detail of gargoyles on exterior of Alumni Recitation Hall

Grinnell College: A History

by Professor of History Alan Jones ’50 (1927–2007)
Updated by Professor of Political Science H. Wayne Moyer

Shortly after the territory of Iowa was organized in 1838, idealistic young missionaries from Andover and Yale seminaries came west to found churches and a college. In 1846, the year Iowa became a state, some of them formed the Board of Trustees of Iowa College (later Grinnell College). Two years later, a one-room school opened in Davenport to preparatory classes. College classes began in 1850, and in 1854, William and John Windsor received B.A. degrees, having completed 50 required courses, 28 in Greek, Latin, and mathematics.

The College’s antislavery and anti-saloon sentiments aggravated the Davenport city council, which twice cut streets through campus, forcing the College to move further west to J.B. Grinnell’s new prairie colony, with little more than its ideals. Classes began here in 1861, but most of the young men went off to fight the Civil War. Women in a “ladies course” — which gave diplomas but not degrees — carried on during the war years and graduated in 1865 when the College’s first president, George Magoun, was inaugurated.

Magoun was an imperious Calvinist, which was necessary for the College’s survival during years of poverty, fire, and the great cyclone of 1882. Jesse Macy, class of 1870, later a professor, thought Magoun “liberal” because he allowed the teaching of evolution. More “liberal” was Magoun’s successor, George Gates, inaugurated in 1887. Gates replaced Magoun’s “rule of law” with “the law of liberty” and the “ideal of service.” A modern college emerged in the 1890s with football teams, glee clubs, and a curriculum in which science began to displace Greek and Latin. More noteworthy, if not notorious, was Gates’ Social Gospel, reinforced by the radical lectures of George Herron, a professor of Applied Christianity who did not believe in private property or marriage. The faculty defended him on grounds of academic freedom, but Herron left in 1900, followed by Gates. When Herron ran off with Carrie Rand, Gates’ lady principal, worried Congregationalists and capitalists considered their fears confirmed. Trustees sought a “safe” president in Dan Bradley, who did not last.

John Hanson Thomas Main became president in 1906. He secularized Gates’ Social Gospel with forward-looking ideals attuned to pre–World War I Progressivism. Main created the modern residential system and brought a provincial western college to national prominence. He said, “If the end of life is service, as we believe, it is the duty of the College to do more than hold up an ideal of service,” a view echoed by Harry Hopkins 1912. Hopkins and a few Grinnell alumni served in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal administration. Other graduates of these years served in the “Grinnell-in-China” program. After the disillusioning experience of World War I, ideas of success replaced ideals of service. Main spent his last years trying to pay off prewar debts. He died in 1931 as the Great Depression struck, and his successor, John Nollen, had to contend with continuing deficits, low enrollment, faculty cuts, and a 20 percent slash in salaries. His successor, Samuel Stevens, began with ambitious plans in 1940, but another world war, followed by the Cold War and Korean conflict, diminished his energies and capacities. The now nostalgic era between 1946 and 1950 gave way to years of budget difficulties and student unrest. By 1954, Stevens had lost the support of faculty, students, and trustees.

Howard Bowen’s presidency between 1955 and 1964 moved the College forward again — raising standards, restoring old ideals, attracting able faculty, and rebuilding the campus. In his inaugural address on “The Free Mind,” Bowen said, “One of the special tasks of small liberal arts colleges like Grinnell [is] to help keep this freedom alive.” Students accepted that task and more in the dissent and protest of the 1960s — endured with grace by Bowen’s successor, Glenn Leggett, president from 1965 to 1975. Curricular and residential “reforms” made the College a “free and open” place. But with the presidency of A. Richard Turner after 1975, the 1970s ended in drifting discontent.

Great endowment growth and a new prosperity came to the College during the 1980s through the gifts and risk-taking investments of such loyal trustees as Joe Rosenfield ’25 and Robert Noyce ’49, and the generosity of such alumni as John ’39 and Lucile Hanson Harris ’40. The 1979–91 presidency of George Drake ’56 saw the renovation of buildings, the restoration of trust, and, as he said in his 1980 inaugural address, a vision of the “future in the past.” He meant that the College’s pioneering history — its missionary foundations, its antislavery sentiments, its Social Gospel and Progressive ideals of service, and its traditions of scholarship, academic freedom, and liberal dissent — gave promise of a purposeful future.

