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John Scherer Hougham

Developer of the solar compass



The Early Years (1821 1848)

John Scherer Hougham (pronounced Huff'-um) was born to Aaron Hougham II (b. 13 Oct 1776, d. 24 Mar 1856) and Catherine Scherer (Williams) Hougham (b. 10 Apr 1789, d. 8 Sep 1868) on his father's Fayette County, Indiana farm located near Connersville on 28 May 1821.[1] He was the second of five children born to this marriage (m. 24 Dec 1814, Union County, IN), which was the second for both his parents. In 1830 the family moved to Johnson County, Indiana where young Hougham assisted on his father's farm and attended a "subscription school" during the winter months. At age 18 he began his career in education as a district school teacher in neighboring Shelby County.

Desiring to further his education, in 1839 he entered the preparatory department at Wabash College; Crawfordsville, Indiana. After three years in preparation at Wabash he entered its freshman class in 1842. While at Wabash he was one of the founding members of the Tau Chapter of Beta Theta Pi, his name being listed second on the charter 1845 official roll book. He graduated from Wabash College on 16 Jul 1846 with the A.B. degree.[2]

From Wabash College he became the principal of the Hendricks County Seminary in Danville, Indiana. While there, on November 26, 1847, Professor Hougham married the daughter of Joshua and Eliza (Holmes) Knowlton, Mary Ann Knowlton (b. 23 May 1822, d. 13 Jun 1882) of Shelby County, Indiana (the place of her birth and family's home). The Houghams were to have five children: Julia (b. 10 Oct 1848, d. 28 Aug 1849), Elizabeth (b. 30 Oct 1849, d. 21 Apr 1912), Henry Bradley (b. 18 Jan 1851, d. 1929(?)), Edwin (b. 21 Jun 1852, d. 23 Oct 1853), and Emma (b. 7 Aug 1861, d. 5 Apr 1870).[3]

At Franklin Indiana and Franklin College (1848 1868

In 1848, Hougham and his new wife moved to Franklin, Indiana where on July 26, 1848 he was elected to the Professorship of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Franklin College, a Baptist supported college.[4] For the next twenty years the Houghams would become fixtures in the community and the college. "To the natural ease with which he accommodated himself to the viewpoint and interests of students and townsfolk, he added an intelligence and sense of humor of unusual quality."[5] But Professor Hougham came to the college during a period of "doom and despondency" concerning the financial condition of the institution.[6] Its president, George W. Chandler, had submitted his resignation, small cash subscriptions were being solicited, notes for larger amounts were being sought, Professor Hougham and two other faculty members were required to spend a third of their time soliciting for the school, and a sheriff's sale had been ordered by the circuit court to pay a judgment against the college. The sheriff's sale of the college was to be held on July 24, 1850. The college trustees arranged to have the annual commencement exercises on the same day. College records do not precisely describe how the financial crisis was averted, but holding commencement the same day as the sale of the college must have had its effect, because the school was not sold.[7] During this trying time between college presidents (1849-1852), Professor Hougham cochaired a committee charged with carrying out an endowment drive to lift the debt of the college. He was elected President of the Board in September, 1851. The drive was successful, the final $20,000 in pledges toward the $100,000 goal were realized after the new President, Dr. Silas Bailey, arrived in 1852.[8] The new president sought to expand the college by eventually adding two new departments, one in civil engineering, the other in agriculture. The "more useful" languages of French and German were to be added to the curriculum. These expansions were based on the assumption that those who wished to attend the school were not intended for a literary or professional career, but were interested in "scientific knowledge and the necessity of making it bear more directly upon the satisfaction of the tangible needs of mankind."[9] The college board responded, and Professor Hougham became Professor of Agricultural Chemistry. ("Provided it should not add more than $200 to the teaching budget.") Professor Hougham took a one year leave of absence (without pay) to do post graduate study in the natural sciences at Brown University; Providence, Rhode Island.[10] In the fall of 1854 the professor took up his new assignment, but there apparently was not sufficient interest either in attendance or in financial support to sustain the agriculture department, and it disappears from subsequent college catalogs.[11] In the late 1850's there was an attempt by some Baptists to move the college to Indianapolis, and again the college was beset by financial problems. This was followed by the Civil War years when all fund raising activities were suspended. Due to health reasons, President Bailey resigned in December, 1862 and Professor Hougham became the acting President of Franklin College. In late 1863 a final desperate effort to raise funds was made, but to no avail. On June 27, 1864 the college board suspended operations.[12] Franklin College was to be revived in 1872 as a coeducational institution, but without Professor Hougham.

