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Kim Phillips: UNT grows from its modest beginning

The past two weeks, my column has been dedicated to America’s birthday. It’s time now to turn our eyes to another birthday, one vitally important to Denton and 218,000 degree-holding alumni. The University of North Texas will be 125 years old on Sept. 16.

Like all great stories, UNT’s began with a dream. The Texas State Historical Association describes Denton as a slow-growing prairie town until the 1880s. The courthouse Square was the city center then as it is today. Our current courthouse was not here yet, nor was Texas Woman’s University. A strong, agricultural-based economy fueled downtown businesses.

It was this Denton-on-the-edge-of-boomtown that welcomed Joshua C. Chilton in 1880 to officially establish the Texas Normal College and Teacher Training Institute in a rented room above a hardware store on the corner of Oak and Elm streets on the Square. That building today is Thomas’ Ethan Allen furniture store.

Chilton was not the only man with a dream behind what is now UNT. A group of 10 businessmen known as the Syndicate held the same passion. Their vision led them to purchase 240 acres on the west side of Denton, 10 of which they donated to the city to fully develop Chilton’s school into a full-fledged college that trained teachers.

Work on the college building began in earnest while Chilton’s inaugural class opened Sept. 16, 1890.

The historical marker on the furniture building claims just 25 students in that first class, while UNT cites the first class as 70 people, according to http://125.unt.edu/history/history-unt. Either way, it was a tiny beginning to a giant collective dream.

The campus saw its first building open and ready for business in 1891 at the corner of Avenue C and Hickory Street. Now the Auditorium, it was then called the Normal Building. According to the UNT website mentioned above, it had a fence around it to keep out wandering livestock.

The Chilton school moved in and, though struggling with lower enrollment than anticipated, hung on for almost 20 years, until 1899 when the Texas Legislature finally authorized it as a state school, Texas Normal College. That’s when things really took off, according to dentonhistory.com.

In 1901, classes opened with 200 students and 14 faculty members. By then our beautiful courthouse crowned the Square. TWU (then the Girls Industrial College) opened its doors the same year. Denton was growing up.

The TSHA says that UNT and TWU, “ultimately did more to establish the character of Denton than any other single influence.” I completely agree with this statement. From a growth perspective, the TSHA states that the decade after Chilton opened his doors until 1890, Denton “experienced its largest percentage growth in any decade up to the 1980s.”

TSHA credits the arrival of the railroad and our universities for the phenomenal boom.

The influence was broader than population, though. Much broader. As UNT’s academic offerings expanded, so did the student base and the school’s reputation among emerging state universities.

By the 1940s, individual colleges within the university were established including the School of Music. But that’s another story for another day.

I have always credited our original, independent spirit to the creative energy fueled by our universities. A well-educated population feeds creativity and cultural opportunities, a fact undeniably visible in Denton. UNT is now Texas’ fourth largest and the nation’s 25th largest public university. From that handful of students in the rooms above Thomas Ethan Allen, UNT has become the sprawling campus we know today.

The big birthday bash for UNT will last throughout the 2015-2016 academic year. The celebration soft-launched during May commencement and will officially kick off on Founders Day, Sept. 16.

Celebrations are planned for Homecoming Week Oct. 4-10 and in conjunction with the new student union opening in the spring of 2016.

Over the coming months, this column will revisit UNT’s history and its impact on Denton over these 125 years. Our evolution is intricately linked to hers and is therefore a birthday meaningful to our city. It’s also quite significant in my own life and the lives of many thousands of alums. Without UNT and the relationships I established there, what would my life be like now? I cannot imagine. For every action there is a reaction, for every move (or not), a consequence. I know my life would be quite different. There are thousands of people just like me. Perhaps you? And none of us, nor Denton would be the same without the mark of the Mean Green.

 

KIM PHILLIPS is vice president of the Denton Convention and Visitors Bureau at the Denton Chamber of Commerce. She loves promoting Denton’s original, independent spirit through the city’s sense of place and cast of many characters. She can be reached at kim@discoverdenton.com.