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The story of us: how ASU started

The story of the University since its inception in 1885

Class portrait in front of Old Main in the original Normal School Building, taken in 1901.

Class portrait in front of Old Main in the original Normal School Building, taken in 1901.

Before Sparky, the Gammage auditorium and constant traffic down University drive, ASU was little more than a cow pasture.

The story of ASU began in the mid-1880s in a sparsely populated community colloquially known as Hayden’s Ferry, named after the Salt River ferry owned by businessman Charles Trumbull Hayden.


Hayden's name is mentioned often in early Tempe history. The story of how Tempe first received the Territorial Normal School is no different.

According to Jared Smith, curator of the Tempe History Museum, the reason for this is a mixture of Hayden's business interests in the fledgling town as well as an interest in community. He describes Hayden as "a man thinking ahead."

"He was truly a man interested in seeing his community do well," Smith said. "He knew that there were certain ingredients that were going to help it succeed."

Smith surmised that this was probably part of the reason Hayden had a hand in the creation of an institution for higher learning in Tempe. 

"I think that it showed his take on something that would be a good thing for the future of Tempe and make it a crucial ingredient for the entire territory," Smith said.

ASU archivist Robert Spindler said that Hayden called a meeting of the community in 1885 to raise money to buy five acres of a cow pasture, owned by locals George and Martha Wilson. They intended to place a normal school, a school for teachers on the land. The article, however, was disputed due to a few minor factual inconsistencies.

“Mainly it’s a story,” Spindler said. “It might even be a legend that Hayden pulled the people together to purchase this land. We do know that $500 was actually raised for the purchase of five acres.”

Because recording practices were much different in the 1800s, the school's origin is still up for debate.

“A lot of things were done with discussions and handshakes,” Spindler said. “Not everyone had access to pencils and papers and not everyone had writing skills.”

Spindler said the idea of a normal school (what would become Tempe's ASU), was introduced to the territorial legislature by John Samuel Armstrong. Armstrong was Hayden’s business manager and a member of the “thieving thirteenth” Arizona Territorial Legislature. Arizona Territorial Legislature is known for laying the groundwork for many state institutions including what is now ASU and UA.

“This young man with no legislative experience is attributed with drafting the founding legislation for the Territorial Normal School,” Spindler said. “So the question has always been, 'Did Armstrong work under the direction of Charles Trumbull Hayden in doing this or did he act alone'?”

Spindler said that the story passed down claims that Armstrong was working Hayden’s account. Spindler added that this legend has some logic attached to it.

“It’s hard to believe that a first term, 28-year-old legislator could simply sit down and write the legislation by himself and then put together the political coalition necessary to get it passed,” Spindler said.

Spindler said, however, Armstrong’s family strongly believes that he acted alone.

“The family, and in fact John Armstrong IV, compiled documentation that they felt proved that John Armstrong I was the sole founder of the normal school,” Spindler said.

Spindler added that what this dispute is missing is strong written contemporary evidence describing what happened, meaning that the true credit for creating the school will never be entirely given.

“In my opinion, we’ll never really know who’s idea it was to found the normal school,” Spindler said. “But ultimately, in my mind, history is more complicated than that. There are many founders of this institution.”

Spindler pointed back to the Wilson family and their cow pasture. The land requirement for a normal school called for 15 more acres of land than Hayden bought from the Wilsons. The Wilson family donated the rest of the land needed free of charge, which happened to be the entirety of their pasture.


As time went on, the Territorial Normal School saw growth in curriculum, student population and the town of Tempe around it. This can be noted through the school’s numerous name changes, including Tempe Normal School and Arizona State College.

Spindler stated that each name change in the school’s history represents the Arizona Board of Education (later the Arizona Board of Regents) approving a growth in size of the school’s curriculum.

“Think of it as expanding demand for higher education,” Spindler said.

In the 1950s, the institution was about to reach its final form, becoming a full-fledged university. All it needed was to be officially deemed a university. This lead to some consternation from renowned ASU rival, UA.

“The University of Arizona was very reluctant to see another institution of higher education founded in Arizona because they felt that that was a duplication of effort and a waste of resources,” Spindler said. “They fought tooth and nail to stop it.”

According to a 1958 edition of the "Daily Wildcat," the UA campus newspaper, the movement to stop Arizona State College's re-designation was headed by Tucson businessman Tom Wallace and Tom McIntosh, then-president of the Associated Students of the University of Arizona.

The pair lead the campaign with the argument that a second university in Arizona would be too much of a burden on taxpayers, while also serving as a detriment to public education in Arizona as as a whole.

The issue was resolved, rather unorthodoxly, through a ballot proposition known as Prop. 200. According to Denise E. Bates, an ASU assistant professor of leadership and interdisciplinary studies, this caused a massive pro-200 campaign throughout Arizona, complete with an equally large anti-200 campaign.

“There was an airplane that would often fly over different parts of Arizona and on the underbelly it would say ‘vote yes on proposition 200,’” Bates said. “It was quite an ordeal.”

The proposition passed, making ASU one of the only universities to gain its status through a popular vote, according to Bates.

“It was actually probably one of the more fun parts of ASU history,” Bates said.

Reach the reporter at or follow  @jeffdarge on Twitter.

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