A Note from Cottonwood Corners

Because of the debt which the State of South Dakota had and the possibility of only limited funds in the immediate future, Governor Mellette in his address to the 1891 Legislature suggested a reduction in the membership of that body and the closing or consolidation of several of the state institutions of higher learning.  He also considered the possibility of the counties being required to pay part of the expense of the penal and charitable institutions.

The January 9, 1891, issue of The Mitchell Capital suggested that a number of Governor Mellette’s recommendations ought to receive prompt attention at the hands of the legislature, regardless of party lines.  Among those were the following:

  • “There is only one safe policy for the state or individual, and that is to live within her income. To this end it is suggested that all offices that can be dispensed with, without detriment to the public service, be abolished and others consolidated, and salaries diminished until the expense of administration is reduced to the minimum, regard being had only to public needs not to the welfare of individuals.”
  • “Provide in the general appropriation bill definite sums for per diem, mileage, and expenses with a maximum beyond which no responsibility can be attached to the state.”
  • “After pruning down the public institutions to the lowest amount consistent with the public welfare, closing some public institutions of higher education entirely if necessary to balance the budget.”

The total appropriation by the legislature for the fiscal year 1891 – 92 was $723,914.60.  That included funding for the State University, Madison Normal, Spearfish Normal, the Agricultural College, and School of Mines.

According to Doane Robinson’s Encyclopedia of South Dakota, classes had been organized and offered by six State funded colleges and institutions of higher education in South Dakota by 1899.  They included:

  • State University, Vermillion, 1882
  • State College, Brookings, 1884
  • Madison Normal School, 1884
  • School of Mines, Rapid City, 1885
  • Spearfish Normal School, 1885
  • Springfield Normal School, 1897

In his History of Dakota — Volume III, George Kingsbury reported that during the 1899 session of the Legislature:  “The Aberdeen and Watertown Normal School Bill was passed by both houses, but was vetoed by the Governor.  They were called industrial schools, but had all the features of normal schools.”

Kingsbury went on to say:  “There was a strong and outspoken sentiment throughout the Legislature in February for the consolidation of several of the state educational institutions.  All efforts for new buildings at the state institutions were checked until after the appropriation bill had been considered.  Then the question of consolidation was taken up and duly studied and discussed, but was found to be in the main unwise and impracticable.”

During this session of the legislature, the members of the House seemed to delight in political controversy and intrigue, while the Senate seemed more sedate and less flamboyant.  By the 20th of February about four hundred and seventy-five bills had been introduced in both houses; however, only ten had become law.

In the general appropriation bill, the article providing for the maintenance of the Springfield Normal School was stricken from the record.  The Aberdeen Normal Bill passed the House by the vote of 52 to 32.  In the House the Watertown Normal Bill failed to pass over Governor Lee’s veto, the vote being 40 to 39.

Among the bills which became law was the establishment of an Industrial and Normal School at Aberdeen.  To maintain and support the facility, 401,000 acres of state land was donated.  This measure became law without the governor’s signature.

Kingsbury’s opinion of the 1899 legislative session was mixed.  He called it “one of the most useful sessions ever held thus far.”  The time spent by the legislature, except for a few exceptions, was devoted to measures of great importance to the state.  Practically no time was spent in wrangles over unimportant and incongruous bills.  The discussions were more dignified and becoming than usual.  However, the session was not without fault.  It was far too frugal in the appropriations for the growing state institutions.

An examination of South Dakota newspapers for the last half of 1898 and the first half of 1899 revealed no news stories or headlines on consolidating any state colleges.  In March of 1899, Governor Lee had that portion relating to the maintenance of Springfield Normal stricken from the General Appropriations bill.

In his farewell message to the legislature on January 12, 1901, Governor Lee addressed the legislature and had this to say with regard to the State Schools:  “I cannot endorse the Springfield Normal, that portion of the state being abundantly provided with similar educational institutions already.  At present it is a puny local school which the regents unwisely recognized without reason or authority after the legislature of 1897 had refused to make an appropriation for its maintenance.”

The financial condition of the state in 1891 was embarrassing.  We were broke!


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory-Times Advocate on November 10, 2021

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