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Wabash Men in History: In the beginning, there was Hovey

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LOCATED JUST EAST OF THE SOUTH WING of the College’s Center Hall is an odd-looking rock with the words CLASS ’76 carved into its north face. I removed some of the soil to expose more of the boulder and found the complete inscription: CLASS ’76 TO Dr. HOVEY

Just as Edmund Otis Hovey’s name has partially disappeared due to the settling of the rock inscribed to honor him, so has his pivotal role in the College’s history been partially obscured in the memory of the Wabash community.

But Hovey was the most essential figure in the founding and preservation of the College during its early years. He wrote the minutes of the November 21, 1832 meeting during which the College was founded.The second person elected to the Board of Trustees, he served as a trustee until his death in 1877. Hovey was the first College Librarian, and he served as Treasurer from 1838 until 1864. During those 26 years the College was never out of debt, so managing its financial affairs must have been a heavy burden. In his capacity as trustee, Hovey was responsible for hiring the College’s first professor (his Dartmouth classmate and lifelong friend, Caleb Mills) and its first three presidents. For all practical purposes, he selected the first two presidents, Elihu Baldwin and Charles White. After President White’s death in 1861, the Board sent Hovey to New Jersey to offer the office to Joseph Tuttle, the College’s third and longest-serving (1862-92) president.

One of the three original members of the faculty, Hovey served as Professor of Chemistry, Geology, and Mineralogy from 1834 until his death in 1877. He was also secretary of the faculty for that entire period. During his tenure at Wabash, Hovey constantly added to the "Cabinet," a collection of fossils, minerals and botanical specimens, until at his death it contained more than 26,000 items and enjoyed a national reputation as one of the most complete collections of its time.

Hovey was the first major fundraiser for the College.With the help of Elihu Baldwin, he raised more than $28,000 during his "agency" in the East. By today’s standards $28,000 may not seem like much money, but at a time when a professor’s salary was $400 per year, it was a tidy sum. It is hard to imagine Wabash making it through the early years without this infusion of cash.

Hovey also established and maintained cordial relations with Chauncey Rose, the College’s first major benefactor. Ultimately, Rose would donate more than $80,000.

As treasurer of the College, Hovey oversaw the construction of South Hall and Center Hall, the latter project lasting nearly 20 years.

Hovey collected and saved numerous documents of historical importance to the College. His two children placed these in the Hovey Scrapbook, presented to the College during the semi-centennial celebration of 1882. The Scrapbook is probably the Archives’ most valuable resource for those studying the first 30 years of Wabash history.

Next time you are on campus, take a few minutes to examine Hovey’s Rock or to read the inscriptions at the entrance to Hovey Cottage, and reflect on the essential role this remarkable man played in founding the College and shepherding it through its formative years.

Professor of Chemistry Emeritus David Phillips has been researching the history of the College in the Archives.