While living in Franklin, Johnson County, Indiana from the period 1848-1868, John S. Hougham was engaged in many activities other than the life as an academic at Franklin College: He was appointed the County Surveyor for the periods 1848-1852 and was elected to the position for the years 1854-1856.[13] He was County Engineer from 1862-1868.[14] (His brother, Wilson T. Hougham, also served as County Surveyor and County Engineer.) He was one of the six charter stockholders of the first bank organized in Franklin County, the Indiana Farmer's Bank, chartered on January 1, 1856.[15] As the owner of various tracts of land in the City of Franklin, he platted at least three of them into subdivisions (April, 1853; December, 1853 and September, 1867).[16] In 1855 he surveyed the town of Amity, located south of Franklin about four miles.[17] In 1860-1861 he advertised himself as a maker of "mathematical and physical apparatus."[18] A devout Baptist, Hougham was a member of the First Baptist Church of Franklin. On March 26, 1855 he met with others in the college chapel (and was elected chairman) to organize a new church.[19] He is listed in The Baptist Encyclopedia (1883).[20] Today in the First Baptist Church of Franklin, Indiana (erected in 1885), there are a pair of stained glass windows in the sanctuary containing memorial inscriptions, "Prof. John S. Hougham 1848-1864" and "Mrs. Mary A. Hougham."

Although Franklin College had suspended operations in 1864, the Houghams stayed in Franklin. During the years 1864-1868 they and their then living three children lived in a fine Greek Revival home at the east edge of the city which is still standing today. He was the owner of several farms in Johnson County, and attended those interests. He also taught courses at the Indianapolis Female Institute.[21]

At the Kansas State Agricultural College (1868 1872)

Too young for retirement, and perhaps anxious to return to the academic life, Professor Hougham and his family moved to Manhattan, Kansas in April 1868, where he became Professor of Agriculture and Agriculture Science at the Kansas State College of Agriculture.[22] For the period 1868-1870 he taught natural philosophy (physics). By 1870, in addition to his professorship, Hougham was the college librarian and the Superintendent of the Farm. The work load must have been severe, for in that year he "asked for relief from overburden." The record does not indicate if relief was granted at that time, but a year later he was relieved as farm superintendent, his services being required "inside the college." In 1871 Hougham's title became "professor of agricultural chemistry, mechanic arts and commercial science." In the early days of the college, the word "department" was used rather loosely, with faculty operating more or less in an area of instruction. "As the faculty was small, it was usually the case that a professor taught subjects not really closely related to that indicated by his chair."[23] This seems to be the case with the versatile Professor Hougham.

In these early years the college was beset by problems. There were differing views on what should be the basis of the educational program: classical studies or branches of learning related to agriculture and the mechanic arts as outlined in the Morrill Act which established land grant institutions. (The Act had only then recently been signed by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862.) The college was attempting to create a land grant college without the benefit of a model.[24] Funding by the state was extremely low, with no appropriations being made by the legislature for the years 1866, 1870 and 1871. In 1869, Hougham wrote "the institution has no barn or team and until this year scarcely any implements or tools."[25] He found it difficult to advance his work, being asked to "make bricks without straw."[26] One professor of the period suggested the state leaders had forgotten that "a public institution cannot, like an orchid, live on Kansas air and rain water." Still, Hougham persevered, and with $160 he purchased and planted 600 maple trees, 25 apple trees, 200 peach trees, 900 grape vines, 50 gooseberry sets, 150 currant sets, and 20 assorted roses.[27]

University extension, as we would call it today, is not attributed to have begun in this country until the 1890's, but it was inaugurated in Kansas on June 23, 1868 when the college Board of Regents adopted a resolution calling for their professors to "extend the benefits of the institution to the people of the state at large." The resolution requested the professors visit the more populous settlements of the state, and by "free converse, as well as formal lectures .... that the benefits of farming according to correct agricultural principles may be disseminated throughout the state."[28] With this direction, the first "farmer's institute," as they came to be known, was held in Manhattan on November 14, 1868. The institute was held in conjunction with the newly formed Union Agricultural Society with Professor John S. Hougham, charter president. The college president, Joseph Denison, gave an address, as did others. Professor Hougham's topic was Economy of the Farm. George T. Anthony, editor of Kansas Farmer was present, and he gave an eight column account of the meeting in his newspaper. The institutes continued and by 1873 had expanded to several day occasions with paid out of state speakers as participants. Vestiges of the "farmers' institute" continue to this day at Kansas State University.

