Northern Established 125 Years Ago on April 28

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By the late 19th century, the Upper Peninsula flourished with immigrants who had come to work in the copper and iron mining and logging industries. Their children needed an education, but 75% of teachers in the area had no formal training and were likely fresh out of secondary school. Notable Marquette residents including Peter White lobbied for the establishment of what was then called a normal school—a translation of the French term école normale—to train and certify teachers in the region. The state legislature refused the first few proposals, but on April 28, 1899, Gov. Hazen Pingree signed a bill authorizing Northern State Normal School in Marquette. The pen he used on that fateful day is stored at the Beaumier U.P. Heritage Center on campus.

The impetus for final approval occurred a few months earlier, according to Northern Michigan University: The First 75 Years by the late Miriam Hilton. On Jan. 30, 1899, the city's leading citizens convened at the Hotel Marquette to host a dinner for more than 100 members of the Michigan Legislature. The delegation had accepted a state representative's invitation to come see why Marquette was the best possible site for Michigan's third normal school—a “recognized necessity for the public school system and a college for the common people,” as described in the Daily Mining Journal.

“The legislators' train was delayed by the intense cold, which made the tracks slippery,” Hilton wrote. “It was well after 11 p.m. before dinner was over and Peter White, a leading banker and popular toastmaster, rose and regaled the company with the account of his efforts to get a normal school for Marquette back in 1875 when he was a member of the State Senate.”

Despite favorable indications that the city's goal would be achieved soon after the January 1899 dinner, five members of the House of Education Committee traveled throughout the U.P. the following month for the express purpose of selecting a site. Episcopal Bishop G. Mott Williams summarized the case for Marquette in an original poem. One of the 19 stanzas read:

Give us a school, a Normal School! Our children cry for learning

There's work enough for hand and tool, and wages for the earning.

But when it comes to train the mind, we have to be like Dante

And find a guide to go below and stew in—Ypsilanti!

Hilton wrote that Michigan's State Superintendent of Public Instruction was well-aware of the need for teacher training and certification in the Upper Peninsula, but the bills he drafted in 1895 and 1897 were both defeated. In 1899, Gov. Pingree's pressures for legislation that would benefit the common person, combined with the determination of U.P. legislators, apparently persuaded other members of the House and Senate that the latest bill should be passed. Northern State Normal School was chartered on April 28 of that year, and the first classes were held in September. The name persisted until 1927, and after a few other incarnations, ultimately transitioned to Northern Michigan University in 1963.

“Northern State Normal School had a big impact regionally because it allowed U.P. students to get trained as teachers close by without having to travel to one of the two other normal schools in the Lower Peninsula, and it provided U.P. schools with more qualified, certified teachers,” said NMU historian and professor emeritus Russ Magnaghi, who compiled A Sense of Time: The Encyclopedia of Northern Michigan University. “Over the years, as Northern transitioned to a university, it became an economic force and an arts and cultural center of the region, strengthening its connection to the community.”

In addition to Hilton's book and Magnaghi's encyclopedia, another source for information presented in this story was “The Heart of Northern: A Brief History of Northern Michigan University” by former students Zoe Folsom ('21 BS Sociology) and Chloe Vander Laan ('22 BS Writing), which can be viewed on this website.

For more on the NMU's year-long 125th celebration, visit To submit stories, reflections, photos and brief recordings that might be shared throughout the 125th anniversary year across various NMU platforms, visit and select “125th Anniversary” from the “Choose One” drop-down menu.

The seal for Northern State Normal School, which was the name from 1899-1927
The seal for Northern State Normal School, which was the name from 1899-1927
Prepared By

Kristi Evans
News Director

Categories: Around NMU