His successor, Pamela Ferguson, 1991–97, echoed these views in remarks at the 1995 rededication of Goodnow Hall, opening the College’s sesquicentennial year: “I represent the many individuals who have shaped Grinnell and the strong convictions which have formed a core of values that sustain and nurture this College.” She aimed to advance these values in a new era of diversity at the College, and she launched a development campaign to finance new facilities for the arts and sciences, including the Bucksbaum Center for the Arts and its Faulconer Gallery.

Grinnell’s 12th president, Russell K. Osgood, 1998–2010, presided over the development and implementation of a master plan that included a significant increase in enrollment, faculty size, and expanded programs, including establishment of the Office of Social Commitment; a major rebuilding and expansion of the physical plant, including new and renovated residence halls, administrative structures, the Joe Rosenfield ’25 Center, the Robert Noyce ’49 Science Center, and the Charles Bear ’39 Recreation and Athletic Center; and new initiatives in the relationship between the College and the Grinnell community.

Grinnell’s 13th president, Raynard S. Kington, 2010–20, promoted innovation and entrepreneurship, as well as graduates’ ability to transform the world. Kington’s tenure brought the Grinnell College Innovator for Social Justice Prize and the development of the Center for Careers, Life, and Service. He strengthened ties with the city of Grinnell and led a revitalization process that permanently altered the landscape and the student experience where campus and downtown come together. He emphasized academic excellence in the arts, humanities, sciences, and social studies, supporting campus renewal to provide students with the best of 21st-century educational opportunities.

With the selection of Anne F. Harris as Grinnell’s 14th president in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic, Grinnell embarked with confidence and joy on the last quarter of its second century of service to its students, its community, and — through its graduates — the nation and the world.

Historical Timeline

1830: Iowa Band Established

Congregational minister Asa Turner settles in Iowa and writes a letter to his mission board in the East asking for missionaries to come to Iowa. “The land sales (from the Black Hawk Purchase) are over,” he says. “Settlers have got their titles to earth. Now it is time to secure a title to heaven.” Eleven men hear Turner’s call and organize what becomes known as the “Iowa Band.” 

1846: Endowment Begins

At the annual meeting of the Association of Congregational Churches of Iowa, James J. Hill lays down a single silver dollar, asking that trustees protect and grow it, officially beginning Grinnell's endowment. Every first-year student receives a replica medal at New Student Orientation.

1848: Iowa College Opens

Iowa College opens its doors to a rigorous college preparatory program in Davenport, Iowa.  The college would soon relocate to Grinnell, Iowa.

1850: First College Students Enter

Iowa College admits its first collegiate candidates.  Like at the best eastern colleges, tuition was $24 a year.

1854: John and William Windsor Graduate

Brothers John and William Windsor are the first to graduate from Iowa College. William later recalls that “the free-soil fever ran high in Iowa College” in the years leading up to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. 

1861: East College Constructed

The East College building is completed in Grinnell. For several years it houses all of the functions of Iowa College.

1865: George Frederic Magoun Becomes President

As the Civil War ends, George Fredric Magoun is inaugurated as president of the College. He serves until 1884.

1865: Joanna Harris Haines Graduates

Joanna Harris Haines is the first to earn a certificate from the Ladies’ Course and later teaches at the College. Rev. E.M. Vittum explains that the women receive diplomas, but not bachelor’s degrees, at graduation because College officials feel “a little delicacy in declaring that the young ladies [are] bachelors of arts.”

1879: Hannibal Kershaw Graduates

Hannibal Kershaw becomes the first African American to graduate from Grinnell. He later is a teacher, minister, and member of the South Carolina legislature. According to the Iowa College News Letter, Kershaw is “an earnest, conscientious student, a fluent society speaker, and a man whom all respected for his high moral and religious character...

1882: Cyclone Destroys Campus

Ten days before Commencement, a massive “cyclone” (a tornado) touches down in Grinnell, killing 39 people (including two students) and destroying all of the College's buildings. The College yearbook is later named for this event.

1887: George Augustus Gates Becomes President

George Augustus Gates, 38-year-old pastor from New Jersey, is chosen by the trustees to lead the College. During Gates’ administration, Grinnell becomes a pioneering advocate of the Social Gospel movement.

1888: Mears Cottage Constructed

Mears Cottage, the first women’s dormitory on campus, is built and named for Mary Grinnell Mears, an 1881 graduate, wife of David O. Mears, and daughter of the town’s founder, J.B. Grinnell.

