Thanks for Asking | Dec. 8, 2011

our local Jack-of-all-Facts tells you how it is

Frank Smoot |

University Park at the top of Main Street hill: Where did the name come from? I’m also curious as to why Eau Claire only had a “college” until fairly recently, when we got a “university.”

Thanks for asking! In answer to your first question, it was a dream we had.

The name (first as University Square) dates from the very oldest plats we have in the museum. I think we’d intended to reserve the block for an institution of higher learning, or at least as a “quad” for such a school. It certainly was an aspiration.

In 1879, the Eau Claire Free Press opined, “It is a matter of great moment to our people that the metropolis of the Valley should be a center in all things desirable and accessory to the highest civilization and culture. The ideas of its founders with respect to education are represented in ‘The University Square’ and in a donation of lots at an early period to the Eau Claire Wesleyan Seminary.”

It was really much too small for a college – and at any rate was gaining other kinds of attention as early as 1874, when the press noted, “Since the practice of conveying dead horses to the woods back of University Square has been discontinued, the eligibility of this spot for ‘sparking’ has become generally recognized.” If you don’t know what “sparking” means, you might ask your great grandfather. Or you might ask your grandpa what “necking” means, or you might ask your dad what “hooking up” means.

Development quickly crowded in on the square. Another 1874 report noted that, before long, “new streets and lanes, houses and squares, will supercede the glade where, when not perfumed by exposure of dead horses, has long been the most easily obtainable and among the pleasantest bits of country in the neighborhood of our fast growing city.”

Ah, the foul smell of rotting horses standing in the way of sparking and of progress. Anyhow, with Eau Claire closing in, we had to look elsewhere for a suitable campus. And we found our dream spot in the swamp between Minnow Creek (now Minnie Creek or Mini Creek) and the Chippewa River. Which leads us to your second question.

An 1857 state law created a Board of Regents of Normal Schools. There were nine “normal schools” – which, for all of the hilarious connotations, simply means “teacher training schools.” Of those nine, Platteville opened first in 1866 and Eau Claire last in 1916. In 1927, they gained the authority to grant bachelor’s degrees (in education) and were upgraded from Normal Schools to State Teachers Colleges. With the addition of liberal arts programs in 1951, they dropped the narrow “Teachers” title and became Wisconsin State Colleges. In 1964, they got their props as Wisconsin State Universities.

Clear? Good. All right, let’s back up. In 1848, the state constitution we adopted – and which has now simply expired, from what I read in the news – created the University of Wisconsin along with other fluff like open-meeting laws. Madison opened the next year. For more than a century, it stood alone like the cheese in “The Farmer in the Dell,” as did some other similar institutions. In 1956, it took one of those institutions, Milwaukee, under its wing, and then later Green Bay and Parkside. Next you got yer freshman-sophomore centers and statewide Extension, but please let’s stop here. Long story short: in 1971, everyone got together: UW for everyone! Wait. You might notice I haven’t mentioned Stout. Well, that’s another story entirely …

Got a local question? Send it (17 S. Barstow St.) or email it ( and Frank will answer it!  Frank has lived in Eau Claire for most of the past 43 years. He is an editor and researcher at the Chippewa Valley Museum, which is open all year just beyond the Paul Bunyan Camp Museum in beautiful Carson Park. You should go there.