Mason City, Iowa
The initial difficulty in researching this school is the name. Founded by the sons of Civil War veterans, it is sometimes called “Sons Memorial University.” It is often referred to as “National Memorial University.” I was finally put straight by the archival librarian at Mason City Public Library. Before he put a collection of materials in front of me, I had to sign an agreement that among other things, I would not lick my fingers when I turned the pages.
I collected some information from catalogues and newspaper clippings. Then a staff member printed high-resolution photos from the library’s computer bank—a pro bono service. Best of all I was given directions for the 20-odd mile trip to Osage—In case my Tom-Tom failed to work.
Memorial University Military Band, (Courtesy of Mason City Public Library)
“The greatest memorial to the men and women of the Civil War,” would be a university in their honor. Thus spoke the National Encampment of the Sons of Union Veterans when they voted in 1900 to establish a university at Mason City, IA. The “Harvard of the Midwest” would not only educate youth but instill patriotism and prepare them to play an active role in American Life.
The cornerstone for the first building was laid in June of 1901 and the building was opened for students in September of 1902.
The University consisted of a liberal arts college, a normal school, a commercial school, a school of oratory, a college of music, a college of military science and tactics, a college of applied patriotism, and an academy. It was the first school in the country to institute a chair of Bible Study.
Memorial University offered some of the same campus life for its students as would be found in other colleges: it had two literary societies—Chrestomathian and Elizabethan. It had chapters of both the YMCA and the YWCA. It had musical groups. Daily chapel was requested but not required.
However, Memorial University never became “the Harvard of the Midwest.” Most of the planned campus buildings never materialized. Despite every attempt to expand course offerings, enrollment remained low. "By best count" the local newspaper determined that fewer than 200 students attended the school during its eight years, and only 46 graduated.
Some of the veterans’ groups felt that the school should have been built in the East. As a result, President W. J. Patton failed in his efforts to raise funds for Memorial University. The Sons of Veterans withdrew their support, and the college closed.
Bricks and Mortar
Liberal Arts Buildings was built on 40 acres of land on Patriot Hill. The three-story building, made of Mason City limestone, had steam heat, 30 classrooms, a chapel that seated 400, and a library with 4,500 volumes. Citizens of Mason City contributed $75,000 to the building. Later two dormitories—Lincoln for men and Barton for women—were added.
Honorable B. A. Plummer, President of the First National Bank, funded Plummer Field, the school’s athletic field.
After the college closed, Liberal Arts Building passed on to the Mason City school district and was used as Roosevelt Junior High School. The building was razed in 1979.
Liberal Arts Building (Courtesy of Mason City Public Library)
School colors: A diploma ribbon suggests that these were Red, White, Blue, and
In the first catalog Memorial University promised that “foot ball, basket ball, base ball, tennis and other sports commonly found in the average college or university will have their part and place in the Memorial University.”
The College Football Data Warehouse shows only two games for Memorial—a 75-0 loss to St. Joseph College (now Loras) and a 53-5 loss to Leander Clark—both in 1909.
A photo in the 1908 catalogue suggests that Memorial University had a women's basketball team.