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Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association

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Bellefonte and the Origins of Penn State
by Kathleen Wunderly

Planting the Seeds

In the middle of the 19th century, Hugh McAllister, a leading Bellefonte lawyer but still a farmer, and Frederick Watts, also an attorney and a gentleman farmer in Carlisle, shared concerns about the need for better agricultural education in Pennsylvania.

 Both men believed that higher education should be available to other classes than merely the wealthy, and also that a special sort of  education should exist for the sons of farmers. Studying literature and classics might expand young men’s horizons, but did nothing to perfect practical farming skills. 

McAllister began to visit farmers’ societies around Pennsylvania and seek support for the idea of a dedicated agricultural school.

By 1851 (when the Pennsylvania State Agricultural Society was formed), McAllister and his cohorts had enough support from the ag societies that state officials in Harrisburg became receptive to the innovative idea.

     The following year, the Pennsylvania State General Assembly formally considered the idea of a state agricultural school, and McAllister and others began to search for a site for it.

     Gen. James Irvin, ironmaster of several of the many furnaces that made the county a 19th century world leader in iron-making, offered a choice of acreage for the project, as did landowners in four other counties.

 Taking Root

On April 13, 1854, Gov. William Bigler (formerly a Bellefonte newspaper publisher) signed the official charter for the institution, to be called the Farmers’ High School, with a goal of providing an education based on applying scientific principles to farming.

In June 1855 the new institution’s board of trustees held its first meeting, and Gov. James Pollock and other trustees decided to visit Centre County to examine the three farms offered by Irvin. After the inspection the group adjourned to the mansion at nearby Centre Furnace for a banquet with 150 guests.

On September 12, 1855, the trustees formally accepted the 200-acre Irvin farm near Centre Furnace. The land was accompanied by a pledge of $10,000 guaranteed by Trustees McAllister and Andrew Gregg Curtin (a Bellefonte native who was soon to become secretary of the commonwealth and, later,  governor), to launch the building fund.

     The remains of the Centre Furnace stack have been preserved on Rt. 26, just before the University Dr. exit as one approaches State College from the east.  Centre Furnace Mansion, considered the “birthplace of Penn State,” is open to visitors as the headquarters of the Centre County Historical Society.

     McAlllister, Watts, and James Miles of Erie were to design the layout of the school, and an architect was hired to design the main building, housing both students and class-rooms. A Carlisle firm won the contract for constructing the building; other contracts were awarded for the barn and outbuildings designed by McAllister and Watts. One of the barn contractors was George Tate of Bellefonte.

McAllister Prevents Failure

In 1857, the economic recession that eventually was nationwide began in Pennsylvania.  The building fund drive failed and the contractor for the main structure was facing bankruptcy. As a Penn State history website describes it,  “The farm school may well have been stillborn had it not been for the efforts of Hugh McAllister, who worked feverishly to stave off disaster.”  McAllister donated $500 from his own pocket to the effort and personally raised $5,700 from others in the county. 

The institution opened on February 19, 1859, with Dr. Evan Pugh as president and William Waring, formerly of the Bellefonte Academy, as farm superintendent.

In the winter of 1860, the Farmers’ High School changed its name to the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania.

The milestone Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 provided federal support for schools such as the Ag College, giving federal land to states and allowing it to be sold and the proceeds invested to support colleges whose primary mission was “to teach agriculture and the mechanic arts [engineering] … in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in all the pursuits and professions of life."  In 1863 the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania became the state’s land-grant institution.  

The original Old Main, 1855
President Pugh was married on February 4, 1864, to Rebecca Valentine, daughter of one of the oldest Bellefonte ironmaking families.   Pugh died of typhoid fever on April 23 of that year at the Valentine home in Bellefonte, and is buried in the town’s Union Cemetery.

     The names of Bellefonte’s own Hugh McAllister, William Waring, William Bigler, William Packer, Daniel Hastings, Andrew Curtin, and James Beaver (the latter four, all governors of Pennsylvania) are immortalized by buildings and historical markers on campus, and street names on campus and in State College.


       Linn, John Blair. History of Centre and Clinton Counties, Pennsylvania. Centre County Historical Society, 1975 reprint of 1883 edition.
Bellefonte Fountain of Governors. Bellefonte Bicentennial Committee, 1976.

Bellefonte Walking Tour Sites associated with the Farmers’ High School / Agricultural College / Penn State University

 These sites are keyed to the Historical Walking Tour Map of Bellefonte map available at the Train Station and elsewhere in town.  The map is a project of the Talleyrand Park Committee of the Bellefonte Historical and Cultural Association.  These sites can also be viewed on the Virtual Walking Tour webpages.

 #10: Curtin House
This was the residence in his later years of Gov. Andrew Gregg Curtin, early supporter and trustee of the Farmers’ High School.

 #12:  Courthouse
Hugh McAllister, Esq., one of the first promoters of the idea of higher education in agriculture in Pennsylvania, practiced law in Bellefonte and argued his cases here.

 #21: Hastings Mansion
Gov. Daniel Hastings was a member of the Penn State board of trustees.

 #36: Union Cemetery
Several Bellefontians associated with Penn State are buried here, beginning with the Agricultural College’s first president, Evan Pugh.  Others are Governors Curtin, James Beaver, and Daniel Hastings.