Harold Sayre, Wesley College, and the Great War

Last year, I had a remarkable group of students who worked with me on the Wesley College Documentation Project. We spent time in the Wesley College collection in the University of North Dakota’s Department of Special Collection’s Wesley College papers. In a folder titled “Harold Sayre Tributes” the students discovered a pair of poems written by Horace Shidler who served with Sayre in World War I. Sayre died in the Great War.

Sawyer Flynn, one of the students in the class, transcribed the poems and prepared this introduction. He generously gave me permission to publish this material here.

Sayre Poem

Last semester at the University of North Dakota, I had the pleasure of working with a team from the History Department under Dr. William Caraher. A 1 credit course based on documenting “Two Old Buildings” (which became the name of the course), ultimately lead to the Wesley College Documentation project. Over the semester, a group of students, faculty, and outside experts went room to room in Robertson-Sayre and Corwin-Larimore halls, buildings that in some cases dated back to 1909, documenting the architecture and the objects within. While our findings on this front were interesting, we weren’t expecting to find a story as deep as that of Sayre Hall. While most buildings on campus are named for important administrators or donors, Sayre Hall was named for a man who was, by all accounts, a war hero.

Harold Holden Sayre left Stanford University as a sophomore and enlisted in the American Field Service in 1917. While he began service in the ambulance corps in the Balkans, when the United States formally entered the war, he entered the U.S. Army Air Service in the 11th Aero Squadron.

There, as a rear-facing gunner for his pilot, Horace Shidler, Sayre lost his life on September 14th, 1918 over Saint-Mihiel. Ambushed by Jasta 11, the squadron Manfred Von Richthofen, the “Red Baron”, had commanded until April of that year, the bombers were easy prey for veteran German pilots. The German fighters emerged from above the bombers using the cover of the sun and quickly engaged multiple bombers, losing only one of their own.

Harold Sayre opened fire on the fighters and was struck repeatedly by machinegun fire. In spite of this he “kept his guns going until life left his body”, and in standing up to fire, shielded Shidler from the volley of bullets that would have taken his life.

When the strap holding Sayre’s body upright was struck by a bullet, Sayre’s body fell against the controls in the rear cockpit, forcing Shidler to crash land in a copse of trees. There, Shidler buried Sayre, despite being badly wounded himself. A German soldier waited at a distance for him to finish, and then captured him.

Shidler became a prisoner of war, and it was in his cell that he wrote “AT THE GRAVE OF A DEAD GUNNER.” The second poem was written in 1919, after the Great War had concluded.

These two poems struck me as incredibly poignant when I first read them. Today, the 100th year anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I, the Wesley College Documentation Project went back to the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections to scan these documents in honor of Harold H. Sayre and all the men and women who served in “The War to End all Wars.”

Citation: Harold Sayre Tributes. Wesley College Papers. UA 63, Box 4. University Archives. Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, ND.

April 17, 1919.

Oh Pard! I’ve come back to you,
As you lay here beneath the sod.
I can see your features strong and true,
Turned upward toward God.

Thinking of the hours that you an I,
Have spent, as thought we were one.
Sailing across the pale blue sky,
‘Tween earth and the burning sun.

When we roamed together through the vineyard,
By our billet in the old Chateau,
And felt that growing kindred.
How close that kin did grow!

Since you left me, Pard, I guess I’ve been
Through near an earthly Hell.
Thro’ Par, you know it was not through sin
That I went to the Prison Cell.

In the evening gloom would go the wall,
in that cell of German Alsace.
And becknoning to me with a call
You would come in to its place.

Wearily the days and weeks went by,
And at last come the end of the war.
No more by the deadly weapons to die,
Were men in battles’ horror.

But is stand here, Pard, beside your grave,
With a wound that is bleeding tears.
While you’re with the One whose life He gave,
For humanity, through all these years.

But a life I’ll live in honor to you,
With the help of God on High.
I’ll think of you my whole life through
And join you when I die.


From his Pilot at the Front,
Lt. Horace Shidler

On the fourteenth morning of September
Just after the clouds rolled off;
On a mission of death they sent us
to bomb a place southwest of Joeuf.

We crossed the lines at Verdun
Where the ground was soaked blood,
The Archie was pounding up at us
And burst with a hollow thud.

Thru a screen of shrapnel we flew,
Led by a man who’d of’t been before;
Who had gone thru many of such
and who lived to go thru more.

Over the objective the Squadron sailed
And the signal to bomb was given,
Straight to their mark, like a leaden dart,
Our heavy bomb were driven.

I saw them light in the yards of Conflans,
Saw a train fly to bits by their crash,
It was the troops, artillery and supplies
Of the enemy we had to smash.

Then the guns from the ground ceased firing,
And the shrapnel ceased to burst;
We were alone with the moan of our engines
I knew mine was doing her worst.

Pard and I was flying the position
Of end on the wing to the right;
The easiest machine to attack,
In case of an aerial fight.

Then out of the sun on our left
Dropped thirty German Chasse;
Straight into our flanks they drove at us
Attacking in a mass.

Oh! where was the American Chasse!
To help us against these numbers;
South of our lines, of course
Peacefully resting in slumbers.

The squadron that came against us
All fliers, knew to be bad;
They were the remnants of the old Ritchthoffen,
The best the Germans had.

The first to fall of our number,
Was one in the left of the flank;
The machine behind gave throttle,
And moved forward to fill the blank.

The next to go was a German,
Who pitched forward into flame;
And it wasn’t from the wreck of that machine
That they found its pilot’t name.

Then on to us drove three black streaks
In desperate hot pursuit;
The dash was splintered, the fabric split,
My God! how they could shoot!

And here the sadness of it begins,
As i tell this story to you;
And the sadness felt by me,
Is seldom felt by few.

Harold Sayre was a man of men,
Proud was I that he should be;
The man that handled the guns,
That protected the aft of we.

He was shot and fell against the tarrel,
And held by the belt around him;
For after protection I knew I had none
and I felt so helpless without him.

