Celebrating the Centennial: MTSU Started as a "Normal School"

Written by Sydney L. Warneke

Sydney L. Warneke, a print-journalism major at MTSU, recently graduated on May 7, 2011. She has served as a practicum student for the Office of News and Media Relations during the spring 2011 semester.

What is a "normal school";? As we move further into 2011, the entire University community will be celebrating MTSU's 100th birthday.

1912 Normal School Diploma Despite the current "university"; status of the school, however, MTSU was not always a four-year institution. It actually began as something known as a "normal school,"; more commonly known as a teaching school.

The idea of the normal school is believed to be derived from the French, who had the first school used to educate and train teachers in Paris. Most of those would go on to teach in the elementary or primary grades.

The late Dr. Homer Pittard, longtime education professor and Rutherford County historian, documented how Middle Tennessee Normal School was conceived and inaugurated in his book The First Fifty Years: Middle Tennessee State College 1911-1961.

"Strong men in the past, usually in solo roles, had made vigorous attempts to provide systematic training programs at state expense, but these generally were cries in the wilderness as consecutive legislatures turned deaf ears and calmly tightened the rawhide purse strings,"; Pittard wrote of pre-20th-century efforts to educate teachers.

MTSU's history goes back to the Congressional Land Grant of 1806, which set aside portions of the revenue from sales of uninhabited land to finance two universities in Tennessee.

Unfortunately, due to the large number of people "squatting"; on the land and refusing to leave, the legislature was eventually forced to abandon this plan.

In 1855, Robert Hatton, a legislator from Wilson County, introduced a bill in the Tennessee House of Representatives that called for the creation of a normal school in Lebanon.

"The provisions of the act were so revolutionary for the times that the representatives sat in shocked silence as Hatton presented his petition,"; Pittard noted. The reason: Hatton's bill not only allotted $50,000 for grounds and plants, it called for free tuition and textbooks for all students as well.

The efforts would be delayed again and again until 1909, when prospective locations finally were examined for three normal-school locations, one in each of Tennessee's three grand divisions. On Nov. 30, 1909, it was decided that Middle Tennessee Normal School would be located in Murfreesboro.

A number of architects bid for the contracts, and C. K. Colley and George W. Moore and Son of Nashville won out. Construction at the site began almost immediately, and Middle Tennessee Normal was the first of the three institutions to be completed.

Robert Lee Jones On Nov. 10, 1910, Robert Lee Jones was chosen as the first president of Middle Tennessee State Normal School. The first faculty members were chosen, and the school opened on Sept. 11, 1911, as a two-year program with an enrollment of 125 students in four buildings on 100 acres.

"The impact of this first faculty on the minds of the students of those early years was indeed remarkable,"; Pittard wrote. "After 50 years, many of those who sat at the feet of these early teachers recall with a minimum of difficulty vivid personal descriptions, illustrative stories and the little eccentricities that humanize but seldom diminish the stature of an instructional staff.";Pittard's words are echoed in the statements of early students, archived in the Albert Gore Research Center's Middle Tennessee Oral History Project.

"I had a special regard for Middle Tennessee Normal; I loved it as my school, my alma mater. I thought it was a good place for young people to learn how to become teachers,"; said Lowell Bogle, a student from 1916 to 1918.


Katherine Holden (1935-1940) said, "We were the Demonstration School, so the student teachers could demonstrate on us. We learned French songs. We had a garden. It made an impression on me.";

Mildred Dark, a student from 1928 to 1929, recalled her experience at the Normal School in the Murfree Society:

"[The Murfree Society] was a girls' sorority. They did not call it a sorority, but there was no one but girls in it. We had programs and reports on different subjects. We promoted our interests. I do not remember that we were politically minded, but we were conscious of women's position in society.";

The Normal School became a four-year teachers' college in 1925, offering a Bachelor of Science degree. In 1935, it added the Bachelor of Arts degree, and in 1943, the Tennessee General Assembly designated it as Middle Tennessee State Teachers College.

While in certain aspects Middle Tennessee Normal School was similar to MTSU today, some aspects of student life were quite different. Today's common complaint is parking, but it never affected Normal School students.

"When we were in school, they only had a few faculty automobiles,"; said Madison Dill, a student from 1936 to 1940. "We never had any trouble with parking, because mostly we had bicycles, or people walked. The first automobile the students had that we can remember was the one that Coach (Charles M. "Bubber";) Murphy got when he was in school.";

"I had to drive a horse hitched to a buggy because we didn't have cars then,"; added Cornelia Davidson, a student from 1917 to 1920.

Almost every college student can relate to antics in the dormitories on campus, regardless of the century. Anne Lokey (1936-40) shared a story of just that nature:

"I was celebrating one of my birthdays. We had planned to cook sausage at midnight when the house mother would be asleep. We had cold drinks, and just as we were having a good time warming the sausages on a hot plate, a girl on the second floor had a severe pain. They had to call a doctor. She had appendicitis … (and) we got caught.";

MTSU began as Middle Tennessee Normal School, a place to raise new crops of teachers. From one of three small state schools with 125 students on 100 acres to Tennessee's largest undergraduate institution with more than 26,400 students on 500-plus acres, MTSU still has the same goal 100 years later: to raise new crops of educated citizens.

Thanks to the Albert Gore Research Center for access to its Middle Tennessee Oral History Project, located in the Todd Building on campus and online at http://gorecenter.mtsu.edu. Thanks also to Dr. Pittard's book, published in 1961 by Courier Printing.