Akron was a booming metropolis of about 10,000 people in 1870, home to agricultural equipment manufacturers, a large cereal company, mines, clay products producers, and of course the Ohio-Erie and Penn-Ohio canals. The Universalists were a largely rural religious denomination in the Unitarian tradition. Members had already founded Tufts and two other colleges. As much as anything, they wanted to build a school in Ohio to affirm their place in the religious mainstream.
At the time, Akronites still had strong ties to the East Coast. Ohio was part of the original Connecticut Western Reserve, and migrants from the east wanted the same quality of education for their children that they had back home. So the creation of a college was an important challenge to everyone who believed a first-rate college would help the area grow and prosper.
Since its very start, the University has thrived on the generosity and ambitions of its benefactors. John R. Buchtel persuaded fellow business leaders and colleagues to join him in raising funds to build and endow the college.
Inspired by his enthusiasm and generosity, 13 businesses and 100 individuals matched the pledge. Following construction of an impressive building, Buchtel College opened for business September 11, 1872, with 46 students in the collegiate program and 171 in the academy, a preparatory program.
The school was sustained during its early years by generous gifts from many prominent individuals, businesses, and ordinary citizens. Facilities and equipment are vital to any college, and were supported by many. The College's first president, Reverend Sullivan McCollester, donated his natural history collection, and General Lucius V. Bierce contributed his collection of "fossils, minerals, and other natural phenomena" in 1873. The same year, Bierce helped establish the library that bears his name, giving both funds and books.
John Buchtel gave a challenge grant for a "Woman Professorship" in 1873, one of the first such professorships in the nation. The next year, he and fellow farm machinery manufacturer John F. Seiberling offered funds to help pay off the College's debt. In 1875, tireless in his support, Buchtel established a life insurance policy that named the College's endowment as beneficiary.
In 1887, businessman and trustee George Crouse contributed half the cost for "the finest gymnasium west of the Alleghenies." Cereal magnate Ferdinand Schumacher contributed to the Crouse gymnasium and, not coincidentally, provided free flour and cereal to College students. In 1893, both men joined John F. Eddy to give a significant amount for a science facility, later to become Olin Hall.
Scholarships, prizes, endowed chairs, and professorships have been important to the University since its beginning. John Purdue, founder of Purdue University, initiated an annual scholarship in the 1870s. In 1872, Mrs. George Messenger established the first endowed chair, the Professorship of Mental and Moral Philosophy, in memory of her husband. In 1875, Mrs. Chloe Pierce created the Pierce Professorship to honor her late husband, an early College benefactor. Early academic awards included the Ashton Prize in Oratory, created with a gift from Oliver Ashton in 1887.
By the 1890s, endowed chairs were an accepted part of Buchtel College, thanks to such benefactors as Henry Ainsworth of Lodi, Ohio, who funded a professorship in mathematics; Reverend William Ryder of Chicago, who began one in elocution and rhetoric; and Reverend Andrew Wilson, who began one in theology. The list of other early benefactors reads like a "Who's Who" of turn-of-the-century Akron.
Even as the 19th century drew to a close, John R. Buchtel continued his support, eventually willing all he had, upon his death, to the college he loved. He gave nearly $500,000 to Buchtel College during his lifetime, a sum that would equal nearly $9 million today.
Although Buchtel College's first 20 years were academically successful by most standards, the College's start-up costs exceeded its revenue. Debt was the norm, made worse by the brutal depression that rocked the United States in 1893. In Akron, the farm machinery industry became a casualty, sending the city into a downward economic spiral.
Buchtel College suffered through it with austere spending measures and by suspending construction of a planned Academy building. Adding to the school's financial woes was a disastrous 1899 fire that claimed the original College building, "Old Buchtel."
The dawn of the new century did not diminish philanthropic support for the College, however. In 1904, William Pitt Curtis of Wadsworth, Ohio, provided major funds for a women's dormitory, and in 1905 Andrew Carnegie announced a challenge grant that resulted in construction of the Knight Chemical Laboratory, named for Dr. Charles S. Knight, founder of the University's Chemistry Department.
A strong advocate of applied science, Knight developed and taught the nation's first rubber chemistry course in response to the needs of the fledgling Akron rubber industry. His academic enterprise, along with the College's trustees and friends, helped establish the school's strong relationship with the industry — a linkage that became the cornerstone for the pre-eminence in science and technology the University enjoys to this day.
During Buchtel College's first 40 years, John Buchtel had been its only truly major benefactor. Others had been very generous but not to the same extent. The Universalists, while "utterly sincere" in their desire for a first-rate college, had never been able to provide a great deal of financial support. The College's ties to the church were formally broken in 1907, when the College decided to participate in the Carnegie Foundation's teacher pension plan, which was not available to sectarian institutions.
The school's chronic financial squeeze continued, however, and was felt in 1908 when the Ohio College Association adopted a requirement that member institutions have endowments of at least $200,000. Because Buchtel College had only half that amount, President Augustus Church launched a plan to raise the endowment to $300,000 by year-end. After a very strenuous campaign, 1,700 people had pledged only $98,000, with the most generous gifts coming from rubber industry entrepreneurs.