1893: Creation of Department of Applied Christianity

The Department of Applied Christianity is established. George Herron, a Congregational minister, is the first professor.

1894: Football team “Champions of Iowa”

1892: Honor G Created

Ernest Atherton 1895 designs the Honor G insignia for athlete’s uniforms. The symbol, a Maltese cross inlaid with a block letter “G,” remains in use today by the athletic department, relatively unchanged since its creation.

1897: Rand Gymnasium Constructed

The E.D. Rand Gymnasium for women is built with a gift from Carrie Rand, an instructor in social and physical culture, and principal for women at the College.

1894: The Scarlet & Black Begins Printing

The Scarlet & Black, Grinnell’s student newspaper, begins printing semiweekly. It contains campus news, notices of meetings, alumni notes, editorials, and some local news. It is still in print today.

1904: Carnegie Library Constructed

Carnegie Library is built with a gift from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. It was one of the few college libraries funded by Carnegie, who was principally interested in supporting community libraries.

1902: Dan Freeman Bradley Becomes President

Dan Bradley, a Congregational pastor from Grand Rapids, Mich., is selected as College president by the trustees.

1906: Herrick Chapel Constructed

Herrick Chapel is built. It quickly becomes home to the vespers services that John H.T. Main began in 1901. The building was named for Stephen Leonard Herrick, an early settler in Grinnell and a local merchant and trustee of the College.

1906: John Main Becomes President

John H.T. Main, a professor of Greek at the College, begins 25 years of service as president of the College after two earlier stints as acting president. He establishes Grinnell as a residential college, building the North and South Campus halls.

1905: Steiner Hall Constructed

The Christian Association “Y” Building is completed. Its name is changed to Steiner Hall in 1959 to honor Edward A. Steiner, a professor of applied Christianity at Grinnell from 1903 to 1941.

1916: Grinnell in China Established

The College establishes the Grinnell-in-China educational mission, a pioneering program in foreign study in Techow, Shandong, that continues until the Japanese invasion in 1937.

1912: Harry Hopkins Graduates

Harry Hopkins 1912 graduates from Grinnell. Hopkins and several other Grinnell graduates later worked on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s team during the New Deal era in the 1930s. Hopkins served as commissioner of the Works Progress Administration, Secretary of Commerce, and later as special assistant to the president during World War II.

1922: Paul MacEachron Appointed

The College appoints its first dean of men, Paul MacEachron 1911. He serves as educational director of Grinnell-in-China from 1916 to 1922. In 1931, the campus ground between Ward Field and the dormitories is named for him.

1924: Morgan Taylor Wins Gold

Morgan Taylor ’26 wins the gold medal in hurdles at the Olympics in Paris. He also wins gold and bronze medals in the 1928 and 1932 Olympics.

1929: Gary Cooper Revisits Grinnell

Film star Gary Cooper ’26 visits his alma mater in Grinnell after dedicating an airport in Newton, Iowa. Cooper later won the best-actor Oscar in 1952 for his role in High Noon.

1931: John S. Nollen Named President

John S. Nollen, who served as a professor of modern languages and as dean of the faculty, is named president of the College. Nollen House, location of the current president’s office, is later named in his honor.

1932: Grant O. Gale Develops Engineering Plan

Grant O. Gale, professor emeritus of physics, develops the 3-2 combined plan in engineering, which makes it possible for students to get two degrees in five years: a bachelor's degree in liberal arts and training at an engineering school. The plan catches on nationally and expands to other fields such as law.

1939: Rand Fire

Rand Gymnasium is destroyed by fire at 2 a.m.

1946: Barracks Provide Veterans’ Housing

War-surplus Army barracks from an air base in Sioux City are brought to campus and placed where the Forum now stands. In 1948, the barracks are converted into a student union. The first floor is used for social purposes, with classrooms and faculty offices on the second floor.

1942: Darby Gymnasium Constructed

Darby Gymnasium is erected and named for John Frederick Darby 1895. As a student, Darby excelled in several sports during the “golden era” of Grinnell athletics.

1940: Samuel Nowell Stevens Named President

Samuel Stevens, dean of the University College of Northwestern University, is named president of the College.

1959: Burling Library Dedicated

Burling Library is dedicated to Lucy B. Burling, a matriarch from Eldora, Iowa, and mother of three Grinnell alumni. She died in 1936. The library is built with $1.2 million in gifts from the entire Grinnell Community. Renovations in the ’80s would result in what Rolling Stone called the “comfiest” library in the country.

