A century ago, in the 4 a.m. pre-dawn cold at the square frame house at the University of Nebraska's State Agricultural Farm, a lamp is lit and S.W. "Dad" Perin starts the coal fire in the living room base burner. He settles down to read his National Geographic; an hour of quiet before the work day begins. By five, Perin is out the door, singing and swinging his lantern. With the boys, he tends to the milking.
Mrs. Perin is in the kitchen, biscuits rising in the large wood-burning range. Soon, the family and the boys gather for breakfast: eggs, fried potatoes, ham, and the hot biscuits piled high with homemade jam. The children - Charley, Dale, Edna, and Hazel - are bundled off to school, Mrs. Perin and the hired girl clear breakfast, and Mr. Perin and the boys head out for the day's work. There are animals to care for, stalls and pens to clean, hay to haul. Later, Perin will make his daily check of the weather station, recording the information in his little book, and take the team and wagon into town to get the mail. Perhaps he will return with some professors from campus for a look around the farm and one of Mrs. Perin's sumptuous dinners. Since 1889, Perin has been the Superintendent of the State Agricultural Farm, and his duties are extensive and varied.
The University of Nebraska's 1869 charter provided for a College of Agriculture, but the College was not formally established by the Board of Regents until June of 1872. A few years later, the University acquired approximately two acres of saline land near the state fair grounds for the purpose of a model farm. When this site proved unsatisfactory, the Regents purchased the Moses M. Culver farm east of town - the present site of East Campus. In their 1874 report, the Regents wrote:
A purchase of a well improved farm at a moderate distance from the University was effected. The farm contains 320 acres, for which $55 an acre was paid. The farm is well adapted to the purposes of the College, and is in a high state of cultivation
- 1874 Regents Report
The Perin Family
By the time S.W. Perin took over the superintendency, the concept of a model farm had given way to that of an experimental farm. The new farm campus, as it was often called, was divided into 40-acre test plots, pioneering work to develop a hog cholera serum was underway, and numerous crop and livestock experiments to explore the rich agricultural promise of Nebraska were in progress.
The Perins moved into the white frame house, originally built in 1875 as a dormitory for the few students enrolled in the college. In fact, it was the availability of affordable housing that brought the first handful of agricultural students to the university. Mistrust of "book learning" and the lack of eligible students with a high school diploma meant that the College of Agriculture had no students for its first two years of existence.
Although during the early decades all instruction in agriculture was given on the university's main campus, by boarding with the Perins on the farm campus, the students had the benefit of hands-on experience through the ten hours of work they were required to perform each day and the continuity of living with a farm family. They were, according to the College catalog of 1875, "far enough away from the city to be out of the way of its temptations to idleness and worse, and yet near enough to enjoy all its literary and public advantages."
The Perin house with its inviting front porch, was the focal point of the farm campus. Set among cedars and lilacs, it resonated with the love, laughter, and hard work of the family and student boarders.
In 1895, the farm campus of S.W. Perin is growing, but still in its infancy. While Dean Charles Bessey has made dramatic improvements during the latter part of the 1880's, no permanent buildings of consequence have yet been erected and, in spite of the early efforts of horticulture Professor F.W. Card, the grounds remain largely undeveloped. Within a few years, however, with the erection of the first campus building used for instruction - the Old Dairy Building (1896) - and the Agricultural Experiment Station Building (1899, now Agricultural Communications), and with the continued planting of trees and shrubs, a respectable agricultural campus is beginning to take shape. And as the Perin family and their student boarders finish the day's work and sit down to another supper of roast, gravy, potatoes, home-canned vegetables, fresh baked bread, and pie, they cannot imagine the future of their campus home.
By 1910, a trolley will run down Holdrege Street, connecting the Perin house and the campus to the city. By this time, academic courses in agriculture and home economics will be taught in the eight new buildings which grace the campus, and the core of campus - The Mall - will be taking shape under the horticultural direction of W.H. Dunman, a former worker on the estate of King George VII and campus landscape gardener until 1946.