Then close up they came,
For they knew I was defenseless;
With throttle open I tried to run
For I know that I was helpless.

I was getting away while around me flew,
The tracers in all directions
They shot the dial, they ripped the wings
Sure they shot me up to perfection!

The belt that held poor Pard was shot,
It broke and let him fall;
On to the controls, I felt them jamb,
And I knew that that was all.

The right wing dropped into a slip
The machine then started to spin;
Three followed us down still shooting,
Just trying to do us in.

With only a little rudder control
And just a little stick;
I got the old bus out of the shot,
And managed to turn the trick.

To try to land upon the ground,
Would be certain death for us both;
I had hopes of Pard still living,
Then I saw blood come from his mouth.

A forest then was our only chance
To it we had to make it;
So toward that I worked our way,
And smashed headlong down through it.

The wings stayed high in the tree-tops,
We came to rests three feet from the dirt;
Then I yelled to Pard who was silent,
“Oh Pard! How bad are you hurt”.

My belt was quickly unfastened
Over the wreckage I made a leap;
And there in a sickening looking pile
Lay Pard, “lifeless”, in a heap.

Then to get him out of the wreck,
Was a thing I had to do;
I lifted and pulled and tugged,
Until I exhausted grew.

But finally I got him out of the wreck,
And by him on the ground I knelt;
There alone with him in those woods,
Only God knows how I felt.

He was the closest friend I ever had,
A model of his kind;
Healthy and strong in his body
Clean and straight in his mind.

A soldier in his “teens” had found us
And his feelings seemed to be deep;
When he saw how close I was,
On the verge of beginning to weep.

A tree stood near Pard’s head,
And there I carved into its bark,
His rank, his name, a cross and then,
The date beneath his mark.

I am not a “goodie” fellow
No one likes a “Man” like I;
Some say it is only women
Who pray, and weep, and cry.

But there in that Loney timber,
In range of the Mighty Gun;
I prayed to the Heavenly Guardian
For the sake of someone’s son.

How my own flesh wounds are almost well,
And soon will be no more;
But the wound in my heart will never heal
For it reaches to the very core.

As I sit here now, alone in my cell
My eyes dim till it is hard to see;
Remembering the look on his pitiful face,
When he looked up at me.

Strange things happen in peace or war,
To this we’ll all agree;
Oh God! if one of us had to go,
Then Lord why wasn’t it me.

But now you have chosen me to stay
In this land of joy and trouble;
Let me live and raise a boy to be,
A “Harold Sayre’s” double.

U.S. Air Service,
Returned Prisoner of War.

Hearing Corwin Hall

On Friday afternoon, after a long week filled with jet lag, frantic course preparation, and seemingly endless page proofs, I snuck off to hear UND’s music department perform their regular faculty showcase. I was particularly excited to hear Mike Wittgraf’s “Hearing Corwin Hall” performed. This piece developed from our work at the Wesley College Documentation Project which focused on studying the four buildings on UND’s campus associated with Wesley College prior to their demolition in May 2018. 

Last week, this piece debuted at the KYMA International Sound Symposium (KISS) in Santa Cruz earlier this month and this was the first time that it was performed in North Dakota. 

Here’s Mike Wittgraf’s abstract for the piece:

Hearing Corwin Hall uses sound sources from the third floor of two adjoining now-demolished buildings, resulting in a radical altering of the acoustic space of that location since the time of recording. It is fascinating to look up at the open space where the third floor used to be, twenty feet above the ground, and imagine the former building structure and its acoustic signature, as well as the mics, cables, and people present during the recording. Corwin and Larimore Halls, formerly on the campus of the University of North Dakota, demolished in May of 2018, were originally constructed in 1909 as part of the Methodist-Church-affiliated Wesley College, which later was absorbed by UND. For a period of time Corwin Hall housed the Music Department, and adjoining Larimore hall served as a women’s dormitory. Hearing Corwin Hall uses source sounds from a recording taken on March 13, 2018, after the buildings were abandoned, but before they were demolished. The recording took place on the third floor, which included the Corwin recital hall. Eight microphones were placed in a variety of locations. During the recording the composer presented an informal “memorial service” that included a keyboard synthesizer performance of five hymns from the Methodist hymnal, after which attendees were encouraged to wander the third floor and engage with the microphones in order to capture the acoustics of the space. Hearing Corwin Hall takes digital data from these sound sources and applies them to time-based parameters in a live-processing environment in order to symbolize the fleeting nature of time and objects, as well as highlight the acoustic signature of the space. Using time in this manner creates an altered state in contradiction to the usual passing of time. Video projection of historical and recent photos, as well as photos of the demolition and post-existence of the buildings accompany the music.


Our plan is for Mike to perform it once more on campus and to record it for publication. My hope is to have something suitable to publishing in Epoiesen over the next six months. Our article will have three themes to it (as I conceive of it not) which work at the intersection of archaeo-acoustics, the study of time, and the considerations of how we experience the recent past especially after it has been radically altered.

1. How Buildings Sound. Over the past few years, my friend Amy Papalexandrou and I have been talking about the acoustics of Byzantine churches (and she’s published on this here and Sharon Gerstel here). As Amy makes clear, sound plays a key role in how we experience our environment and it was particularly significant in the context of monumental ritual spaces in the Byzantine and post-Byzantine worlds. The location of particular features in Byzantine churches, the movement of individuals in the spaces, and the intentional and unintentional effects on the sound of ritual in these buildings contributed to how individuals experienced the rituals there.

For Corwin Hall, like the nave of a Byzantine, this has particular significance because the room where we performed the recording was a recital hall for the music department of Wesley College. The space featured a deliberate design with a proscenium arch, acoustic shell, and vaulted ceilings which gave the room particularly desirable acoustic characteristics. By arranging eight microphones throughout the building, including in key spaces in the recital hall, we were able to capture the sound of Mike Wittgraf’s performance of a series of hymns from the Weslyean hymnal as well as the ambient sounds of a group of people moving throughout the space. It makes sense to document the space a recital hall with sensitivity toward its acoustics just as archaeologists have long studied lines of sight in ancient buildings or traces of movement between rooms.

