By Cathy Ingalls, Albany Regional Museum board member
A college in Albany that closed its doors 76 years ago once fielded the best women’s basketball team in the Willamette Valley and employed a professor that later became the grandfather of Matt Groening, the creator of the animated sitcom, The Simpsons.
The college was first known as Albany Collegiate Institute and later as Albany College.
The Oregon Legislature chartered the Albany Collegiate Institute in 1867 and enthusiastic residents responded by raising $8,000 in cash and promissory notes to build a preparatory school and an institution of higher learning on land donated by the pioneer Monteith family.
The site consisted of four city blocks bounded by Ninth and 11th avenues and Ellsworth and Ferry streets.
The first building measured 50-by 66-feet and contained two stories and was crowned with a tower.
Presbyterian minister William Monteith was picked to lead the school.
College officials noted that the school would be a good place for those “timid” souls who wouldn’t be at home in a larger institution, for those wanting a Christian environment, for those without funds willing to work to pay for their educations, and for those looking for a town that had a “home atmosphere and high moral and intellectual standards.”
School opened in the fall of 1867 with 40 students. The first class graduated in 1873 and was comprised of four women: Maria Irvine, Cora Irvine, Weltha Young and Mary Hannon.
By the early 1870s, college-age students studied the sciences, English, Latin, Greek, French, German, mathematics, political science, history and bookkeeping among other offerings.
The school’s colors were orange and black, the mascot was a pirate, and the yearbook was called the “Orange Peal.” The school song was “The Orange and the Black.
In 1892, the Presbyterian Board of Aid for Colleges wanted the school’s name changed to Albany College to better reflect the high caliber of its teaching staff and to recognize the recent inauguration of its advanced curriculum. The switch was not official, however until 1905.
Also in 1905, the women’s basketball team won nearly every game it played even though it had only five players, allowing for no substitutions. Team members were Elsie Francis and Flo Nutting, forwards; Gertie Bussard and Wilda Starr, guards; and Rose Ficklin was the center.
Arthur Wilson, a former high school player in Portland, was persuaded to coach the women.
College teams in those days played against anyone available, even if it meant high school or community groups.
Despite boasting outstanding sports teams, debt and financial problems always dogged the school. There were times teachers sometimes went two months without pay.
The college nearly closed four or five times because of a lack of money coupled with a roller-coaster enrollment situation that left administrators wondering how much money student tuitions would bring in year to year. Competition for students grew as similar institutions opened in Corvallis, Eugene, Salem, McMinnville, Newberg and Forest Grove.
Also, the school found it difficult to keep accredited because there often were deficiencies in the curriculum and some facilities were ruled inadequate, such as the library and the science labs.
Nevertheless in 1925, the school decided to sell its property to the public school district and reopen on an expanded 46-acre campus at Broadway and Queen Avenue.
Unfortunately, the new campus did nothing to resolve the financial crises and the school’s demise began to take serious shape in the early 1930s, even when enrollment reached an all-time high of 214 students.
In a last effort, trustees attempted to try and secure more funds during the Depression era by offering classes in Portland, but that didn’t help, and the threat of war in Europe made continuing problematic.
The school’s doors closed forever in 1938 and operations eventually moved to the Lloyd Frank family property in Portland. In 1941, the institution became known as Lewis & Clark College.
The Albany College property was sold in 1942 to the U.S. Bureau of Mines for $143,500. Most of the proceeds went to retire the school’s debt.
At one of the last Albany College reunions, graduates remembered what it was like to go to school in a small town.
They recalled enjoying tea at the homes of college professors in the afternoons and in the evenings sitting in front of their instructors’ fireplaces talking of books and the problems of the world.
The college atmosphere was quite different back, they said.