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UMD Gets New Look into Life after 'The Great Fire'

July 10, 2013
Contacts: 

Alana Carchedi 301-405-0235

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – A new discovery has given the University of Maryland added insight into what happened in the time immediately following The Great Fire of 1912—a time that has been, until now, largely undocumented. Recently uncovered in the garage of the heir to Sterling Byrd's estate, son of former UMD president Harry Clifton "Curley" Byrd, were the minutes of the Maryland Agricultural College Board of Trustees, beginning December 2, 1912—only three days after the devastating fire that crippled the campus.

These documents, which continue through May 1916, shed light on not only the days following the fire that could have ended the university, but also record several critical moments in UMD's history.

The Board of Trustees called a special meeting on December 2, 1912, to discuss what actions to take after the fire. The Board quickly decided that work should go on uninterrupted, and the college would reopen the following Wednesday—only five days after the fire destroyed the two largest buildings on campus."Much of what this find illustrates, including the election of H.J. Patterson, the construction of Calvert Hall, and the decision to admit women, are giant steps along the path to recovery and eventual prosperity," says university archivist Anne Turkos. "It's wonderful to finally be able to see some of how that transpired."

Picking up the pieces
The Board of Trustees called a special meeting on December 2, 1912, to discuss what actions to take after the fire. The Board quickly decided that work should go on uninterrupted, and the college would reopen the following Wednesday—only five days after the fire destroyed the two largest buildings on campus. Since the barracks lay in ruins, the Board also agreed that students would temporarily live with families in the neighborhoods surrounding campus to avoid any delay in resuming operations.

"These minutes are truly a milestone historical discovery for the university," says assistant university archivist Jason Speck. "It was long assumed that because of the great fire and the passing of years, little evidence remained from that critical time when the university we know today could have folded forever.  Instead, we have documented proof of an institution determined to rise, literally, from its ashes and move forward."

Resignation of President Silvester
On December 3, the Board received the resignation letter of President Richard W. Silvester. This never-before-seen letter, transcribed in the minutes, attributes Silvester's resignation to his poor health, countering previous speculation that he resigned due to his discouragement over the losses from the fire.

On December 3, the Board received the resignation letter of President Richard W. Silvester.He states, "To you gentlemen I beg to say, that I am under lasting obligation for your kindness, generosity, and many acts of consideration. My health has improved and I believe that I will soon be restored to my normal conditions. It has, however, been suggested to me by friends that in the interest of the College, I should ask to be relieved from the active duties of the Presidency."

On April 17, 1913, the Board called a special meeting to select the college's new president. As the minutes detail, H.J. Patterson beat out his leading opponent 9-5 in a vote to be named the next president, a role he would keep until 1917.
 
Defining moments in UMD history
The minutes also record several important moments in the university's history, which lacked significant documentation prior to this discovery. These include a Board meeting only two weeks following the fire, when the members agreed that rebuilding needed to begin immediately and  they would therefore form a building committee. The formation of this committee led to the eventual construction of Calvert Hall in 1914, the first dormitory built after the barracks burned down in the fire.

Another astounding discovery is that although the first women were not admitted to the university until 1916, the minutes reveal that the Board actually approved women to attend two years earlier. The minutes from January 1914 read, "President Patterson then read letter from Miss Night requesting permission to enter College as a student, and by resolution it was ordered that ladies be admitted to college courses." While the identity of "Miss Night" remains a mystery, her letter must have been convincing and paved the way for women students of the future.

The minutes from January 1914 read, "President Patterson then read letter from Miss Night requesting permission to enter College as a student, and by resolution it was ordered that ladies be admitted to college courses." While the identity of "Miss Night" remains a mystery, her letter must have been convincing and paved the way for women students of the future.
In addition, while the state of Maryland did not take total control until 1916, discussions of transferring the college—and its property—into state hands, a process which began in 1866, resumed in 1914. The topic arose at that time in response to a letter from R. M. Pindell, Jr., president of the Alumni Association, inquiring about the opinions of the stockholders in regards to moving the college further into state hands. The situation described in the minutes shows that the stockholders were in favor of this option and felt pride in the fact that they had helped build the college into an institution that was of interest to the state. 

Additional interesting moments in UMD history that are documented in these minutes include the elimination of free textbooks, the adoption of a new dining hall model, the establishment of a student financial aid fund, and a resolution celebrating the lack of fraternity hazing and condemning its practice.

To view the minutes of the Maryland Agricultural College Board of Trustees, visit http://hdl.handle.net/1903.1/20305