George Pyle: Why there is no town of Morrill, Utah

And a discovery about the tiny town in Kansas where my father was born in 1927.

(Utah State University | Levi Sim) Elizabeth Cantwell gives a brief speech following her selection as Utah State University's new president on May 19 at USU.

The Tribune last weekend published a commentary from the new president of Utah State University — Elizabeth Cantwell — which caught my eye because it was about honoring and promoting that school’s status as one of America’s land-grant universities.

About which I have one good story and one tiny correction to make to my family history.

Nearly 30 years ago, TV evangelist and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson was the featured speaker at another land-grant school, Kansas State University.

Robertson praised the independent, pioneering spirit of those who settled the Sunflower State. A big applause — and laugh — line was, “And you know something, they did so without the help of a Department of Covered Wagons in Washington, D.C.”

History does not record whether anyone bothered to point out to the Rev. Robertson that he was dissing federal assistance on the campus of the first federal land-grant college to actually open its doors. The first of many colleges and universities funded by the federal government for the purpose of expanding the benefits of a practical and technical education to the people who were taming the West. (Or, depending on your point of view, stealing it.)

Land-grant colleges, now found in every state, were founded and/or funded by a law called the Morrill Act, passed by Congress and signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862.

It directed that each state and territory (at least those not then in rebellion against the United States) be granted a significant amount of public land, the proceeds of which were to be used to create colleges to teach practical arts such as agriculture and what would now be called engineering.

It was one of those Civil War-era help-average-people-settle-the-West laws that, like the Transcontinental Railroad and the Homestead Act, probably wouldn’t have passed if the landed gentry senators and representatives from the Southern states had still been there to vote against them.

Many, though not all, of the land-grant schools can be identified by the fact that they have the word “State” in their name. Utah State. Ohio State. Oklahoma State. Michigan State. Iowa State. North Carolina State.

Also, Virginia Tech, the University of Wisconsin, of Minnesota, of Missouri, of Nebraska, as well as Purdue in Indiana, Cornell in New York and Rutgers in New Jersey. Many of the titans of public education across the nation.

The agriculture component is such a large part of these schools that they are sometimes called Silo Tech, the Cow College or Aggieville.

The money also went to create schools that serve Native Americans and many Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Some of the best investments America ever made, up there with the GI Bill and the National Park System.

In The Tribune, Cantwell laid out her vision of a 21st century land-grant college. It stresses entrepreneurship, community connections, stewardship and sustainability, workforce development and social responsibility. All ideas that the authors and supporters of the original Morrill Act would have subscribed to.

The law is named for its chief congressional sponsor, Vermont Rep. Justin Smith Morrill.

Until just a few minutes ago, when I went looking for a link to back up this essay, I had assumed that Rep. Morrill was such a key player in the development of the American West that he was the namesake of the tiny town in Kansas where my father was born in 1927.


At least according to the town’s entry on Wikipedia, Morrill, Kansas (population 218) is actually named for Edmund Needham Morrill, who was a member of Congress and, from 1895 to 1897, the 13th governor of Kansas.

I never heard of him, either.

There are also towns named Morrill in Texas, Maine, Nebraska, Minnesota, Kentucky. None of them, apparently, named for the congressman from New England.

And, if you know your LDS history, you already know why there is no town called Morrill, Utah. As Rep. Morrill was also the chief sponsor of the federal Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862. The one that criminalized the practice of plural marriage as then practiced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle is opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune.