Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Higbee tells about Fayette Cook

Fayette Cook was pretty remarkable fellow. He’s often thought of as the first President of Black Hills State University, but the fact it is – he wasn’t.

Hired in 1885 as a “Principal” for the Spearfish normal college – a teacher training institution – Cook rescued the school from the wretched state of affairs left by his predecessor, M. Van Buren Baker.

You thought Deadwood had some rough characters – how about this Van Buren Baker guy.

He came from back east and lasted less than a year on the job. Generally regarded as a gambler, a womanizer, and probably an embezzler, Baker went back East to Pennsylvania, where he headed another normal school, but was soon convicted of murdering his wife and mother-in-law in a bloody axe crime.

So starts the story of Fayette Cook and the early years of what we know as Black Hills State University. It’s a spellbinding story that was told colorfully by Spearfish historian Paul Higbee during the April meeting (4/1/08) of the Spearfish Area Historical Society.

Higbee told how the 34-year-old Cook had never even heard of Spearfish when he received a letter in 1885 offering him the position of “Principal” at the new normal school. Although he at first declined, Cook later accepted the job and took a train from his home near Rochester, Minnesota to Chadron, Nebraska – then taking a stage to Spearfish.

Higbee noted that Cook’s arrival in Spearfish was surely disappointing to him. The single normal school building was, Cook said, “the poorest excuse for a schoolhouse.” Nonetheless, he went to work in an effort to create a “model school” where students could practice their teaching. The laboratory school became an integral part of the college and the community.

Cook was fond of agriculture and had a passion for education. He was plain-speaking and straightforward, and he didn’t think all students could be teachers. Some simply didn’t have the charisma, the moral fiber, or the personality for it.

In demonstrating the sharp contrast between modern education and the early days of the normal school, Higbee shared the story of how a disgruntled student went to Cook’s office, challenged him to a fistfight, and Cook – who readily obliged the student – was thoroughly “thrashed” in the altercation.

Through the years, the school strengthened its academic credentials and enjoyed a growing enrollment. Cook had rightly surmised that the beautiful environment of the northern Black Hills would be an attraction for many students. The school also enjoyed something of a building boom. Cook Hall and Winona Cook Hall (named for his wife) were among the structures built with funds obtained during Cook’s tenure as President.

Perhaps the toughest times for President Cook were the years of 1918-19, when the horrible flu pandemic hit the United States and numerous countries around the globe. Higbee expressed the belief that President Cooks decision to temporarily close the school likely contained the disease and saved many lives.

Higbee's audience at the historical society meeting was full of folks with remembrances of their years -- or their parents years -- at the old normal school in Spearfish.

Fayette Cook stepped down as President in 1919. Higbee’s presentation observed that Cook was very concerned about who his successor would be, and went so far as inviting the newly selected president, Dr. Woodburn from Northern State, to spend his first days in Spearfish at the Cook home. Out of this close-up inspection of his successor, Cook became an ardent supporter of President Woodburn.

Just a few years later, in 1922, Fayette Cook died in Spearfish at the age of 72.
Our thanks to Corrine Hansen and the folks at Black Hills State University for providing the photograph of Fayette Cook (above right). If you'd like to see more pictures and information, click on this link to historical society photos.