The circumstances of Professor Hougham's resignation from the college are not exactly clear. He had loaned the college some money and its repayment had brought him "much grief" and led to his resigning from the college in March, 1872.[29]

When the Houghams left Manhattan for Lafayette, Indiana, their son Henry, then 21, stayed behind and occupied the family residence there. He was to become a member of the city council, the library board, a 32d Mason, and a prominent Manhattan contractor.[30][31]

At Purdue University (1872 1876)

In 1865 the Indiana legislature voted to avail itself of the Morrill Act and took steps to establish a new university. Competition between Indiana communities ended in 1869 when the legislature accepted $150,000 from John Purdue, $50,000 from Tippecanoe County, and 100 acres of land from local residents. The legislature named the new institution Purdue University.[32] Professor Hougham was not far behind. Having resigned from Kansas State Agricultural College in March, he answered the call to return to his native Indiana, and was employed by the Purdue University trustees as of May 1, 1872.[33] During the summer of 1872 Hougham and board of trustees member (and treasurer) Martin L. Pierce toured the eastern schools of Brown University, Amherst, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to inspect science facilities, and to gather ideas for the prospective building program at Purdue.[34] Pierce was an old friend of Professor Hougham, they both having been on the Board of Directors at Franklin College. (Pierce is also credited with having inspired his "best friend" John Purdue with the idea of founding the university.[35])

Construction began on the Science Building (a replica of the structure Hougham and Pierce viewed at Brown University) on August 13, 1872, the same day that Richard Owen was named Purdue's first president.[36] But there were many problems and delays associated with starting a new university, and on March 1, 1874, President Owen resigned. Ten days later Hougham, the "jack of all professions"[37] was Purdue's first acting president. He would hold this position until June, 1874 when Abraham C. Shortridge was appointed president.

To meet a legal requirement of the Indiana law, a "presession" was held from March to June, 1874, conducted by Professor Hougham. The official start of Purdue University however, is listed as September 16, 1874. Professor Hougham is credited with being Purdue's first professor.[38] His title at the opening date is given as Professor of Physics and Industrial Mechanics.[39] In poor health and nearly blind, President Shortridge resigned on November 5, 1875. Awaiting the arrival of Purdue's new president (Emerson E. White), Professor Hougham again became Purdue's acting president. It has been written that he "could well have served as the university president in his own right."[40] Apparently the responsibilities of being a university president did not appeal to Professor Hougham. He resigned from Purdue University in 1876 and he and his wife, Mary Ann, departed Lafayette for Manhattan. They left behind their daughter, Elizabeth who, on May 19, 1875 had married Howard Hickman, a Methodist pastor.

The Later Years (1876 1894)

Returning to Manhattan, the Houghams were reunited with their son, Henry, his wife Ella Jane (Whitney) Hougham and two young grandchildren, Edward and Stella. There Professor Hougham's wife of thirty five years died on June 13, 1882. Professor Hougham did not reenter academia on a regular appointment, but during his later years gave a series of lectures on chemistry and physics at Bethany College in Topeka, Western Female Academy in Oxford, Ohio and at Cooper Academy in Dayton, Ohio.[41] There he met Martha B. Curtis (b. 1853, d. 1941), a teacher at Central High School. They were married on December 25, 1887 and were to have one child, Hespra (b. 1889, d. 1958).

In an autobiographical piece, Professor Hougham wrote of himself:

A tender regard for the truth would prevent him from even obliquely hinting that he ever did any great thing. He has at no time been conscious of attempting such. His life, like that of "the boy," has been passed doing all sorts of "chores," such as he must need do, or they would have gone without being done .... He does not think he would be any busier or work harder if life were to be lived over again. The only ambition he has known was to do well and faithfully the small work that has fallen to himself.[42]

In closing the autobiographical sketch, Professor Hougham requested: "First a small funeral when he dies; second, a very brief, if any, obituary notice." Apparently his friends thought otherwise: His lengthy obituary says the funeral was "largely attended."[43] He died on March 31, 1894.

John Scherer Hougham was a pioneer, in every sense of the word. At Franklin College he was an anchor as well as fund raiser, president of the board, acting president and a community leader. At Kansas State Agricultural College he helped mold the future curricula of land grant colleges, and was instrumental in beginning (at one of the first, if not the first college in the country) what today would be called continuing education. Twice he was the acting president of Purdue University during its early turbulent years. "Old reliable" and "jack of all professions" are terms used to describe his service while at Purdue. What noble compliments!

