Railroad tycoon Benjamin P. Cheney donated $10,000 to start a school in what was then Depot Springs. From that donation, a two-story schoolhouse was built and two teachers were hired from the East Coast.
Soon, the city’s name was changed to Billings until someone pointed out there was already a Billings in Montana. The city was then named after the man who donated the money to the school.
Charles Mutschler, Eastern Washington University archivist, said the building was kind of like an overgrown high school, and in fact it functioned as the high school in Cheney for a while.
The history of EWU was highlighted in a presentation and walking tour Monday night. Mutschler described the university’s humble beginnings and the way of life for the students and staff. He also talked about the people who once taught or worked at the school whose names are now on the buildings.
Sponsored by the Friends of the Library, Mutschler offered a slide show before the walking tour to feature some of the school’s history.
“I always try to highlight something different every year,” Mutschler said. The tour is usually presented once a year.
He explained the transformation of EWU from the Cheney Normal School, which taught mostly women to be teachers. Most went on to teach in one-room schoolhouses through the eighth grade. If the teachers wanted to teach high school back then, they had to travel to Seattle and attend the University of Washington.
That first two-room building burned down, and the school replaced it with a red-brick building in 1896. The school’s façade included a clock tower with no clock.
Everything was in that building at the time – the classrooms, the gym and the administrative offices.
“I do mean everything,” Mutscher said. The students often lived in boarding houses around Cheney.
The school continued to grow and a teacher training building was built next to the school.
That red-brick building burned to the ground on April 24, 1912. The governor at the time vetoed any funds to rebuild.
William J. Sutton, a former teacher in Cheney, helped to secure state funds, and a new fireproof administrative building was constructed. The school later named the building Showalter Hall.
Sutton had a new men’s dormitory named after him, which was across the campus from the women’s dormitories, Monroe Hall and Senior Hall.
Mutschler said that the students were all watched over carefully during the early years of the school. Lights-out was at 10 p.m., and there were bed checks. If a female student wanted to go home and visit her parents for the weekend, the parents would have to write the school, ask permission and give a schedule of her whereabouts the whole time.
“The school operated in place of the parents,” Mutschler said.
That changed after World War II, when the G.I. Bill was introduced. Married couples moved onto the campus and lived in trailers while they attended school. They called the area with the 75 trailers “Trailerville.” There was no running water in these trailers, which were found in a government surplus sale, and the inside could get cramped when the families grew.
Dressler Hall was named for Graham Dressler, a popular English professor on the campus in the 1940s. Dressler’s daughter, Harriet Plucker, attended the tour Monday night, which coincided with Dressler’s birthday.
George Pearce was a popular custodian at the school who later served as the superintendent of buildings.
“As far as I know, we are the only university or college with a building named for a janitor,” Mutschler said.
After the slide-show presentation, Mutschler led everyone on a walking tour of the buildings. He told the group about the history of the buildings and what they are used for today. He explained that Hargreaves Hall, now under renovation, was originally built as the school library.
President’s Hall returned to its roots as the home of the school’s president when Stephen Jordan came to EWU in the late 1990s.
Senior Hall, once a dormitory for senior women at the school, is now the home of the social work program. Monroe Hall, the first women’s dormitory, now houses women’s studies.
Mutschler said that in the past few years, Showalter Hall was remodeled to look like it did when it first opened in 1915. The auditorium was remodeled and the doors were replaced to look like the old wooden doors that once opened into the building. They are now steel doors that look like wood. Old photos of the building were dug out to help in the reconstruction.
“It really is quite an accomplishment,” Mutschler said.