Sunday, September 10, 2000

Lebanon's national university

City park plaque remembers school that trained teachers

By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LEBANON — A curious bronze historical plaque, green with age and mounted on a granite slab, sits low in the tiny Lebanon City Park, next to the Golden Lamb Inn at Main Street and Broadway.

        It reads: “Lebanon, Home of the National Normal University.”

[photo] Lebanon's National Normal University in the early 20th century.
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        Probably scores of people walk past it every day but never bother to look down at it, much less ponder what it means.

        Yet recently, after decades of obscurity, the university — set up to train teachers in a young Ohio — received attention in consecutive issues of The HistoricaLog, a publication of the Warren County Historical Society.

        The story was written by Hilda Watkins, a retired Springboro teacher who for years researched the school's history. She died before the story was published.

        The college opened in 1855 after leading educators of southwestern Ohio met to call for a teaching school.

        “Lebanon seemed to be the ideal location,” Ms. Watkins wrote. “There was a railroad station in South Lebanon, just 5 miles away. The town had a healthful appearance, with several churches and about a dozen vacant residences that could be used by the college.”

        School trustees hired Alfred Holbrook, superintendent of the public schools in Salem, Ohio.

        “Accommodations for students from a distance, the number of which was increasing, were obtained with difficulty, and only at high rates,” wrote the editor of The History of Warren County, Ohio, in 1882.

        “This compelled the principal to ... maintain ... dormitories under his own personal control. Unoccupied dwelling houses, of which there were at that time many in Lebanon, were rented, and rooms plainly furnished, provided for nonresident pupils at very moderate rates.”

        The first year, the school attracted 256 students — 80 from Lebanon and 150 of them young men. By the fifth year, 1859-1860, enrollment rose to 375. Tuition was $10 for an 11-week session.

[photo] This plaque in Lebanon commemorates the National Normal University, which was founded in 1855 and was led by Principal Alfred Holbrook.
(Dick Swaim photo)
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        “The school wasn't too far from the downtown,” said Mary Payne, director of the Warren County Historical Society Museum. “Its largest building sat near the present Presbyterian Church (at Silver and East streets). It was one of the region's earliest teacher colleges.”

        Mr. Holbrook was an innovator who was loved by his students. He opened a grade school, which was used as a laboratory to train teachers for a few years.

        In 1870, the institution changed its name to the National Normal School to more accurately reflect where its students were from — 13 states and one territory.

        The school grew in 1875 when it owned several buildings, a library of 2,000 volumes and $1,000 in scientific equipment. The school had 1,576 students and 18 faculty members who taught in new departments of law, photography and medicine.

        In 1881, trustees changed the school's name again to the National Normal University to better explain the school's educational diversity. Alumni were called Normalites.

        The greatest growth came from 1885 to 1890, when 2,000 students attended and Lebanon became an area educational hub.

        The school's decline began a few years later, after Mr. Holbrook's son disappeared and his wife died. When local banks refused to renew loans to the school, the principal left to operate a school in Tennessee.

        In 1907, the school changed its name to Lebanon University, but it declined and finally closed in 1917.

        “One must question whether the citizens of Lebanon knew what a great asset they had in the school,” Ms. Watkins wrote, “but, in reality, most people did not really seem to care.”

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