Old Central Remains Tangible Tie To “Where the College Came From”

by Ammie Bryant, Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History Director

Originally called the College Building, Old Central serves as an iconic symbol of Oklahoma State University.  In 1894, its doors opened to students of the Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College.  Through the years, Old Central became the face of the university for students and alumni alike.  It has served many purposes and survived many threats over the years, remaining a significant part of the university’s past as well as its future.  Alfred E. Jarrell, one of the first graduates in 1896, summed up its importance: “Your college faculty can always point out to each generation of students where the college expects to go!  But I want them to preserve Old Central to show each generation of students where the college came from!”  (History of Old Central, by Dr. LeRoy H. Fischer, p. 271)

Located miles from existing railroads, a life-line for supplies, Stillwater settlers immediately made plans to ensure the town’s survival.  Several who had claims in and near Stillwater had received an education at land-grant colleges.  They knew the importance of education for the new territory.  They also knew a land-grant college would bring a welcome stream of federal money to Stillwater.

As soon as the Oklahoma Territorial government organized in 1890, Stillwater entered the competition for a land-grant college that would be established in the territory.  Payne County leaders successfully lobbied to place the college in Payne County.  Stillwater and Perkins were the two sites to be considered.

A site location commission from the legislature visited Perkins first, then Stillwater, to spend the night.  The following day, Stillwater officials sent word to Perkins, inviting their delegation to Stillwater for a meeting.  The Perkins delegation  took  this  to  mean  that Stillwater had lost the bid for the college.  When they arrived at the meeting, they found the college site commissioners and the Stillwater delegation at a banquet table, their faces “red and glowing” from drinking champagne, celebrating what appeared to be the selection of Stillwater as the college site.  The leader of the Perkins delegation exclaimed, “We are sunk!  These Stillwater fellows are just a damned shrewd bunch of horse traders.”

The official report to the Territorial Governor two weeks later revealed that the commission had selected 200 acres in Stillwater to establish a site for the college.  On November 25, 1891, the land for the college was transferred to the Oklahoma A&M Board of Regents.

Early construction of Old Central

Work began on Old Central, then known as the College Building, in July 1893.  The architect was Herman M. Hadley of Topeka, Kansas, and Henderson Ryan, a contractor and builder from Fort Smith, Arkansas, who constructed the building for $14,948.  Ryan employed around fifty workers, including many students of the college.  They were paid ten cents an hour.  Alfred E. Jarrell said, “Most of us were so anxious to move into Old Central classrooms, that I think most of us would have worked for free, to rush the building.”

After completion of Old Central, James H. Adams of the first class of 1896 praised the building. “And what a home!  Was ever a College more finely housed, or more splendidly equipped?  We had separate classrooms for different classes and different subjects, an Auditorium of mammoth proportions… Library and a reading room, laboratories with running water and artificial gaslights, and all needed equipment and teaching apparatus.  What more could anyone ask?”

The basement originally served as the chemistry laboratory and classrooms, the first floor housed two classrooms, the library, and a reception room and the president’s office.  The second floor consisted of two classrooms, a storeroom, the assembly hall, a combination office and recitation room, and the night watchman’s room under the bell tower.  The exterior of the building, true to late Victorian tastes, was painted in three shades of green against red brick and rock.

From its earliest days, Old Central served as a source of pride for its students and faculty, but its maintenance and preservation has not always been assured. Through the years, it has been in danger of collapse and/or demolition on several occasions but has been saved by the dedication of alumni intent on preserving its legacy.  In recent years, the building has undergone restoration and preservation and currently serves as the Honors College.

For those interested in exploring the history of Old Central further, the Museum also has on sale in its shop Oklahoma State University: Historic Old Central (Centennial Histories Series) by Dr. Leroy H. Fischer.  Dr. Fischer taught history at Oklahoma State University from 1946 to 1984.  Fischer and others worked to save, restore, and refurbish “Old Central,” listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Fischer was inducted into the Oklahoma Higher Education Hall of Fame in 2002.  Dr. Fischer also served as the President of the Sheerar Museum of Stillwater History’s Board of Trustees.

The Sheerar Museum is located at 702 S. Duncan Street near downtown Stillwater and is open Tuesday-Friday 11am-5pm, Saturdays and Sundays 1-4pm.  Admission is free and donations are gratefully accepted.  Visit www.sheerarmuseum.org to learn more about the Sheerar Museum.  You can find additional social media links at www.about.me/sheerarmuseum.