Jesse H. Ames was born in Shiocton, Wisconsin, in 1875 of Yankee lumberjack stock. He attended a one-room rural school and later graduated from the Stevens Point Normal School. After stints as a teacher and school principal, he studied history in Madison under Frederic Jackson Turner. In 1909 he joined the faculty of the River Falls Normal School, served briefly as interim president between the Wilson and Crabtree administrations, and was appointed president in 1917 upon the departure of Crabtree.
President Ames had a keen interest in history. With his brother, a high school history teacher, Ames co-authored four elementary history texts which had considerable sales for years. During his long tenure, Ames experienced the lush years of the 1920s, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the devastating effects of the World War II years. As president of what would become a small teachers college, he was responsible for everything that happened on campus. He made all appointments, accepted all changes in curriculum, and instituted most new programs that often came from faculty committees. He ran a “tight ship,” one of his fellow presidents said, yet he enjoyed the respect of faculty and students alike.
Throughout the Ames era, when student enrollment numbered in the hundreds, school spirit was high and most students, unlike today, rarely went home on weekends. Students were always on hand to support athletic teams, attend a debate, or watch a play.
The first Homecoming was held in 1922 and included a torchlight parade, pep rally and football game. Later, for many decades, a daytime parade down Main Street drew crowds of locals and alumni. The 1920s also saw the proliferation of clubs and organizations, including everything from the Mozart Club to the Rural Life Club to the Civic Club. Fraternities and sororities were still unheard of, yet there were rooming houses that provided low-cost board and room and created tight-knit social groups.
A school cafeteria was started in 1920, offering a full week’s board for $4. Organized athletics took off during this period as the Inter-Normal Conference came into play. Many River Falls football and basketball teams won conference championships, sparking day-long celebrations where classes were cancelled and replaced by victory speeches, musical interludes, elaborate tableaus, parades through downtown, a banquet, a bonfire, and a school dance. The team name, Falcons, was officially adopted in the 1930s.
Even during the lean years of the depression, the student body stayed active. A poll showed that 83 percent of all students belonged to at least one student organization. And student concerns were addressed more formally when, in 1937, a constitution was adopted creating a Student Senate.
In the spring of 1924, River Falls Normal School celebrated its 50th birthday with a pageant attended by nearly 12,000 people. The cast of 584 presented the dramatic story of success in “dispelling ignorance” through the coming of the Normal School to River Falls. The pageant ended with the singing of a new school song, The Pledge Song, which continues to be sung on ceremonial occasions and played daily on the university’s carillon.
With pride at an all-time high, the school was ready to take the next step—to become a four-year, degree-granting teachers college. In 1927, River Falls Normal School officially became River Falls State Teachers College. The change had been coming for a long time and simply reflected the increased quality of the curriculum and faculty at the school. Collegiate status meant the growth of academic programs and the adoption of the customs and ways of life of the more prestigious collegiate world.
It also meant the desire for accreditation. So the college applied for accreditation from the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. Although the American Association of Teachers Colleges had granted the school its highest rating in 1929, the school needed NCACSS accreditation to ensure that student credits would transfer with ease to other colleges and universities. For more than five years, the faculty and administration worked hard toward reaching the North Central seal of approval, which was achieved in 1935.
The Great Depression again raised the spectre that economic hard times could close down the college. As the crisis worsened in 1930, the River Falls Chamber of Commerce started a fund to help pay for promoting the school in an effort to ward off declining enrollments. The money was used to send copies of the Meletean, the school yearbook, and the Student Voice, its weekly newspaper, to 200 high schools and to advertise in the Milwaukee newspaper. Some of the faculty also visited high schools to recruit graduating seniors. But the demand for teachers remained strong throughout the decade and enrollments actually grew during the 1930s. The same was not true as the world went to war.
In 1939, the college enrolled 755 students. At the peak of World War II, in 1943, enrollment had fallen to 183 students. Male students were almost non-existent. Struggling to stay afloat, President Ames sought a contract with the military for training but was unsuccessful. He then enacted several measures to keep the campus open: granting nine-month appointments and leave-of-absences to faculty, and in light of the war effort, offering summer courses in Red Cross procedures, geography, and engineering.
But when the war ended, veterans flocked to college campuses with the help of federal assistance. And in River Falls there was a new president ready to greet them.