University of Nebraska in the Early Years

If you’ve been to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus lately for a football game or to drop your kid off for college, you know they’re always building something on campus. But what was it like when the university occupied a single building that looked like it had just been dropped on the prairie?

Edward Manley spent part of his childhood in Lincoln in the 1870s. His father, Samuel, was one of the five original professors when classes began in 1871. Years later, in 1932, Edward shared his memories in a speech for the Chicago Literary Club.

The Manley family had lived a block away from campus. The university had “one building set back a short distance from the street. The university was new and the building was new… The mansard was covered with slate in various colors. Broken slates still were to be found and the pieces treasured. The flat parts of the roof were covered in tin, which was taken off periodically by cyclones and landed some miles away on the agricultural farm or wherever that particular wind listed…. The basement of the building, in which the furnaces were, was as full of pipes and tubes as a major operation. But the heating was never quite a success when the wind blew, and it blew most of the time in cold weather….

“The building was of brick except the foundation, which was of local brown sandstone. Its resistance varied from inch to inch. Sometimes it had the qualities of granite and then those of lump sugar. It might crumble at the touch or it might resist blows of the hammer. This uneven quality soon betrayed itself in the foundation, and the building was rapidly becoming unsafe. So they decided to give the university a new foundation. Short square timbers were brought and hundreds of jackscrews. Workmen put the timbers and jacks in place and raised the building slightly off the old foundation. Thus did the frontier contribute its share toward the elevation of learning. By taking a section at a time they replaced the brown sugar foundation with one of limestone.” 

The building survived long enough to become known as “Old Main” before it burned down 1948. Today a historical marker commemorates the spot. It stands beside the grassy open area between the buildings south of Memorial Stadium.

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