In another ten years, Holdrege Street will be paved and the campus will be fully developed - buildings for every area of study erected and Dunman's oak-lined mall formally laid out with cannas and other perennials. In 1923, their children grown, Mr. And Mrs. Perin moved to a house they built on nearby Orchard Street and the historic frame house was razed. At that time, a note was discovered written on a block of wood in the wall above a door:
To whom it may concern: Know ye that this 15th day of December, 1875, that the sun shines bright and the roads are dry and you can work out in your shirt sleeves.
Perin maintained his busy schedule as superintendent and, while the development of academic departments diminished his duties, his influence on campus and the respect of colleagues, professors, and students could not have been higher. When he died in 1930, campus flags flew at half-mast, classes were cancelled, and offices closed. At his funeral service, held in the Campus Activities Building, Chancellor E.A. Burnett stated:
No member of the college faculty or employee of the University at that time can forget the acts of personal service which Mr. Perin performed, largely outside of his regular duties, in order to assist them either in their public or private work. When in need of any particular service not provided for in the regular organization, they always called on Mr. Perin. In his death every member of the faculty who had known him feels that he has lost one whose services cannot be replaced. The community has lost a man of sterling integrity and of rare personal qualities. He was one of God's noblemen.
- Chancellor E.A. Burnett
The Porch Today
Today, the "farm campus" so lovingly reared and developed by S.W. Perin and others is home not only to agricultural and home economics pursuits but to the Colleges of Dentistry and Law as well. The 306,000-volume C.Y. Thompson Library sits on the edge of Maxwell Arboretum, and the entire campus landscape - while not developed in the old formal style of Mr. Dunman - is an exciting marriage of aesthetic and education concerns. Various academic departments and programs have arisen over the years, and in 1973 came together as the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources (IANR). The Institute, a component of the University of Nebraska, has divisions of Agricultural Research, the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, the College of Human Resources and Family Sciences, Conservation and Survey, Cooperative Extension, and International Programs. From its humble beginnings with the College of Agriculture, barely able to muster fifteen students, IANR now serves over 1500 students in its graduate and undergraduate programs, 90,000 Nebraska young people through 4-H and other programs, and countless farmers, ranchers, and homemakers through its Cooperative Extension Division.
As a tribute to S.W. Perin and the spirit of all those who built East Campus, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Botanical Garden and Arboretum presents this replica of the Perin house porch. Set among grand old spruce and cedar trees, the porch has been built to replicate the architectural details of the original. It provides a quiet place to talk with friends, enjoy a picnic lunch, or spend some time alone. The Perin porch has been landscaped with a number of plants of the period, making use of new improved varieties. From spring bulbs to autumn fruit, the porch environs provides visitors with a continual array of interest and beauty.
It is spring again. Listen closely and you can hear the tromp of children's feet as they return from school, the chatter of the hired girls 'round back in the kitchen, the shouts of the college boarders over in the hog pens. "Dad" Perin is singing as he drives up in the farm campus wagon. The smell of Mrs. Perin's roast is coming through the screen door. It mingles with the promising scent of the persian lilac.
Those interested in the Perin family and the history of East Campus are encouraged to learn more through the following resources:
Crawford, Robert P. These Fifty Years: A History of the College of Agriculture of the University of Nebraska. Agricultural Experiment Station Circular 26. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1925.
Frolik, Elvin F. and Ralston J. Graham. College of Agriculture of the University of Nebraska: The First Century. Lincoln: Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska, 1987.
Reeder, Hazel Perin. Growing Up With the Nebraska School of Agriculture: A Memorial Tribute to the Live of S.W. "Dad" Perin. Wayne, NE: The Herald Publishing Co., 1971. 2nd printing, Revised, 1994, Edna R. Emerson, 813 Trading Post Trail, SE., Albuquerque NM, 87123.
Reeder, Hazel Perin. A Year With the Perin Family, 1895-96. Edna R. Emerson, 813 Trading Post Trail, SE., Albuquerque NM, 87123, 1994.
The papers of S.W. Perin, both personal and professional, along with those of his family can be found at the Nebraska State Historical Society. Photographs relating to the Perins and early campus history are housed in the society's photographic collections. Additional records and photographs are available for research at the University Archives, Love Library.