1882-1885 Adventures in Colorado

After graduating from Coshocton High School in 1882, Ernest set out for Colorado—what was considered at the time as part of the "wild west". Colorado had received statehood only six years earlier and much of it was still frontier county. As a 75 year old, Ernest recalled his time there:

The year of 1882 saw me on a wild adventure into Colorado. There, at about 19, I got a bully job the next day after hitting Denver. I was enlisted in a crew of land surveyors for the firm of Maxwell & Oliver. We prowled all over Northwest Colorado at $1.50 a day and rations.

The grub was grand, for most of it was shot or snagged out of wild mountain brooks by the boys of the crew—all college kids and about as raw as they make them. Our field commander was one Major Oliver from Dalton, Ga., a cadaverous ex-Confederate officer in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. An eight-gallon keg of lightning was his sole medical provision for all hands.

The major was a genial soul at heart and every week end he sat at the bung of the keg and enjoyed the life of the Wild West until he curled up near the campfire to sleep off his 40-watt jag. We boys had a grand interval of big game shooting and trout fishing until the major came out of his coma.

In the intervals between the three summers that we were on the job out in the wilds I was a cadet in a small military academy in Boulder, Colo.... In 1885 I got my degree at the one-horse military academy and at once lit out for Cornell. Why I spotted it is a mystery to this day.[1]

The “one-horse military academy” was the start of the University of Colorado Boulder which had opened in 1876 with one building, forty-four students, one professor and a President. That one building, which still stands today and is known as 'Old Main', initially housed the entire University, including classrooms, a library, auditorium, and the President's living quarters. Old Main remained the only building on campus until 1884.[2]

An early graduate described Old Main as "an imposing structure...its head stone above a barren and wind-swept plain...a monument of patience, looking down upon the frontier village...removed from any sidewalk by nearly a mile of mud." And a wire fence surrounded the university grounds to keep out steers, as the country outside was open pasture in every direction. [3]

1884, University of Colorado Boulder
State University at Boulder Colorado, 1884, built on a "barren and wind-swept plain...removed from any sidewalk by nearly a mile of mud". Old Main is the buidling on the right.
Photo by Boulder Historical Society/Museum of Boulder

In his first year at the University, Ernest is was one of only 13 students—4 women and 9 men—enrolled in the College course, though the university also ran a preparatory school in which 100 students were enrolled, a 'Normal School' with 31 students studying to become teachers, a Conservatory of Music with 17 students, and a Medical School. He was the only college student not from Colorado, and the vast majority of all the students were Boulder Colorado residents.[4]

He joined the University Cadet Corps which in his first year consisted of a Captain, Ernest as First Lieutenant, a Second Lieutenant, First Sergeant, Second Sergeant, and 24 Cadets. The State supplied the University with rifles, and the Cadets were "drilled in the Schools of the Soldier and Company".[5]

By his third year, numbers in the College had grown and he was one of 28 students, including another student from Coshocton Ohio, studying in the Department of Philosphy and the Arts.[6]

While Ernest wrote that in "1885 I got my degree at the one-horse military academy", I wonder whether he did in fact receive a degree as he was doing a 4-year course and had completed only three years and, supposedly, no university degrees were awarded by the State University Boulder in 1885.[7]

Old Main 1888, University of Colorado Boulder
"Old Main", State University at Boulder Colorado, 1888
Image from Coloradan Alumni Magazine (online) https://www.colorado.edu/coloradan/2018/03/30/then-and-now-old-main
Old Main classroom 1890s, University of Colorado Boulder
One of the classrooms. This photo was taken in the 1890s but in it is Miss Mary Rippon, the first woman on the faculty, who arrived on the campus in 1878 to teach French and German.[8]
Image from Coloradan Alumni Magazine (online) https://www.colorado.edu/coloradan/2018/03/30/then-and-now-old-main

In the fall of 1885, Ernest began his education at Cornell University, but the following summer he went back to Boulder to visit his old friends and former schoolmates.

From The Semi-Weekly Age (Coshocton OH), Jul 6, 1886, under 'Avondale' news:
Image of newspaper article which reads: Ernest Johnson started for Boulder Colorado last week to pay a visit to his old college at that place.

From The Semi-Weekly Age (Coshocton OH), Aug 27, 1886, under 'Avondale' news:
Image of newspaper article which reads: Mr. E.E. Johnson returned last week from a six week's visit to Boulder Colorado where he has been staying with school mates and friends.

Footnotes & Sources 

  1. [1] Cornell Alumni News, Vol. 59, No. 14 (15 Apr 1957), p501. Accessed from eCommons, Cornell University Library, https://ecommons.cornell.edu/handle/1813/27683 on 26 Jan 2021. 
  2. [2] William E. Davis, Glory Colorado! A History of the University of Colorado 1858-1963, Pruett Press, Inc, Boulder CO; pp 27 & 44. 
  3. [3] Ibid, pp 19 & 26.
  4. [4] University of Colorado, Catalogue and Circular of Information; Denver, Colorado; Daily Evening Times Steam Press; 1883-84; pp65-70. Accessed from https://archive.org/details/catalogueofunive18791univ/page/n131/mode/2up.
  5. [5] Ibid, 1883-84, pp18-19.
  6. [6] Ibid, 1884-86, pp27-28.
  7. [7] William E. Davis, pp 51 & 54.
  8. [8] Ibid, p30.

Published 13 September 2023. Last updated 28 September 2023.

Access key details

1 Home page
2 What's new
9 Feedback form
0 Access key details