Published: March 1, 2016 By

Roof of CU building

I got a note recently from an alum who wanted to know more about how the campus buildings got their names. Glad he asked: CU’s history resides in those names.

A good place to start is at the Kittredge dorm complex. All the dorms there — Andrews, Arnett, Smith, Buckingham and Kittredge — are named for Colorado pioneers who had a hand in CU’s creation.

On Jan. 8, 1872, George Andrews, Marinus Smith and Anthony and Mary Arnett donated the first parcels of land for the CU campus — 21.98, 25.49 and 3.83 acres respectively. Their combined value came to $1,026. The Arnetts also donated 80 acres two miles north of Boulder, valued at four horses and a wagon, it turned out. (More about that later.)

Charles Buckingham gave money for books, which are the heart and soul of higher learning, whether in scroll, codex, print or pixels. His $2,000 gift paid for the core of CU’s first library.

Col. Charles Kittredge, the only non-Boulderite among the five, was a state legislator from Colorado Springs. He sponsored the 1877 bill authorizing the operation of CU and giving it a revenue stream through a state property tax.

What motivated these guys?

Boulder’s struggle to land CU was driven in no small part by what today is genteelly called “economic development.” But to focus excessively on that misses a deeper motivation: CU’s founders had a near-theological belief in the transformative role of education in the life of individuals, communities and nations.

The attitude was exemplified by the impassioned speech Col. Kittredge gave in support of his CU bill. He saw “popular education” as liberating mankind from millennia of ignorance, superstition and serfdom, as allowing “three millions of educated free men” to win the American revolution and as leaving the country “an inheritance…of liberty, of freedom and self-government.”

And that was just the first two paragraphs.

CU’s founders saw synergy between idealism and economics, not conflict, and they had a point. Idealism without a business plan will get you only so far.

And about those other 80 acres the Arnetts donated — in 1883, Joseph Sewell (CU’s first president; Sewell Hall bears his name) traded them to C.M. Tyler, then a Regent, for a team of four horses and a wagon to haul coal to the campus.

I know it sounds like a bad deal for CU. But in 1883, Old Main lacked central heating, indoor plumbing and electricity. The campus was separated from Boulder by a mile of treeless prairie, and during the winter snowdrifts would cut it off for days at a time. Without a way to get coal to the campus, CU couldn’t operate in winter.

More than anything, the land-for-horses trade shows how hard life in the West was in 1883 and how hard it was to keep CU open — and hospitable enough for humans to focus on books and ideas.

Photo by Jim Richards/University of Colorado