James W. Crabtree, 1864-1945, was born in Ohio but moved with his family to Nebraska in the 1870s. Following his graduation from the State Normal School at Peru, Nebraska, in 1890, he began a career in education. In 1911, while working as state superintendent of public instruction in Nebraska, he was offered his choice of the presidency of several Wisconsin normal schools. He chose River Falls.
The dominant theme of Crabtree’s educational philosophy was the pragmatic and human approach. His own childhood had engendered a faith in the common people and a devotion to them. From his experience came an abiding appreciation of the importance of work, and an enduring sympathy for the young man or woman who made their own way.
He always insisted that education must be close to life and that no child was too poor to profit by the right kind of teaching. Further, he liked people. With both the students and faculty he was liberal with his time and advice. He had a marvelous capacity for meeting students personally, for making them feel his own interest in their welfare. With Crabtree there was no book of rules, only the guidelines of warm sympathy and a rich zest for life.
After leaving River Falls, Crabtree became the secretary of the National Education Association, a post he held until 1935.
Under Crabtree, many new school organizations began and others continued to flourish, including the Agrifallian Society, the Girl’s Glee Club, the Aurelia Literary Society, the YWCA, and Die Deutsche Gesellschaft. The senior class of 1912 started a yearbook called the Meletean. And in 1916, the student newspaper, the Student Voice began. Under Crabtree’s administration, alumni support and cooperation would become felt in tangible ways. He also established new programs such as a student council, and membership in existing campus organizations also swelled during this time.
Established in 1912, the Agrifallian Society’s purpose was that of the “discussion of lively topics in the field of agriculture, social meeting, and the usual benefits of such associations.” Another such organization, created the same year, was the Girls on Promotion, the GOP. The purpose of the GOP was to encourage a “more loyal student body, establish school spirit, insure hearty support of all school enterprises, and provide for moral uplift of our student body.” Fundraisers were used to help buy tickets to out-of-town sporting events to support the River Falls Red and White. The Girls first attempted to go door-to-door to raise money, but that was thought to be too scandalous. So the Girls turned to fundraisers like window-washers and house cleaning.
The first men’s glee club was also organized in 1912, when four young men approached Crabtree with the idea. After the first try-outs, 24 men were selected to represent the normal school in public. Within a year or two, the club was traveling throughout western Wisconsin and performing regularly. At that time, membership was swelling to nearly forty young men.
World War I sparked a measurable degree of patriotism in the student body. Many of the male students joined the armed forces, and many of the female students quit for well-paying jobs in factories and offices. The school was designated as a training site for the Student Army Training Corps, which brought in new students to both study toward a diploma and train for military service. The government built barracks on the campus which served the school long after the war as both a site for the manual training department and as housing for married students after World War II.
The war also exacted a toll. Nine River Falls Normal students were killed in combat. Enrollment was one of the first challenges that Crabtree addressed. Throughout the years, the school struggled with the threat of closing or relocation because of low enrollment. When Crabtree came to River Falls, the Board of Regents informed him of the importance of increasing the enrollment in order to allow the school to remain open. Crabtree was able to increase the enrollment tremendously in the years that he was president. During those six years, enrollment rose from 319 to 627. More men were enrolled than in any of the other state normals.
In 1911 a junior college course was introduced. This new program served as the equivalent of the first two years of university-level work, paralleling the course offerings at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Among the benefits, according to the Milwaukee Free Press, would be the “reduced cost of travel and living” to students as well as the better ability of “parents to retain a more direct supervision over the lives of their children during the most critical years of college life” at a safe distance from “the social and moral jungle of a big university.”
In 1913, President Crabtree began to attend sessions of the state legislature, at the request of the Board of Regents, to advance the interests of the normal schools and to secure needed legislation. During his work as a lobbyist in Madison, Crabtree won an appropriation for the construction of a second building at River Falls, to become North Hall. For $6,200 the school purchased seven lots on the north side of Cascade Street.
By 1914 the $140,000 structure was up and operating. It housed a men’s gymnasium, an auditorium, a science department on its third floor, and a training school on the first and second floors. To many, the construction of North Hall guaranteed the future of the normal school.
“No one who did not live here at the time,” wrote professor R. A. Karges, “can appreciate the feeling of permanence and security that came with the erection of this building.”
Crabtree also approved the creation of faculty committees to plan and execute a variety of activities, including committees for organization and administration; buildings and grounds; curriculum and credits; social affairs and students; athletics; concerts and lectures; and the library. During the 1911-12 school year, increased enrollment justified the addition of two more faculty members, the purchase of $2,000 worth of laboratory equipment, and the installation of a new heating plant. Later that year, a 14-acre tract of land west of South Hall was purchased for an athletic field and agriculture classes. It was also announced that an agricultural education specialty would be added to the curriculum.
In 1911, the state legislature provided for the teaching of agriculture in high schools, thus creating a need for teachers of that subject. President Crabtree saw an immediate opportunity. In 1912, the Board of Regents authorized River Falls to develop a specialty in agricultural education. Normal students could choose from two different courses of study—a two-year course for high school graduates or a five-year course for those entering the normal school from elementary school. Years later the five-year course was eliminated and only high school graduates were admitted into the program. River Falls Normal became the first in the nation to offer this specialty.
By 1917 a laboratory farm of 100 acres had been added to campus with a house, barn, and a couple of sheds to go with the team of horses and several cows. The farm supported itself through the sale of milk delivered by push-cart to nearby homes. From the beginning the program was a huge success. Starting with just one instructor in 1912, the department had increased to a staff of six by the mid-1920s. Course titles included Field Crops, Farm Management, Farm Accounts, Elementary Horticulture, Horticulture and Landscape Gardening, Farm Machinery and Farm Motors, Breeds and Judging of Livestock, General Dairying, Elementary Poultry Raising, Agriculture Chemistry and many others.