graham Osborn Sanborn, became the first "first lady" of the college, which in 1957 became Utah State University. The Sanborns have been followed by 13 other presidential pairs.
When Kermit Hall was appointed as the 14th president of USU in January of 2001, his wife, Phyllis, "was very curious about all the women that have preceded me." And when the AC Women's Club celebrated its 100th anniversary this spring and was looking for a special project to commemorate that event, Phyllis volunteered to research and compile a history of the USU presidents' wives.
They are women who often get overlooked, she says. And yet they all made important contributions in their own rights. "Almost every one was involved in education in one way or another."
And she has come to appreciate what some of the early ones, especially, had to deal with.
Belle Sanborn had to live above cows assuming she ever made it to Logan. "There is no direct evidence linking her to Logan," says Hall. Her fourth child was born in Missouri in 1890, the same year her husband became president.
"On the other hand, we know their oldest son, Harry, became a student at the college because his name was listed in the demerit books." So Belle could well have been here, as well.
Annie Maria Pettegrew Paul and her husband, Joshua, served at the college for two years. They chose not to live in the model farmhouse. Joshua noted in his report of 1895: "I found it necessary in order to meet what seems to be public requirements of the president of the college to remove from the College House, built for the President, to a more accessible portion of Logan City."
During those years, Annie was active in local historical associations, serving as president and regent of the Daughters of the Mormon Battalion and a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution (her grandfather crossed the Delaware with George Washington).
Jennie Harrington Tanner was the superintendent of women at the Brigham Young Academy in Provo before moving with her husband, Joseph Marion Tanner, to Logan.
On campus, they moved back into the farmhouse but only after requesting the following renovations: electrification, indoor plumbing, re-papering, a new furnace and a telephone.
Of all the presidents' wives, one of the women Hall would like to have met was Leah Eudora Dunford Widtsoe, who came to the college with her husband, John, in 1907. "She was the Martha Stewart of the early 20th century. She trained in domestic arts; she conducted classes in home management. She wrote recipe books, as well as a biography of her grandfather, Brigham Young. She played string instruments, the piano and sang."
But Leah also had to overcome hardships. The Widtsoes had seven children, three of whom died as infants, one at age 2 and a son at age 25. Still, in her husband's autobiography, he noted that Leah had "a native wit," and that "shyness was not in her nature."
Phebe Almira Nebeker Peterson and her husband, Elmer George Peterson, had the longest tenure, serving for 30 years as head of the college through two world wars and the Great Depression.
Edith Louise Gundersen Madsen's son, John, remembers his chores of "daily mopping the kitchen floor of the president's mansion, helping to make the beds and operating the large automated iron, to assist my mother in keeping up with the laundry for our family." John and his brother were also recruited as ball boys and water boys for the football and basketball teams.
"I would have loved to have met Alice Chase, too," says Hall. "She was a longtime teacher and was always interested in being a better teacher. She taught at Edith Bowen School on campus during the open classroom movement, and people came from all over to visit her classroom."
Phyllis Taggart and Shirley Cazier were very interested in international affairs; both traveled around the world with their husbands and also promoted programs on campus for foreign students.
It has been interesting to see, says Hall, how each of the women has fashioned her role. "The president's wife is really a job without a job description. Each woman has been different, yet each one has enriched the university community."
It's something she hopes to do as well. Hall grew up in Ohio and graduated from the University of Akron with a degree in education and later got a master's degree in library science in Nashville. The Halls lived in Florida, Ohio and North Carolina before coming to Logan (where they live in the brand new off-campus President's House). She now spends time as a volunteer reading to at-risk children and also serves on several community and arts boards.But she has enjoyed learning about the history of the school and its leaders. "Utah State's first ladies have left a lasting legacy of good works."
USU's First Ladies
Belle Graham Osborn Sanborn 1890-1894
Annie Maria Pettegrew Paul 1894-1896
Jennie Harrington Tanner 1896-1900
Leonora Deseret Hamilton Kerr 1900-1907
Leah Eudora Dunford Widtsoe 1907-1916
Phebe Almira Nebeker Peterson 1916-1945
Estelle Spilsbury Harris 1945-1950
Edith Louise Gundersen Madsen 1950-53
Lucile Knowlden Dixon 1953-1954
Alice Koford Chase 1954-1967
Phyllis Paulsen Taggart 1967-1979
Shirley Anderson Cazier 1979-1991
Billie Bush Emert 1992-2000Phyllis Moke Hall 2001-
Individuals who want to learn more may read the compilation, available at Special Collections and Archives in the Utah State Merrill Library.
E-mail: [email protected]