Ask Adonijah: Who was Iowa State’s first president?

Editor’s note: “Ask Adonijah” is a contributed piece from the Iowa State University Library Special Collections and University Archives. The piece is named after Adonijah Welch, who was Iowa State’s first president, and seeks to answer community members’ questions about the history of Iowa State. Have a question? Let us know by emailing [email protected].

These days, you rarely hear the name Adonijah in regular conversation. It does not make the top 10 list of baby names; is not the easiest name to pronounce; and I dare you to find another word that rhymes with Adonijah. However, it is my name.

Allow me to introduce myself. I am Adonijah Welch and I served as the first president of this excellent institution of higher learning. During my tenure, this school went by a different name — the Iowa State Agricultural College and Model Farm. Some things have changed quite a bit since the first freshman class entered Old Main back in March of 1869. For one thing, tuition and rooms were free! Students were required to help with physical labor on the farm and in the kitchens and were compensated for their work. The primary expense for students those first years was $2.75 per week for meals and the cost of books. It was not a perfect system, but it worked for a time.

In the beginning, the college consisted of only a handful of buildings, mostly barns and sheds associated with the farm work on campus and a few houses. For the 173 young men and women who enrolled that first year, the Main building would serve as their dorm, dining room, library, classroom, chapel, lecture hall and laboratory. To make things even more interesting, most of the faculty lived in the building too! The five-story building did not hold heat very well, so we were fortunate the school calendar ran from March to November. Even so, I have many fond memories of that old building and the people I met during my time there.

Which brings me to the reason for writing this essay — memories. Some of these memories we write down or record for posterity while others we share by word of mouth or pass from one generation to the next as tradition. Many Iowa State memories we simply forget. All of these memories and stories are a part of the history of Iowa State University and together they create a web that connects all of us — from the first graduates of 1872 to those who will be receiving degrees at the upcoming commencement ceremonies.

As a member of the Iowa State community, I encourage you to learn about your community — its present and its past — and stories that have shaped this campus over the past 150 years, for these are your stories now, as well. For those of you who are curious about the history of Iowa State, I invite you to submit a question to me. I may not have the answer — after all, some memories have been lost to time — but I have not forgotten everything! The fine folks at the Iowa State Daily have agreed to publish responses to some of these questions in the hopes that we all come to learn a little more about this community that we share.