© Richard L. Elgin, 1993

Dr. Richard L. Elgin is a practicing land surveyor and engineer, living in Rolla, Missouri. He also is Adjunct Professor of Surveying at the University of Missouri Rolla and has coauthored four books on surveying. He has a large collection of American surveying instruments.

References to long version Hougham article by Elgin.

(Format and citation may not be complete.)

  1. Family genealogical records of and interview with Robert E. Hougham of Johnson County, Indiana, June 4, 1993.[back to text]
  2. October 14, 1991 letter to the author from Joanna Herring, Archivist, Ramsay Archival Center, Wabash College, Crawfordsville, Indiana.[back to text]
  3. Hougham interview, June 4, 1993.[back to text]
  4. First Half Century, Jubilee Exercises, Franklin College, 1834 1884 (Cincinnati: Journal and Messenger, 1884), p. 73.[back to text]
  5. Cady, John F., The Centennial History of Franklin College, 1934, p. 52.[back to text]
  6. Branigan, Elba L., History of Johnson County Indiana (Indianapolis: B.F. Bowen & Co., Inc., 1913), p.289.[back to text]
  7. Cady, pp. 59 61.[back to text]
  8. Cady, p.64.[back to text]
  9. Cady, p. 69.[back to text]
  10. Portrait and Biographical Album of Washington, Clay and Riley Counties, (Chicago: Chapman Brothers, 1890), p.1121.[back to text]
  11. Cady, p.70.[back to text]
  12. Cady, p.85.[back to text]
  13. Branigan, p. 117.[back to text]
  14. Branigan, p. 537.[back to text]
  15. Branigan, p. 393.[back to text]
  16. Branigan, pp. 544 545.[back to text]
  17. Banta, History of Johnson County, Indiana, (Chicago: Brant & Fuller, 1888), p. 577.[back to text]
  18. Hawes, George W., Indiana State Gazetteer, 2nd Edition (Indianapolis: George W. Hawes, 1860 1861), p. 139.[back to text]
  19. Banta, p. 846.[back to text]
  20. Catheart, William, The Baptist Encyclopedia, (Philadelphia: Louis H. Everts, 1883), p. 545.[back to text]
  21. Cady, p. 89.[back to text]
  22. Kansas State Agricultural College, Executive Committee Records, March 11, 1868, p.29.[back to text]
  23. Willard, Julius T., History of Kansas State College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences, (Manhattan: Kansas State College Press, 1940), p. 446.[back to text]
  24. Carey, James C., Kansas State University: The Quest for Identity, (Lawrence: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1977), p. 40.[back to text]
  25. Howes, Charles, Kansas State University, A Pictorial History, 1863 1963, p. 18.[back to text]
  26. Waiters, J.D., History of the Kansas State Agricultural College, (Manhattan: Kansas State Agricultural College, 1909), p. 44.[back to text]
  27. Howes, p. 18.[back to text]
  28. Willard, p. 475.[back to text]
  29. Walters, p. 44.[back to text]
  30. Pioneers of the Bluestem Prairie, (Manhattan: Riley County Genealogical Society, 1976), p.359.[back to text]
  31. An Illustrated. Sketch Book of Riley County, Kansas, the Blue Ribbon County, (Manhattan: The Nationalist, January, 1881), p. 92.[back to text]
  32. Purdue University Bulletin, The Graduate School, 1990 1992.[back to text]
  33. Topping, Robert, A Century and Beyond: A History of Purdue University, 1888, p. 76.[back to text]
  34. Albjerg, Marguerite Hall, Martin L. Pierce Hoosier Banker and Benefactor, Indiana Magazine of History, Vol. XLIX, No. 3, Sept., 1953, p. 278.[back to text]
  35. Ibid.[back to text]
  36. Topping, p. 63.[back to text]
  37. Ibid.[back to text]
  38. The Trustees and the Officer of Purdue University 1865 1940, p. 409.[back to text]
  39. 1878 Atlas of Tippecanoe County, section on Purdue University.[back to text]
  40. Topping, p. 87.[back to text]
  41. Portrait and Biographical Album of Washington, Clay and Riley Counties, p. 1121.[back to text]
  42. First Half Century, Jubilee Exercises, Franklin College, 1834 1884, p.74.[back to text]
  43. The Industrialist, Vol. 19, No. 30, April 7, 1894, p. 119.[back to text]

Owner/SourceRichard Elgin
PlaceRolla, Missouri
Linked toHougham, John Scherer

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