2. Time. Our work to document the sound of Corwin Hall, however, was an effort to capture the original sound of the room or the building. The room itself endured a series of significant modifications that included a solid wall with a single door along its north side that separated the recital hall’s acoustic shell from the rest of the room at the proscenium arch. Moreover, air-conditioning ducts were installed around the room’s perimeter and covered in acoustic tile. The windows lacked curtains when we recorded and the room was filled with discarded desks and other furniture removed from the rest of the building. In other words, the room as it was preserved was rather different from its original design. That being said, the original design persisted, even in its compromised state, and, as a result, our recording was a kind of state plan which showed the existing state of the space while also indicating its original arrangement.

Full set pdf 2018 03 13 07 04 56

 E103 pdf 2018 03 13 07 04 05

Archaeologists regularly use photography and illustration to accomplish this kind of time shifting. We indicate earlier phases of a building through the visual inspection of existing structures and combine the past and present states of a building or object in a plan. To accomplish this kind of acoustic time bending we also placed microphones (some of which seem to have worked… ) in both Corwin Hall and Larimore Hall to which the former recital hall was attached through the doorway in its northern wall. This door merged the spaces of the recital hall with the offices carved out of rooms in the former women’s dormitory and transformed its acoustic signature. This created new spaces to record and hear the sound of the recital hall and allowed us to record the sounds of the recital hall in a way consistent with its later use as a classroom and offices. Individuals were encouraged to move and interact with the microphones so that we could record the sound of people through the space from various locations. In effect, we were able to create an acoustic phase plan that, however imperfectly, captures both the original plan and the state plan. 

I’ve recent come to appreciate how our time in Corwin Hall both during the recording and during the larger research project served as what Sara Perry has called “bodystorming” as we discussed with Mike, the research team, and members of the public the history, space, and sound of the building. Our microphones captured our movement through this space and superimposed our research project, public engagement, and performance. 

3. Presenting Corwin Hall. Mike’s performance of “Hearing Corwin Hall,” however, was not a literal presentation of the sound of the space neatly arranged for the audience’s consideration. Mike’s piece sought to bring the audience not only into Corwin Hall as a space but into the experience of Corwin Hall as the site of a research project, as an example of change on campus, and in the process of being transformed from a standing building to well manicured lawn that preserves beneath the surface archaeological remains of the former college. To do this, Mike integrated sound, video, and performance(s) in “Hearing Corwin Hall” in distinctly evocative ways.   

Last week, I heard an interesting paper by Ruth Tringham (the first paper here) on the use of sound to evoke emotional (and intellectual) responses from archaeological sites and objects. A key point that Tringham makes is that archaeologists have been too dependent on texts (both written and spoken) to communicate the past. She considers the work of the composer György Ligeti who has used singers to create emotional states without the use of text and calls attention to Alice Waterson’s work “Digital Dwelling” (or here) on the Neolithic village of Skara Brea in Scotland which similarly uses video and audio, but not text, to communicate the experience of both the space and the past.

Mike’s piece integrates both the acoustic space of Corwin Hall with its final months and a number of related performances designed to recognize the importance of these places on UND’s campus and in the community. For example, both the video, the sounds, and Mike’s performance communicate the violence of the building’s demolition both physically and emotionally. The destruction of these buildings embody an ongoing conflict on campus between an administration who is eager for rapid economic, cultural, and physical transformation across campus and faculty and community members who remain committed to established practices and priorities. The violence of the piece (and its performance) captures how the destruction of these buildings – their transformation from classrooms and offices into archaeological remains – generated significant emotion across campus and in the community. 

What makes this piece even more unique is that Mike integrates our efforts to document and commemorate the building into his performance. My voice, for example, is merged with the acoustic signature of Corwin Hall and looped over and over so that the words have become unintelligible, but it nevertheless evokes the sound of a bustling campus building. Sheila Liming’s bagpipes, played during a campus ceremony to honor Harold Holden Sayre after whom one of the Wesley College buildings was named, likewise loop through the performance as the tension and anxiety builds. My voice reflects the campus din as well as the work of documenting the Wesley College. Sheila’s bagpipes communicates both the death of these buildings as visible monument as well as how we commemorated their memory. The blurring our experience of the buildings between their lives as active campus structures and as objects of abandonment, study, and commemoration.  

More importantly, “Hearing Corwin Hall” communicated the violent tension between destruction and commemoration, between standing buildings and archaeological remains, between tradition and progress,  through the linearity of texts, but through sound. This does not make the piece any less archaeological, however. It remains dense, nuanced, complex, rhythmic, and multivocal.  

I can’t wait to share it with a wider audience. 

The End of Wesley College

The final demolition of the four Wesley College buildings starts today on the campus of the University of North Dakota. I’m pretty bummed to think that next time I’ll be on campus, those buildings won’t be there. As readers of this blog know, I’ve been working in and around those buildings for a few months and have compiled an intriguing and, I think, compelling archive that documents their place on campus.

On the other hand, I do think that I did my part to document and preserve them, and I am still intrigued that there is more that I can do in the fall when I return to campus through documentary records, interviews, and compiling the vast store of data that we collected.

As I’ve followed the conversation on social and traditional media about the demolition of these buildings (and, in particular, listened to what Alexis Varvel, the most eloquent and persistent advocate of these buildings has had to say), it’s helped me think through what I’m going to say about the Wesley College buildings (when I get back to writing them up) is that the fate of the buildings emerged at an interesting intersection of three things:

1. The buildings were adapted for use on the contemporary university campus. This, on the one hand, made them more useful to the campus and ensured that they served as the home for a number of programs and departments over their long history. At the same time, this compromised their distinctive character and made them less unique buildings with unique functional characteristics and more like every other building on campus. As they approached being functionally the same as every other building both through perceptions and manipulations of their fabric, they endured the same fate as any other space on campus. When they no longer were useful, they could be destroyed.

