The University of Tennessee has received a unique and valuable gift that traces the school’s roots back to 1870. The donor has no link to the university — just an accidental receipt of a document which most historians thought no longer existed.
Robert J. Wegener of McHenry, Ill., is an engineer with a passion for historical and antique documents. Nearly 20 years ago, he bought a box to add to his collection at an Illinois store for approximately a dollar.
“The document was folded up into several other papers,” said Wegener. “It just looked like a really great piece of history, so I pulled it out and had it framed.”
That piece of history was a key document in UT’s establishment as a state land grant institution. The document, dated 1870, is the original bill of sale for land in which proceeds were given to the state of Tennessee to establish Tennessee’s land grant university. The document was the result of the 1862 Morrill Act, legislation signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln that established colleges to teach agricultural and mechanical arts as well as classics, liberal arts and sciences. Tennessee, as a member of the Confederacy during the Civil War, was unable to take advantage of the Morrill Act until 1869.
Participating states were granted 30,000 acres of land for each of their representatives and senators to be sold as an endowment for the support of higher education. More than 17 million acres of land were sold, resulting in about $7 million for participating states. Tennessee’s grant of $396,000 was allocated to East Tennessee University, which would later become the University of Tennessee.
“Adding agriculture and mechanical arts was a significant change to the university curriculum,” said Aaron Purcell, university archivist. “Because of its land grant status, the university created many new majors and programs, such as the Institute of Agriculture and College of Engineering. Teaching these practical courses helped bring the university into the modern era.”
Although designated as Tennessee’s land grant university in 1869, the university evolved for the next decade through the provisions set forth in the Morrill Act. By 1879, it had solidified agricultural and mechanical programs and established medical and dental program affiliations across the state. Poised for growth, the university was renamed the University of Tennessee in that same year.
Several years after having the document framed, Wegener saw a television documentary on land grant universities that illustrated the significance of what he had over his mantle. After a series of telephone calls, Wegener offered the document to UT at no charge. He’s asked for nothing in return.
“This document doesn’t really belong to me, it belongs to the state of Tennessee,” he said.
UT President John Petersen said the document is an invaluable gift to the university.
“This document places real meaning on the goals our forefathers sought to accomplish with the land grant institutions. These universities have allowed millions of people access to higher education and played a key role in developing America’s economy,” Petersen said. “Mr. Wegener’s generosity gives us that rare opportunity to own a piece of our own history, and we are grateful.”
Wegener said he’s honored to give the document to UT.
“The true strength of any society lies in the ability to educate all its people,” he said. Wegener is an alumnus of Southern Illinois University.
“The establishment of UT as a land grant institution was a fundamental element in the future of the education, economy and welfare in the state of Tennessee,” said Chancellor Loren Crabtree. “This special gift which demonstrates the university’s leadership role in the development of our state will be enjoyed and appreciated for years to come.”
“Mr. Wegener’s gift ensures that this important historical document will be preserved and made available to current and future generations of Tennesseans,” said Barbara Dewey, dean of UT libraries.
Wegener said he believes the document was in Illinois because many similar papers were stored in a federal building in Kansas, which later burned. So it is likely that any duplicates of this paper were destroyed, he said.
UT does not have any similar 19th century federal land grant papers in its archives, said Purcell. The archivist said it is in excellent condition and will become part of UT’s special collections.
The document will be on display from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. in Hoskins Library, in the lobby of the special collections library, which is located on the second floor.