1955: Howard Bowen Named President

Howard Bowen becomes the seventh president of the college. A nationally recognized leader in American higher education, Bowen wrote many books on important aspects of education. When the Hall of Science is named in his honor in 1989, Grinnell President George Drake says: “I can think of few people who have done as much as Howard Bowen to advance education at Grinnell, in Iowa, and in the United States.”

1959: Program in Practical Education Established

The college establishes the Program in Practical Political Education, one of Grinnell’s largest and most successful extracurricular programs in the 1960s. Visitors under the program include U.S. Sens. Eugene McCarthy, Barry Goldwater, and Hubert Humphrey, and former presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.

1965: Glenn Leggett Named President

Glenn Leggett, professor of English and provost of the University of Washington, becomes president. His term would see the campus through the tumultuous protests and revolutions of the ’60s and ’70s. He served as president emeritus from 1979–2003.

1967: Martin Luther King Addresses Campus

A convocation entitled “Liberal Arts College in a World of Change” features a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. entitled “Remaining Awake through a Revolution.” He speaks to more than 4,000 people in a packed Darby Gymnasium.

1968: Student Government Association (SGA) Formed

Men’s and women’s hall governments merge into one body to form the Student Government Association.



1970: Dorms Become Coed

Many dorms become coed by floor. Loose Hall experiments with coed housing by room.

1975: A. Richard Turner Named President

A. Richard Turner, an art historian and former dean at Middlebury College, is named president of the College.

1975: “The Zirkle” Installed

Professor of art Louis Zirkle initiated Grinnell’s program of outdoor art with his untitled sculpture, affectionately known to generations of Grinnellians as “The Zirkle.”

1979: George Drake ’56 Named President

George Drake ’56, professor of history and Rhodes Scholar, is named president of the College. He remains president emeritus and history professor emeritus and a popular figure on campus.

1980: Sale of Dayton Television Station

The sale of WDTN-TV in Dayton, Ohio, doubles the College’s endowment.  The initial investment was encouraged by trustee Warren Buffet, a friend of Intel co-founder Robert N. Noyce ’49.

1986: Human/Gay Resource Center Founded

Gay and lesbian students form an active group and establish the Human/Gay Resource Center.  The center is later renamed the Stonewall Resource Center to commemorate the Stonewall Riots.

1987: Grinnell-Nanjing Exchange Begins

The Grinnell-Nanjing Exchange renews the Grinnell-in-China program begun in 1916 that ended with the Japanese invasion of China in 1937.  It supports Grinnell’s nascent Chinese language program.

1991: Pamela A. Ferguson Named President

Pamela Ferguson, a mathematics professor and former dean of the graduate school at the University of Miami, is named the College’s 11th president.

1996: Grinnell Sesquicentennial

Grinnell College celebrates its 150th birthday.

1998: Russell K. Osgood Named President

Russell K. Osgood, professor of law at Cornell University of Law, is named Grinnell’s 12th president. His tenure would see a large amount of building construction and renovation on campus.

2003: East Campus Halls Open

The white Iowa limestone residence halls continue the loggia tradition at Grinnell and allow the College to house a larger student body.

2008: Rededication of Noyce Science Center

Tom Cech ’70, Nobel Prize winner, and Walter Koenig ’58, of Star Trek fame, are among those who celebrate the rededication of Robert N. Noyce ’49 Science Center after extensive renovations.  Koenig says “"There's a reason we're called Pioneers. There are no limits on the impact Grinnell has — on us and on the world."

2010: Raynard S. Kington Named President

Raynard S. Kington, former deputy director of the National Institutes of Health, is named Grinnell’s 13th president.

2010: Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize Created

President Raynard S. Kington announces an annual prize program to honoring social entrepreneurs under 40. The prize includes $100,000, half given to the individual and half to his or her organization, and winners come to campus for symposiums and presentations. The first prizes are awarded in 2011.

2020: Anne F. Harris Named President

Anne F. Harris, an energetic leader and gifted teacher, was appointed the 14th president of Grinnell College following a unanimous vote by the Board of Trustees. President Harris joined the College in 2019 as vice president for academic affairs and dean of the College. Before her time at Grinnell, Harris was a professor and vice president for academic affairs at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where she also held numerous faculty and administrative appointments over more than 20 years.

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