2. When Wesley College folded, it made the history of the institution and its leaders, students, and donors faded in public memory. Because no one on UND’s campus really know who Edward Robertson was (and some folks on campus still try to correct my by saying “oh, you mean Elwyn Robinson.”). The Sayre family is unknown, the Corwin’s sell cars, and Larimore is town. These names no long evoke some kind of storied past that makes these monuments integral to campus life.

3. The dynamism of a campus in flux. One of the most intriguing aspects of the Wesley College buildings is that they were modern buildings, but also contemporary with another time. While they do evoke certain timeless properties, part of what makes them compelling is their distinctive (and, to be blunt, out-dated) aesthetics, proportions, and modularity. At the same time, I suspect that their modernity has made them vulnerable. They aren’t like the rest of campus and instead of fitting into any of the cohesive master plans for UND, they stand apart as the failed framework of an unrealized future. I sometimes wonder whether they’d be easier to save if these were a tepid college Gothic or some kind of universal red-brick building, they might have found a place or formed a relationship with the rest of campus.

Of course, it’s easy enough to also note that the distinctive character of these buildings should encourage our efforts to preserve them, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but campuses are dynamic places and they constantly work to remake their own image into coherent landscape informed by aesthetics, memory, and functionality. The visual language of a campus creates its own logic that we can think away (of course), but usually only in the service of another plan. These plans emerge as much through the casual and contingent juxtaposition of buildings and spaces as they do through intentional “master planning” efforts that construct and create traditions that interweave the contingent persistence of the past with meaning in the present.

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Letter to the Editor: Wesley College Buildings at UND

I don’t usually write letters to the editor, but I do appreciate the venerable format, and often find myself reading through the letters in my hometown broadsheet, the Grand Forks Herald.

This past week the Herald has produced two pieces on the destruction of the Wesley College buildings on UND’s campus. One was a news article by Andrew Hafner and the other an op-ed by Mike Jacobs. Just to add to the din, I penned a quick letter to the editor this morning. I’m never convinced that my letters will appear (my letter demanding that North Dakotan be made the official language of the state was never run), so I’ll post it here too:

Dear Editors,

I appreciate the recent coverage of the demolition of the Wesley College buildings on UND’s Campus.

University campuses are strange and often magical places. On the one hand, their traditions and monumentality represent a sense of place, scale, and history. On the other hand, the modern university is a progressive, forward-looking institution that look to the future of their students, communities, and society. At its best, the experience of a university campus embodies the former, and the research and teaching missions of the university embodies the latter.

This past spring ten students and friends helped me start to document the four buildings on UND’s campus associated with Wesley College. We learned about folks like Harold Holden Sayre, Frank Lynch, John Milton Hancock, and Edward Robertson who sought to create a transformative college in Grand Forks that partnered with UND to offer instruction in religion, music, and expression. In their day, the Wesley College buildings were eminently modern, using the novel Beaux Arts style with its modular dimensions and sophisticated material. They also drew upon Classical influences with their Greek key strong courses and striking Mediterranean rooflines rendered in red ceramic roof tile.

Today the manifest a failed dream. After the war, Wesley College faltered and UND, the College’s longtime partner and neighbor purchased the campus and eclipsed the College’s mission. This month UND will raze the last physical reminders of this experiment. Without a doubt, this is a sad thing, but like every college campus, UND’s campus is always undergoing renewal and transformation. The tension between the pull of tradition and the push of progress is what gives each campus their unique feeling and character.

In some ways, President Mark Kennedy’s vision for UND is no different that Edward Robertson’s vision for Wesley College over 100 years ago. Both looked to create a modern campus that embodies certain values, priorities, and a sense of place. For Robertson, the demolition of the buildings that bear his name and marks the end of his vision and dream. For Kennedy, this is just the beginning of his efforts to transform the campus. It will be left to future generations to judge whether Kennedy’s efforts will contribute to UND tradition or represent another failed vision for the North Dakota prairie. Either way, it’s unnerving and exciting to watch it play out. After all, we can always reclaim traditions, but the future will be forever beyond our grasp.

Remembering Harold Sayre

Today at 11 am we’re doing a little ceremony in memory of Harold Holden Sayre. For those of you who know your World War One history, the 11 am time has a certain significance. For those of you who read this blog, you know that our ceremony for Harold Sayre is part of the larger Wesley College Documentation Project

We’re live streaming the event on the Facebook Event Page here. You can download the program for the event here.

One of the great things about doing an event like this is the opportunity to thank everyone who made the Wesley College Documentation Project possible and especially my students in the WCDP Class.

Brian Larson and Michael Pieper at UND Facilities gave us remarkable access to these buildings and Brian served as a valued interpreter of the structures. Richard Rothaus, Kostis Kourelis, Joe Vacek, and Gordon Iseminger, walked through the buildings with us and helped us see things we’d have otherwise missed (literally and virtually). The UND Archives at the Chester Fritz Library’s Department of Special Collections patiently allowed us to move through their collection. Dana Sande and Bret Weber of the Grand Forks City Council, Anna Rand the UND student intern at the City of Grand Forks, and Jeff Wencl of the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission connected us to the community and the Grand Forks Air Force Base. Sheila Liming provided us with music today and Michael Wittgraf graciously recorded and performed at the final concert in Corwin Hall earlier this spring. 

Susan Caraher coordinated the moving parts of the today’e event, worked tirelessly to document the buildings with photographs and video, and served as the registrar for the data that the Wesley College Documentation Project collected.  


Excerpt from Poem from his Pilot at the Front,
Lt. Horace Shidler, U.S. Air Service, Returned Prisoner of War

And here the sadness of it begins,
As I tell this story to you;
And the sadness felt by me,
Is seldom felt by few.

Harold Sayre was a man of men,
Proud was I that he should be;
The man that handled the guns,
The protected the aft of we.

