I teach at the University of Maine at Farmington, and this upcoming year we will be celebrating our 150th Anniversary. The celebration will be year-long and include all kinds of events and exhibits which has prompted all kinds of meetings and brainstorming sessions. I was in one recently where a pretty basic question up. Why was our town selected for this state school in the first place? I was a little embarrassed that I couldn’t answer the question. After all, I’m on the committee because I wrote a book called Remembering Franklin County, and here is my college, very prominently located in this county I’m supposed to know so much about.
So on this very warm Saturday afternoon I’m pouring over a couple wonderful old books on local history: Richard Mallett’s University of Maine at Farmington and George C. Purington’s History of the State Normal School. Here’s what I found:
When the legislature started getting serious about creating a normal school (training student teachers on pedgogical standards or norms, hence the name), they asked the Committee on Education to produce a report. The committee presented a bill that called for two schools, one in the eastern part of the state and one in the western part. By way of making the project affordable, they required that buildings must be furnished by institutions already established there.
Trustees and administrators at the Farmington Academy felt they had just the place. The institution had always struggled financially (a fact that figures into my story in Remembering Franklin County about Paul Revere trying to collect on payment for a school bell), and the trustees no doubt thought that turning over the building to the state would be a good idea.
Academy Principal Ambrose Kelsey also liked the idea of Farmington Academy becoming the Normal School. In fact, maybe the short answer to the question “Why did they locate the school in Farmington?” is that Ambrose Kelsey wanted it here.
Kelsey, a native of New York, was already familiar with the normal school concept. He had been a professor in the Albany State Normal School and was committed to the normal school goal of training teachers to be professional educators. He had a personal interest in Farmington as well, having married a local girl, Ellen Goodenow, who grew up near the Academy in what is now the Pierce House. A state report from 1866 credits Kelsey saying “he devoted a year’s time in laboring for the establishment of the school and superintending the building operations without compensation.”
Farmington Academy was in competition with Gorham Seminary and Paris and Litchfield Academies for the Normal School. Their proposals were studied and studied again, their merits were debated at length, but eventually the state commission chose Farmington, and the governor made the choice official in October of 1863. Thanks to the efforts of Kelsey and others, higher education had come to stay.