Humble and Noble Beginnings
The State University College at Potsdam traces its roots back to the St. Lawrence Academy, founded in 1816 by land agent Benjamin Raymond. The first class of 42 students attended the Academy in a one-story building (24' by 36') with a vestibule and a bell.
The original location was near Market Street, between Main and Elm Streets. It is still marked today with a plaque on Union Street, across from the Post Office’s back entrance. The early curriculum included classes in reading and writing, English grammar, ciphering, mathematics, book-keeping, dead languages, logic, rhetoric, composition, moral philosophy, natural philosophy and French.
The student body of the St. Lawrence Academy grew rapidly, with 114 students enrolled by 1820. The demographic make-up of the student body was changing as well; enrolled students came from Oneida and Clinton Counties, St. Lawrence County and there were even students attending from Montreal and other towns in Canada. To accommodate the increasing number of students, a new building called the North Academy was built in 1821, and classes opened in the building in 1825. The new building contained a chapel, 21 school rooms and a library.
A Tradition of Excellence in Teaching
The St. Lawrence Academy entered a particularly significant period in 1828 when Rev. Asa Brainerd was hired as preceptor. Brainerd was especially dedicated to raising the quality of education and believed it important to produce good teachers for the district schools.
He established special classes designed specifically to address teacher-preparation. In doing so, he was the first principal in New York state to make a systematic attempt to classify teacher-training courses separately from other courses.
In 1835, the State Legislature acted to establish stronger programs for public school teacher preparation and designated one academy in each senatorial district to receive money for a special teacher-training department. The St. Lawrence Academy received this distinction, and thus, the long and continuing tradition of teacher education at SUNY Potsdam was born. The first teachers’ diplomas were awarded in 1836.
The establishment of this department resulted in the need to construct another building, and thus the South Academy was built and opened in November 1837. The reputation of producing high-quality educators caused made the department's graduates of the program in very high demand. This is still true today.
To Become a Normal School
In the early 1840s, the State Legislature became interested in the Normal School system of training teachers used in Prussia. The first Normal School in New York State was opened in Albany in 1844, with a second one opening in Oswego in 1861.
Competition ensued when the state decided to establish four more Normal Schools in 1866. Intensifying the competition was the simultaneous cut of state funding for teacher training academies.
The St. Lawrence Academy was therefore especially interested in trying to become a Normal School. Strong efforts by the St. Lawrence Academy trustees as well as the entire surrounding community resulted in success, and the State Legislature designated the village of Potsdam as the site of a Normal School in 1867.
A Community United in Education
The long-time reputation for successful teacher training of the St. Lawrence Academy was one element of the success, but another was the strength of the community’s efforts. The involvement and financial support of the community in the success of the educational institution cannot be emphasized enough.
As stated by Dr. Charles H. Leete in a historical sketch for the 1926 Pioneer Yearbook, “After the Normal superseded the academy, the same pride, the same loyalty, the same hearty co-operation steadily characterized the relation between our community and its educational institutions.” The St. Lawrence Academy became the Potsdam Normal School and the Normal School opened in a new building on April 1869.
The Crane School of Music-Noteworthy Developments
Keeping its strong emphasis on public school teacher preparation, the Normal School also saw substantial growth in another area of the school. The College’s preparation of music teachers for the public schools was also beginning to gain noteworthy attention.
The first music teacher at the St. Lawrence Academy had been hired in 1831; thus, music was an important subject from the early days of the school's inception. In 1884, Julia Crane was appointed head of the Normal School music department and with her tremendous leadership and insight, she founded the first normal training course for public school music teachers in the United States.
This course grew into the Crane Normal Institute of Music, established in 1886, and later became the Crane Department of Music of the Normal School. Many years later in 1971, the Crane Department of Music became the present-day Crane School of Music.
The Normal School demolished the first Normal School building in 1917, and recreated at the same location a new classroom-administration building, which opened in 1919. This same building is now Clarkson University’s Snell Hall on their older downtown campus.
The curriculum gradually changed over time; between the years 1922 and 1931, the programs offered became three and four year programs. One of the most valued social events of the College and Clarkson was also established 1931, with the initiation of Winter Carnival, which was an attempt to help the community through the Great Depression of the 30s.
The first four-year Bachelor of Education program began in 1938, and the first degrees were granted in 1942. This is the same year that the State Legislature and Governor officially converted the Potsdam Normal School into the State Teachers College at Potsdam. When the State University of New York was established in 1948, the campus became part of the large statewide system and became known as the State University of New York Teachers College at Potsdam.
Along with the change of name, the College also began to change physical location. The first buildings on the present site of SUNY Potsdam were completed in 1951, and Merritt, Morey, Carson, and MacVicar Halls opened at that time. The original Raymond Hall, now called Satterlee Hall, opened in 1954 and its clock tower became a major symbol of the College that has been used ever since. Many additional buildings were constructed and opened from 1956 to 1973, resulting in the campus as we know it today.
Additional name changes occurred in 1959, 1961 and 1980 before it settled into what it is known as today, the State University College at Potsdam.
Over time, the size of the student body continued to grow. The growth of the College also has been reflected in its curriculum. Master’s degrees were first authorized in 1947. The School of Liberal Arts and the School of Professional Studies were both formed in 1972, later becoming the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Education and Professional Studies.
What we are today
Today, SUNY Potsdam is one of 64 units of the State University of New York and one of 13 SUNY Arts and Science Colleges. The College is one of only three SUNY campuses designated as an arts school. SUNY Potsdam enrolls 4,330 graduate and undergraduate students, with approximately 2,100 living on campus. The College offers more than 40 majors, with an additional 45 minors available. The College employs 775 people from throughout the region.
A Permanent Resident
Although the school has changed in many ways over the years, one long-time campus resident has made the campus her home for many of those years. The statue of Minerva was donated by the class of 1892, and she has moved from the old Normal School building to the new Normal School building, from the new Normal School building to Satterlee Hall (originally Raymond Hall), and from Satterlee Hall to Crumb Library, where she now enjoys interacting with students and faculty in Minerva’s Café.
A duplicate statue of Minerva is found in the new outdoor plaza. While many Normal Schools within the state also had the same Minerva statue donated to their campus by an alumni class, ours is one of only three original statues within the state known to have survived. Undoubtedly, she will continue to see our campus through future changes in good stead and she will continue to participate in the lives of all past, present and future students.