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BSU's first teachers had 38 students

First president of the Bemidji State Normal School M.W. Deputy stands fourth from left in this 1921 photo of the faculty and administration. Beltrami County Historical Society

Ninety years ago, aspiring teachers first arrived at Bemidji State Normal School.

Starting with a summer session, the school opened in 1919. That fall, it had 38 students.

"And I think of the 38, two were men," said Art Lee, Bemidji State professor emeritus of history.

Bemidji State Normal School only trained students in elementary education, said Lee, who is the author of a book titled "University in the Pines," which is a history of BSU.

Two years after it opened, the school was renamed Bemidji State Teachers College and began offering a four-year program that allowed students to study to become high school teachers.

This, Lee said, drew more men.

Twenty-five men were enrolled in 1925 - the year the college started an 11-man football team.

According to a story Lee said has been passed down for years, Bemidji State's first president, Manfred Deputy, called the team over at a practice during the first year of the football program, raised his arms and said, "I christen thee Beavers."

"And the nickname stuck," Lee added.

Lee said Bemidji State's only undefeated football season was during World War II, when most men were drafted and went into the Army.

At that time, Bemidji State had a squad of 13 players."They played four games and won them all," Lee said.

After World War II, enrollment mushroomed, he said.

The college was renamed in 1957, becoming Bemidji State College, and began offering programs besides teacher training.

In 1975, the name changed to Bemidji State University. As part of the change, the academic structure moved from divisions to colleges.

"It's a jump in prestige and perceptions," Lee added.

When the state decided to build a normal school in the northwest part of Minnesota, there was immense competition among towns, Lee said.

"The winner seemed to be Cass Lake," he said.

He said the state Legislature passed a bill that would have put the school in Cass Lake. However, former Gov. John Johnson vetoed the bill.

The competition started again, and narrowed between Bemidji and Thief River Falls. Bemidji was chosen for the site.

The first building built was Deputy Hall, named after the school's first president.

The second building was Sanford Hall, named after Minnesota educator Maria Sanford. Sanford Hall was the first dormitory on the campus.