Amos A. Lawrence & Reeder Smith

 

When Amos A. Lawrence took over the loan agreement between his father and Eleazar Williams, he had no way of knowing that the result would one day be the city of Appleton. Like his father, Amos A. Lawrence was a wealthy Boston merchant, engaged in the manufacture and sale of textiles and knit goods. The younger Lawrence, born on July 31, 1814, was a staunch abolitionist who worked tirelessly to end slavery in the United States. He is credited with the success of the Emigrant Aid Society, which helped anti-slavery forces move into Kansas and make it a free (anti-slave) state. In addition, the Kansas State University system began with a school financed by him in Lawrence' Kansas. Mr. Lawrence and his wife, the former Sarah Appleton, had seven children.

Amos A. Lawrence had made the mortgage agreement with Eleazar Williams solely as a business arrangement. The land served simply as collateral for the loan, to be held only until Williams could repay the money that he borrowed. But, when it became clear that Williams could not repay the loan, Mr. Lawrence suddenly found himself with over 5,000 acres in the wilderness of the Wisconsin Territory -- land he never wanted. Looking for a way to increase the value of his holdings, Mr. Lawrence wrote to his Green Bay agent, a Mr. Eastman, that he wanted to "establish an institution of higher learning or college on the Williams land." Mr. Lawrence was hoping that a college would attract other settlers, enabling him to sell the land at a good profit. Mr. Lawrence wrote to Eastman that he preferred a school organized by the Episcopal Church, "but that is out of the question, as our form of worship is only adopted slowly and will never be popular in this country." Instead, Mr. Lawrence thought that the Methodist Church would make a good sponsor, for he had a "high opinion of the adoption of principles of the Methodism to the people of the West."

At about this time, as if sent by fate, Mr. Lawrence was visited by the Reverend Reeder Smith, a Methodist minister, who was to have a lasting impact on the city of Appleton. Reeder Smith was born on January 11, 1804, in Pittston, Pennsylvania, the son of the Reverend Newton Smith, who was originally from Connecticut. Little is known of Reeder Smith's first years, other than his early association with the Methodist Church. In 1840, as an ordained minister, Smith moved to Michigan where he served as a circuit preacher for 15 years. On July 6, 1846, he married Eliza Pierce Kimball of Rockport, Massachusetts. Eventually they had five children, two boys and three girls.

By 1845, Smith had accepted a job with the Wesleyan Seminary of Albion, Michigan. As the seminary was facing financial problems common to most new schools in the west, Smith was sent to Boston in search of wealthy donors. Like Eleazar Williams before him, Smith sought out the well-known philanthropist Amos A. Lawrence. Mr. Lawrence, however, was not interested in a Michigan seminary. Instead, he told Smith about his idea of establishing a college on his property in Wisconsin, and made Smith a proposition. If the Methodist Church would raise $10,000 for a college to be built on his land in Wisconsin, Mr. Lawrence would provide an additional $10,000 of his own. That was good enough for Smith. He resigned his position with the Wesleyan Seminary and headed for Wisconsin.

In Wisconsin, Methodist Church leaders were delighted to hear of Mr. Lawrence's offer, and immediately pledged the necessary amount. A committee was then appointed, consisting of Smith, George H. Day, and Henry R. Coleman, to prepare a charter for the new school. Following a request by Mr. Lawrence, the charter granted religious freedom to the school's officers, professors, and students, and forbade the indoctrination of any religious sect. Mr. Lawrence was less pleased with a provision that the school should teach both men and women, a rather radical idea at the time. Nonetheless, Mr. Lawrence reluctantly agreed to that provision, making his school the second co-educational college in the United States (after Oberlin College in Ohio). On January 17, 1847, the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature granted a charter to the school, which was named the Lawrence Institute.

Another committee, consisting of Smith, Coleman, and the Reverend William H. Sampson, began to search for a site for the new school. One of the committee's first decisions was against the land that Mr. Lawrence had acquired from Eleazar Williams. Smith wrote to Mr. Lawrence, telling him that the property was not appropriate for the institute. One reason Smith gave was that river access would be too difficult, but the more important reason was that the school would be too near the French and Indian settlements in the area. The property is "too far from the land upon which Yankees settle," Smith wrote. He and the committee preferred a site farther from what they saw as the improper influences of Green Bay.

Back in Boston, Mr. Lawrence was not happy with the reports he was getting, After all, the original agreement with Smith called for a construction of a college on the Williams property. That was a main reason for funding the school in the first place, to increase the value of that property. Nevertheless, Mr. Lawrence was patient, and waited for further word from Smith on the committee's selection of a new location. Looking for a site on the Fox River, Smith's committee located what they felt was the ideal spot at Grand Chute, less than a mile downstream of Paul Grignon's home and trading post, White Heron. In a letter to Mr. Lawrence, Smith called the site "one of the most romantic and enchanting spots I ever saw." Smith was impressed by the land's unspoiled beauty, the ease of transportation, the fertility of the soil, and the potential for water power from the rushing rapids. Apparently Smith's enthusiasm was persuasive, for Mr. Lawrence agreed to the Grand Chute site and reaffirmed his financial support.

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