He was shot and fell against the tarrell,
And held by the belt around him;
For aft protection I knew I had none,
And I felt so helpless without him.

How my own flesh wounds are almost well,
And soon will be no more;
But the wound in my hear will never heal
For it reaches to the very core.

As I sit here now, alone in my cell
My eyes dim till it is hard to see;
Remembering the look on his pitiful face,
When he looked up at me.

Strange things happen in peace or war,
To this we’ll all agree;
Oh God! If one of us had to go,
The Lord why wasn’t it me!

But now you have chosen me to stay
In this land of joy and trouble;
Let me live and raise a boy to be,
A “Harold Sayre’s” double.

Wesley College Wednesday: What Next for Wesley College

It’s the time of year where I’m desperately trying to wrap up writing projects, grade papers, and get ready to decamp to Cyprus and Greece for the summer. It also tends to be the most social time of the academic year with friends and colleagues getting together in the milder weather excited about the our long emergence from the harsh winter. (And it’s time to spread mulch.)

IMG 2142

As part of this wrap up, I’ve started to think about what’s next for the Wesley College Documentation Project. On a practical level, I know that I have some more “data collecting” to do in the form of oral histories with folks who worked and lived in these buildings. I also look forward to the official HABS Level II report on the buildings as well as the results of drone photographs and laser scans of the buildings’ exteriors. On an intellectual level, however, I’m worried that as my attention shifts to other projects, the ideas that I’ve developed while hanging around these buildings regularly will wane. So my goal to day is to provide a quick sketch of a book that could come from the Wesley College Documentation Project. This doesn’t mean that I’m going to write the book, but these are what I’d write about if I decided to do that. This post is largely a more organized expansion of my “Five Fragments” post from a few weeks ago.

Chapter 1: The History of Wesley College

This chapter would outline the basic history of the college and its innovative approach to higher education. The main characters in this chapter would be Edward Robertson, Frank Lynch, A.J. Sayre, and John Hancock, whose support, funds, and vision built and sustained the college.

In many ways, these men embodied the national reach of Wesley College which drew on resources from the plains of Alberta to the lumber yards of California, the brokerages of Wall Street, and the farms of the North Dakota prairie. In many ways, the funding sources and personal relationships at the core of Wesley College’s growth and success tells the story of the development of institutions in the American west and how, despite the peripheral status of North Dakota, it was able to consume a range of resources in the first decades of the 20th century that demonstrated deeply reciprocal ties between members of the North Dakota diaspora and their former home. 

The chapter would also document the decline of the Wesley College experiment over the middle years of the 20th century as the Great Depression, World War Two, and the changing landscape of higher education in the post-war period marginalized Wesley College and ultimately led to its complete absorption by its next door neighbor the University of North Dakota. 

Chapter 2: The Fabric of Wesley College: Sayre, Larimore, Corwin, and Robertson Halls

This would be the most empirical part of the project which would include publishing our granular documentation of all four Wesley College buildings and demonstrating how that the far-ranging ties between Wesley College, its donors, and its visionary leader, Edward Robertson, produced remarkably cosmopolitan buildings. The Beaux Art style provided a modern, modular, and sophisticated architectural form for the early 20th-century college campus. The master plans for Wesley College embodied the ambitions of Robertson and his donors and, while this ambition was unrealized, in the end, the buildings stood for over 100 years as reminders of his vision. 

The second part of this chapter would involve publishing the room-by-room documentation of the architecture of the Wesley College buildings that considered each room as a archaeological and architectural story. The sequences of walls, doors, remodeling, and renovation demonstrates both the powerful persistence of the original plan as well as the changing function and needs of these buildings as they become part of the UND campus. Of particular interest will be how the modularity and regularity of the Beaux Arts design facilitated the later trajectory of these spaces from functionally distinctive and even prestigious rooms on campus to spaces that could serve multiple, changing purposes. As the rooms became more anonymous, they became more easy to exchange for other rooms across campus and the buildings, for all their sophisticated modern form, became obsolete.      

Chapter 3: Assemblages of Abandonment

In Chapter 3, the book would transition from historical narrative and architectural description to more complex analysis. The main part of this considers the assemblages associated with the abandonment of these buildings in the months prior to their demolition. The Wesley College Documentation Project considers the assemblages present in three spaces: a group of faculty offices, faculty research spaces, and the teaching space of a university honors program. Each of these spaces reveals different attitudes toward discard and curation and speaks to the uneven but clearly quickening pace of change during the late-20th and early 21st century. 

In particular, the assemblages present in these rooms reveal what some archaeologists of the American West have called “boomsurfing,” which are the irregular patterns of curation, recycling, and discard that characterize the irregular pattern of booms and busts present both in higher education and, more specifically, in the economy of North Dakota and the Northern Plains. The will be a section on our inventory of desks from Larimore Hall and a catalogue of objects from the building as well.   

Chapter 4: Mediating Memory

The final chapter will reflect on the strategies that we’ve used to mediate the memory of the these buildings, their occupants, their history, and our archaeological work. It will consider three examples of memories inscribed in the fabric of the buildings themselves: the changing of the name of Sayre Hall from commemorating its donor to commemorating the donor’s late son, Harold Sayre in 1918, a series of inscription on a glass window in Sayre Hall which names three residents in the early 20th century, and the inscriptions on a series of bricks at the southeast corner of Sayre Hall. These inscriptions reflect formal and informal traditions of memory and movement in the building and across the landscape.

