Photo courtesy of USM Special Collections

By: Amelia Bodge, Staff Writer 

The proposed name change to USM was widely talked about last year, but this wasn’t the first time the school has tried to reinvent itself. The University of Southern Maine has a long history dating back to the late 1800s.

The school began in 1878 under the name Gorham Normal School, which was a higher learning institution designed for training teachers. The school was founded by two men, Frederick Robie and William Corthell.

Frederick Robie was born on August 12, 1822, and graduated from Bowdoin in 1841 as a teacher. After graduating, Robie went south to Philadelphia for a time but eventually ended up back in his home town of Gorham Maine.

According to Kenneth T.H. Brooks, author of See the Green and White Advancing: A History Ghoram Normal School, Teacher College, and State College, during the civil war Robie was a military man and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. After his military service, Colonial Robie went into politics and was elected to the Maine House of Representatives in 1872 which he served for 8 years. Then he served as Maine’s governor from January 1883 to 1887. Around this time was when he met the co-founder and future principal of Gorham Normal School, William Corthell.

At the time Corthell was serving as state superintendent of Common Schools, a position now known as commissioner of education. Corthell believed the educational system lacked well-prepared teachers.

In the mid 1870s, there were only two normal schools in Maine, one in Farmington that was founded in 1864 and one in Castine that was founded in 1867. Both schools had programs two years in length and graduates of these programs were in high demand. Most of these graduates went to teach in larger communities where the pay was best, leaving smaller rural communities with untrained high school graduates.

On January 18, 1877, Colonel Robbie introduced legislation in the Maine House of Representatives, which established intent to open the Normal School in the western part of Maine. Once the need for the university was justified they spelled out specifications for its location. They settled on Gorham because it was on a railroad line and the area was large enough to afford the influx of people.

The first building was Corthell Hall, which was named after the school’s first principal, William Corthell. Corthell served as principal from 1878 to 1905.

Colleges are generally expensive to build and Gorham Normal School was no different, but according to Kenneth T.H. Brooks, the citizens of Gorham were willing to pitch in to offset the cost. The cost of the building was $27,511.71, and of this amount, $15,000 was raised by the town. It included $20.50 from the sale of an old barn and apples, $7,170 from village subscriptions, and $5,321.21 paid by trustees of the Gorham Seminary.

According to Joyce K. Bibber, author of the University of Southern Maine, Corthell Hall was designed by Francis H. Fassett of Portland Maine. The building had classrooms as well as administrative offices.

Corthell Hall is still standing at the Gorham campus, housing the USM School of Music.

This is the first article of a series about USM’s history of name changes.

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