When Walla Walla College’s first students arrived on Dec. 7, 1892, they encountered a new school struggling to open on schedule.

Situated within sight of downtown Walla Walla, yet surrounded by only orchards and farmland, that first administration-classroom-everything building still lacked basic amenities, according to archives.

The steam radiators and the single, 40-watt, electric light fixture per dormitory room, unlike as promised in the school’s promotional literature, were not yet installed.

Students would have to use kerosene lamps until those projects could be completed, and they were advised to use extreme caution.

Water available via a pump outside the back door of the living quarters and a wastewater receptacle for use by the 103 enrollees of the inaugural class.

And breakfast that snowy morning would have to be white crackers and milk; the kitchen’s wood stove had been improperly installed, sending smoke everywhere.

Still, staff and the high school- and college-age students gathered for chapel sang “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow” — with hammers at work lending percussion to the hymn.

Sallie Sutherland, wife of Walla Walla College’s first principal, E.A. Sutherland, gave the opening welcome address for a Seventh-day Adventist institution that more than a century later would change its name to Walla Walla University and grow to have immense influence in the Valley and beyond.

This week it’s time to break out the balloons and cake. WWU will celebrate its 125th birthday on Thursday, starting with a commemorative service at 8:30 a.m. outside the Administration Building, 204 S. College Ave.

The service will be heralded by of the ringing the school’s bell 125 times. At noon there will be a grand reopening of the recently renovated and expanded Bowers Hall, at Fourth Street and Davis Avenue.

The college will then join the city of College Place’s “Winterfest” event at 5 p.m. which begins with a parade down College Avenue, followed by a Christmas tree lighting and fireworks.

A doctor’s vision

Historians say Walla Walla University’s birth can be traced back to 1873. That was the year Dr. N.G. Blalock traveled alone on horseback from Illinois to Walla Walla in the Washington Territory to scout a route for moving his family west.

Blalock went on to become a force of nature in the Valley, noted Terrie Aamodt, and the school owes its existence to his vision and ability to convey it to others.

Aamodt teaches English and history at WWU and is the university’s de facto historian. In 1992, for the school’s centennial, she wrote “Bold Venture: A history of Walla Walla College.”

After Blalock brought his family to Walla Walla in 1874, he became known locally as a tireless physician, civic servant and advocate for region. His achievements included being mayor of Walla Walla, a member of the state’s constitutional convention in 1889 and Democratic candidate for governor.

He also is credited with bringing agriculture to the Walla Walla Valley and delivering more than 5,000 babies in his medical practice, according to archives.

But it was 1891 when Blalock, by then the owner of 1,700 acres of well-established orchards outside of town, presided over a meeting of 50 business leaders to talk about education. Seventh-day Adventist official W.W. Prescott had come to Walla Walla from Battle Creek, Mich., to seek a way to build an Adventist college in the area.

By then, some 30 years after the church was founded, education had become a high priority among Adventists and it had begun planting a series of colleges in Nebraska, California and Michigan, Aamodt said.

“They valued education at all levels and they wanted students to be able to exercise their religious faith,” she said.

Homegrown college

The 1,500 or so church members living in the Pacific Northwest were keen to have a college of their own. Three possible locations were identified: Yakima, Spokane and Walla Walla.

Walla Walla was an attractive option. Not only was it a spot for summer “camp” meetings that drew up to 500 Adventists every year, the Milton Academy had been established in 1886 about 12 miles away in Milton, Ore., to train and graduate teachers.

However, the academy’s needs, including establishing a student-worked farm, soon outgrew the property. A new location was needed and Prescott had come to see what the church’s options were, Aamodt said.

Blalock, who was not Adventist, immediately pledged to donate 40 acres of his 1,700-acre orchard as a site for a new college. It just so happened, Aamodt noted, the spot in mind was on a rise called Sunflower Hill, which couldn’t be irrigated and thus was unproductive land, save for grass and scrub.

Nonetheless, the doctor’s example led to $25,000 in donations from other business owners to ensure the school could be built, with a provision the school be open at least 25 years.

“Dr. Blalock was very influential and felt every developmental piece would enrich the Valley and be a good investment,” she said, pointing out the Adventist church was already known for following up establishing educational institutions with hospitals.

Blalock also wanted a building grander than the traditional wooden schools of the day, Aamodt said. “They wanted something they could appreciate and respect.”

The wooden structure covered with a brick veneer would eventually ring up at $50,000, twice the money initially raised. But that first five-story building boasted an iconic cupola that, in the early days before young trees grew to dominate horizons, could be seen from Main Street in Walla Walla, she said. The cupola was taken down in a remodel about 15 years ago.

Ivy, initially given to University of Oregon by Yale University, was planted as a kind of flag to note Walla Walla College was brethren with other distinguished institutions of learning, Aamodt said.

A town takes root

Like the ivy, a settlement began growing up around the school.

The college bought up farm land as it could, and began selling lots for houses. More Adventists arrived to set up shops and establish a small church.

When a post office was needed, someone thought to ask the name of the settlement, and thus it officially became “College Place,” although the city didn’t incorporate until 1946.

The college kept growing, too. It earned its four-year school accreditation in 1935, which created a pathway to be a small, masters-level university, Aamodt said. With continuing expansion of its degree programs, in September 2007 it changed its name to Walla Walla University.

WWU has given much to the community that birthed it, Aamodt said, noting that its nursing program long fed Walla Walla General Hospital, which contributed to the area’s abundant medical care for more than 100 years.

As important as the academic contributions are, of equal value are the relationships between the school and the Valley in which it thrives. The School of Social Work, for example, sends its students into every corner of social work in the area, allowing agencies to serve more clients. And its School of Engineering students work in local schools to promote math, science, technology and engineering projects.

Today WWU has 1,825 students taking classes for 36 possible majors and seven master’s degrees. The buildings cover more than 83 acres.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.

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