Second, this chapter will describe two rituals organized by the Wesley College Documentation Project to commemorate these buildings. The first was a concert of funeral hymns by Mike Wittgraf of the UND Department of Music. He performed the hymns in the Corwin Hall recital room and we recorded them on a series of microphones throughout Corwin-Larimore Hall. The music itself and the use of the Corwin Hall recital room evoked the memory of the pipe organ installed in that space and the acoustics of that room. The arrangement of the microphones both in the recital hall and in Larimore, however, brought the commemorative concert to the last phase of the building by recording the music as it flowed between spaces that would have been quite separate in the building’s original plan. This diachronic concern sought to embrace the performance of change through time by both recognizing the past and mediating it in the present (and has obvious parallels with, for example, the performance of Mozart’s piano sonatas on modern pianos in ways that acknowledge the sound and limits of their earlier instruments). This section will also describe the memorial service for Harold Sayre which we will hold tomorrow outside Robertson Hall to recognize that Sayre Hall was a memorial and that while the building will disappear, its memory should not. There is a natural parallel between this event and the dedication of Robertson Hall that took place in 1930 in a similar location.

Finally, we will discuss how our own work in and around the buildings and the Wesley College archives served to create, cultivate, and preserve the memory of these buildings and their institutions. Archaeology can bridge the gap between informal commemorative practices and formal rituals, and the work of the Wesley College Documentation Project (and indeed any publications from this project) serves this purpose.

5. Modernity and Memory on a College Campus. The conclusion to the book would return to the history of Wesley College, the various campus plans, and the construction of memory at UND (and on college campuses in general). It would emphasize how college campuses – like certain cities – construct their identity at the intersection of their historical architecture and rituals and progressive reputation. Universities have always served to move society forward through reflection on the past and cutting-edge technology. Campus have served as laboratories where faculty and students take risks in the name of significant rewards, but also liminal places where students experience formative rites of passage as they transition into adulthood. The maintenance of college campuses as mnemonic landscapes ensures that universities can continue to attract donors, celebrate past accomplishments, and position their missions as outside of the pressures of the contemporary world. At the same time, campus are dynamic and vibrant places in a constant state of renewal. The balance between these two trends frequently parallels the tensions between faculty and administrators, faculty and students, and alumni and the university community.

By recognizing this, we can locate our own efforts to create formal memories through rituals and archaeological practices as both an efforts to inscribe campus with our own view of its past as well as to frame the future of university. 

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Remembering Harold Sayre and Wesley College

For all my readers in Grand Forks or Fargo, please consider joining us  at 11 AM on Thursday May 3, 2018, in front of Sayre Hall on campus, for a small ceremony to recognize the sacrifice of Harold Holden Sayre. Sayre was killed in 1918 at the Battle of Saint-Mihiel and in 1919, Sayre Hall was renamed in his memory. The Wesley College buildings on the UND campus will be razed this summer.

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The event will be and should run for about a half an hour. We’ve set up a Facebook event page. Do let us know if you plan to attend so we can make sure to have enough seating!

It will bring together representatives from the Grand Forks Air Force Base (Sayre was in the Army Air Service), the city of Grand Forks, the Wesleyan community, and the university with brief remarks from various individuals and a bit of music. 

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This event is part of the Wesley College Documentation Project which is a collaboration between the history department at UND, UND Facilities, and the UND Honors. Honors students have spent hours this semester documenting the Wesley College buildings and digging through UND’s Special Collections at the Chester Fritz library to understand the unique history of the four Wesley College buildings and their donors.

Readers of this blog are likely aware that I’ve been producing fairly regular reports on our work in the Wesley College buildings. I’ve also produced a collection of letters from Wesley College president emeritus, Edward Robertson, written in 1935 amid a financial crisis at the college. You can download those here. Finally, I’ve put together this little two-page brief on Harold Sayre and Wesley College. You can download that here.

Wesley College in the High Plains Reader

Last night my social media feeds blew up with the publication of a feature story in the High Plains Reader about the impending demolition of the four Wesley College buildings that the Wesley College Documentation Project has worked to document.

The article basically argues that the Wesley College buildings stand as monuments to the local opposition to the Ku Klux Klan in Grand Forks and, as such, the university should do all they can to preserve the buildings. Taking a cue from the recent controversy over Confederate monuments in the South, local historian Alexis Varvel proposed that destroying these buildings gives the Alt-Right a victory by erasing the memory of a courageous institution in the face of Grand Forks’ racially charged past. I was interviewed for the article and tried to offer a counter narrative or at least a more subtle reading of the situation, but, as so often happens on deadlines and with limited copy space, my views were a bit truncated.

The article is troubling on many levels, and I hesitate to engage with the arguments here, in part, because I think that the effort to save these buildings comes from a good place. It is not meant, for example, to be another effort to saddle the university with obligations that its budget cannot sustain. Nor is it, necessarily, another example of oppositional politics that sees everything done by the University of North Dakota and its administration as inherently bad, evil, corrupt, and corrosive. Finally, whatever naivety that folks like Alexis Varvel demonstrates toward the potential of these buildings doesn’t come from a place of ignorance or confusion, but from a deeply optimistic attitude toward the potential to find solutions to challenging problems.

In fact, I see Varvel, who is quoted extensively in the article, as an ally in making sure that the history of North Dakota, UND, and Wesley College are better known. Responding to some of the elements in this article, I suppose this is part of the risks and responsibilities of dealing with local history. 

First, the reporter mangles the basic history of Wesley College and the monuments. He conflates the architecture of the buildings themselves with the architectural history of UND’s campus. The buildings were not designed by Joseph Bell DeRemer, but the New York City architect, A. Wallace McRae. They’re not Tudor revival or College Gothic, at all, but Beaux Arts. In some ways, they stand opposed to the College Gothic of Joseph Bell DeRemer’s buildings on UND’s campus (e.g. Merrifield Hall) or their successors from Wells and Denbrook (like the Chester Fritz Library).

Second, Wesley College never merged with UND and certainly didn’t in 1905. From its founding in 1905 until it was purchased by UND in 1965, Wesley College was an independent institution in a cooperative relationship with UND. The emphasis on the rivalry between the two schools in the article was misplaced; throughout most of their history, the two institutions had cordial relations and collaborated extensively. Friction over music instruction simmered below the surface at times, but rarely exploded into full blow controversies.

Third, Sayre Hall was renamed in honor of Harold Holden Sayre who was not a lumber baron, but a young man who died in World War I. He was only son of A.J. Sayre, originally from Harvey, North Dakota, who enlisted in the U.S. Army in the Great War and served in the Army Air Corp as a gunner on a bomber. He was killed in action in the Battle of Saint-Mihel in 1918 and the building was renamed as a memorial to his life.

The irony is that by getting these little facts wrong, the past isn’t so much misrepresented as overwritten and appropriated for another cause; in this case, Varvel is looking to use the history of Wesley College to speak to the long history of racial tensions on UND campus, in the community, and in the state. This isn’t a bad thing, but by overwriting the history of these buildings with another narrative (and one that is particular careless with certain elements of the buildings’ architectural and institutional history) this too is an act of forgetting.

My point isn’t to suggest that one narrative should have preeminence over another, but to demonstrate how the past and the present on university campuses refract to create meaningful landscapes. The narrative that Alexis Varvel is promoting, however well meaning, is problematic, for a number of reasons. 

First, the idea that these monuments represent opposition to the Klan in the community or that Wesley College was somehow a bastion of liberalism opposite the conservative UND, is at best, a caricature of the deep involvement on UND’s campus with progression politics across the state in the first part of the 20th century. While it is fair to state that progressive issues and attitudes toward race did not map as easily onto each other as perhaps they do in the 21st century, figures like the Sociologist John Gillette, one of the great “old men” of UND, advanced the cause of the progressive Non-Partisan League as well as women’s suffrage, and his wife withdrew from some of the same Klan dominated elections that Varvel discusses in the HPR article out of concern that the Klan might support her candidacy. Opposing “conservative” UND to “liberal” Wesley College runs the risk of obscuring the real complexities of progressive politics and race in Grand Forks, and while I would not want to offer “complexity” as an excuse for racism, a more subtle reading of 20th century North Dakota politics presents lessons that are no less significant for our society today.      

More than that, reducing the history of Wesley College to the courageous fight against the Klan and transforming these buildings to the status of a monument, ignores the contemporary situation. The real fight against the debased ideologies of the Klan and the Alt-right doesn’t come from monuments or architecture alone, but from what goes on around and in those buildings on campus.

Preserving the buildings of Wesley College is an additional burden at the very time when budget constraints are compromising UND’s ability to perform its educational mission. In fact, the very progressive values that Varvel celebrates in the Wesley College buildings are themselves being challenged on campuses across the U.S. as those who see higher education as a luxury or even a threat seek to devalue its mission. Making the work of progressive voices at UND more difficult, by pushing us to preserve significant, but ultimately obsolete, expensive, and compromised buildings, undermines real efforts to keep alive the mission of institutions like Wesley College. 

To be blunt: The work of my students, myself, UND facilities, my colleagues across campus and in the community to study, celebrate, and document these building through the Wesley College Documentation Project does more to continue the real values of Wesley College, and individuals like Edward Robertson, George Henry, A.J. Sayre, Frank Lynch, and the others, who funded and built these buildings, than fighting to save the buildings. That being said, Varvel is right, of course; we should preserve the memory of courageous individuals who worked to create a more just world, but preserving the past should never compromise building the future.

Wesley College Wednesday: Boomsurfing, Inscribed Bricks, and Research Spaces

As the semester winds down, it feels like more and more things have to happen in less and less time, but even as I’m feeling pretty pressurized these days, I continue to peck away at the Wesley College Documentation Project. In fact, I’m going to be up in Corwin and Larimore Hall this afternoon trying to trace wall scars for the first floor of Corwin Hall.

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In the meantime, I’ve taken another swing at writing up the history and material culture of the fourth floor of Larimore Hall. This space produced a particularly rich assemblage associated with a group of rooms used as psychology research space. The entire floor was remodeled in 1979 when the central hallway was removed and the space reorganized into a series of experiment rooms, control rooms, and storage spaces.

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Superficially the space looks quite different from the series of well-organized dormitory suites flanking a central hallway, but a more careful examination of the walls shows how the original wall courses and sometimes the original walls continue to structure the arrangement of rooms.

Here’s a draft of my effort to document the fourth floor of Larimore Hall

Among the more interesting aspects of this warren of rooms is the assemblage of older furnishings and devices. In analyzing this assemblage, I’ve been a bit taken by Margaret Semons Pursers’ concept of boomsurfing recently summarized in the edited volume Historical Archaeology through a Western Lens (Nebraska 2018). She uses this term to explain the “oddly archaic, carefully curated assemblages of machine, tools, and structures and material culture on many Western sites, the logic of which lay in functional flexibility, localized maintenance, and portability rather than in state of the art sophistication.” 

While not all of this definition applies to the assemblage of outdated furnishings, obsolete computers and technology, and oddly reconfigured rooms, her idea of boomsurfing explains the strategies that both institutions like UND apply to construction, maintenance, and even demolition of buildings and individual faculty members apply to curating assemblages. As a Western institution, UND enjoys and endures the vagaries of economic boom and busts and the campus demonstrates the patch work of successfully negotiating the challenges of uneven and sporadic support. Individual faculty members, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, have long been boomsurfers as grant funding for research ebbs and flows in irregular patterns particularly when compared the more regular need for equipment, furnishings, and other resources. In this context, the diversity of the assemblage present in the research rooms on the fourth floor of Larimore Hall is more than simply hoarding, but likely reflects conscious strategies adapted to the syncopated pace of booms and busts in academia. 

(Anyone who has spent time in archaeological dig houses and labs will see similarly irregular assemblages comprised of new and old, curated and neglected, and oddly adapted equipment!)

Finally, thanks to one of our students, we were able to document some inscribed bricks from Sayre Hall. Located primarily on the southeastern corner of the building there are a series of inscriptions dating, it would seem, largely to the first third of the 20th century. The location of these inscriptions likely represents a rather visible and accessible place in the flow of people from the eastern entrance of Sayre Hall toward western part of UND campus following a well established path. 

The earliest inscription from the group that we can date is from 1909 and accompany the initials B.K.

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The other two datable inscriptions which name a H.R. Wold and a W.L. McEwen both of whom graduated from UND in 1930 (and then received B.S. degrees in medicine in 1932). Robertson Hall was constructed in 1929 and opened in 1930, and this made this little section of Sayre Hall somewhat less prominent. This suggests that these inscriptions were likely produced in 1928 or 1927.

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Another inscription is, in fact, obscured by Robertson Hall dating it to before 1929.

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For more on the Wesley College Documentation Project, go here.





The Letters of Edward P. Robertson of Wesley College

This semester, I’ve been working with a remarkable group of students on the Wesley College Documentation Project. The goal of this project is to document the four buildings on campus associated with Wesley College, a unique co-institutional college that worked alongside UND to provide music, religious education, and housing for students enrolled in both UND and Wesley College. As part of that project, I’ve spent a good bit of time with the Wesley College papers and have become transfixed by the work and personality of the College’s first president, Edward P. Robertson. I thought I might share some of his personality with a wider audience by putting together a dossier of his letters from 1935, five years after he had retired as president of Wesley College. The letters were written during the Great Depression when the fate of Wesley College was anything but certain. Robertson’s dedication, persistence, and charm comes through in these letters composed during these difficult times.

Here’s the link. This is just a first draft of this work. Here’s my temporary cover with the preface below:

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The Letters of Edward Robertson, President Emeritus, Wesley College, from 1935


This collection of letters by Dr. Edward P. Robertson is the first draft of a hazy idea that I’ll attempt to explain in this short preface.

Dr. Edward Peter Robertson was the first president of Wesley College in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He was hired by the board of trustees of Red River Valley University in Whapeton, North Dakota in 1899. After a few years in Whapeton, he and the board decided that Grand Forks, North Dakota offered better opportunities for an institution of higher learning, and he successfully oversaw the moving of Red River Valley University from Whapeton to Grand Forks, where he rechristened it, Wesley College, in 1905. The reasons for this move are both complex and simple. Robertson felt that there was a better chance for the college to attract students and raise the necessary funds to operate if it were closer to the center of the state’s population which was largely concentrated in the Red River valley. From early on, Roberston recognized the importance of raising money from donors for Wesley College to succeed, and this understanding would shape his presidency and legacy.

This is not to suggest that he neglected the intellectual and spiritual aspects of running a Methodist College. In fact, the other reason that he founded Wesley College in Grand Forks was because of a remarkable arrangement he struck with the President of the University of North Dakota, Webster Merrifield. Merrifield and Robertson agreed that Wesley College would offer housing and courses for University of North Dakota students in religion, music, and elocution and expression and that these courses would count for credit at UND.

In 1908, 1909, and 1910, the first of three buildings at Wesley College opened, Sayre Hall, Larimore Hall, and Corwin Hall. The first two were men’s and women’s dormitories respectively and the third offered space for the music program and university offices. It is no exaggeration to say that in its first two decades, Wesley College moved from strength to strength with programs regularly enrolling as many as 400 students at various levels. They also maintained the attention of loyal and generous donors who ensured that the College had more than tuition and housing fees alone could provide.

The 1920s and early-1930s, however, were more difficult times. The agricultural crisis of the 1920s was bad for North Dakota, Wesley College students, and local donors. This did not discourage Robertson from securing funding from John Milton Hancock for the construction of what would become Robertson Hall which opened in 1930 and which completed a plan for the Wesley College first conceived in 1905.

The same year also saw Robertson’s retirement from the office of President of Wesley College, but the onset of the Great Depression and the worsening of the College’s financial situation, meant that his services were more needed than ever. Almost as soon as he had retired, the 70-year-old Robertson began to canvass his long-time donors for the increasingly urgent needs of the College. Unfortunately, many of these families suffered from the same economic woes as so many Americans and could no longer afford the same generosity that they had shown in the past. More troubling still is that some of the long-time supporters of the College had begun to question whether this undertaking would survive.

Frank Lynch, one of the more devoted supporters of Wesley College, withdrew his support and then agreed to donate more only if Wesley College could raise some funds first. Unfortunately, the details of this agreement remain a bit obscure (although some or another document may well emerge from the archives illuminating the agreement in detail). It appears as though Lynch offered Wesley College $150,000 in his will for an endowment in addition to $25,000 which he would make available immediately if College’s could manage to raise the necessary funds to pay its debt of $60,000 and to cover operating expenses. Using this offer, Robertson began a letter writing campaign to raise the needed funds.

The letters published here come from the Wesley College Papers (UA63, Box 1) currently housed in UND’s Chester Fritz Library’s Department of Special Collection’s University Archives. They all date from the year 1935 and document Robertson’s efforts to raise money on the basis of the Frank Lynch offers and to manage or eliminate the College’s debt. They reflect both Roberston’s determination and passion for Wesley College as well as a kind of congenial and person style of writing. The letters reveal the economic challenges of the time, extraordinary acts of generosity and compassion, and even some of the mundane obstacles that face anyone attempting to do good. They also lay bare Robertson’s occasional frustrations, disappointments, and genuine concern surrounding the fate of the institution to which he devoted his life.

More than that, they’re touching to read.

This publication is part of the Wesley College Documentation Project which is a multidisciplinary project to celebrate both the history of Wesley College and its unique place in the history of the University of North Dakota. In June of this year, the four major buildings of Wesley College are slated for demolition, but it is our hope that documenting these buildings and the Wesley College story will keep the College’s memory alive.

As I noted in the onset of this document, this is a draft publication which will hopefully develop over time and be joined by other works that tell the story of Wesley College. We hope the story of this college and the characters who shared its vision offers enduring perspectives that continue to have meaning today.

Special thanks goes to the ten students who have worked with me on this project and the staff of UND’s Special Collections and UND’s Facilities Department who have facilitated our research throughout.

William Caraher

Associate Professor
Department of History
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota