While Denison is not as old as some of the “colonial” colleges of the East Coast, we were among the first half dozen institutions of higher learning founded west of the Appalachians and north of the Ohio River, that is, in the old Northwest Territory. In 1831, this was still frontier, and colleges like Denison were created especially to educate leadership for an expanding nation.
But there are variant college seals that have come in and out of use over the last 181 years. One that was common throughout the last century substituted for “1831” the words “Granville, Ohio.” It’s easy to understand why: Thinking about Denison almost always brings to mind our historic college town. It may not have the instant recognizability of Cambridge, New Haven, or Palo Alto, but Granville has been so much a home to our college and generations of collegians that it’s fair to say that while “Granville” may not be part of the official seal, it’s a central part of the fabric of our Denison identity.
Granville and Denison simply grew up together. The town, founded in 1805, had just emerged from its rudest frontier stage when it was selected by Ohio Baptists to house a college for young men. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the town regularly relied upon the expertise of Denison professors to meet civic needs. Denison faculty members, for instance, devised the town’s first public water system, and Professor/Mayor Richard Colwell gave Granville’s streets their modern names and insisted they be flanked by paved sidewalks.
In turn, Granville provisioned the college, offered boarding houses for a growing student body that exceeded the capacity of campus residence halls, and gave many a young Denisonian in need of cash a part-time job in a local business. The tradition of shared leadership between town and gown continues to this day. Associate Professor of Education Lyn Robertson is among Granville’s 21st-century mayors, and the governing boards of community institutions, from schools to museums, from symphony to library, are regularly filled out by members of the Denison family.
I’ve long since learned as Denison’s president that I have many masters—or at least constituencies. Current students, of course, are one, as are faculty and staff. Alumni are another, and parents of students are, too. The Board of Trustees are the “owners” of the college in law. But Granvillians also have a stake in Denison. The college is by far the largest employer in the community, and a majority of staff still live within the village or the adjacent townships that are part of the Granville school district. Our students form lines out the door for burgers at Brews or frozen custard at Whit’s, and visitors to campus keep the inns occupied, particularly on special Denison occasions. In turn, we enjoy the company of local residents at visual and performing arts events, at Denison athletic contests, and at the scholarly and public affairs lectures that keep our campus calendar full. It’s no wonder that Granville residents regularly share with me their outlook and advice on the affairs of the college.
This issue of Denison Magazine brings attention to a Civil War-era letter by Denison student Judson Harmon, Class of 1866. Harmon’s Granville was not today’s Granville, and it helps remind us that Granville has evolved—and continues to evolve—just as Denison changes. Civil War Granville was a lively market town and a busy place of manufacturing, with mills, distilleries, iron foundries, stoneworks, ropewalks, and hat makers.
Half a century later, when the main railroad lines had passed Granville by and the Ohio Canal and its local “feeder” were on their last legs, the town took on a sleepier aspect, though it still provided markets, goods, and services for residents of the productive agricultural valleys surrounding it. Many Denisonians will remember a mid-20th-century Granville that sported as many as seven gasoline service stations and four or five downtown markets and butcher shops. And during the last twenty years, Granville has experienced suburbanization, with a growing proportion of the population commuting to and from Columbus by highway. Who would have guessed just a few years ago that downtown Granville would be home to restaurants offering Chinese, Italian, and Mexican meals?
Having experienced two centuries of change, there’s no reason to expect that tomorrow’s Granville will be exactly like today’s either, though the community works hard to preserve the hallmarks of its historical character. What do Denison students think about Granville? Well, everything. Some find it safe and charming. Some think it too quiet and homogeneous. Some enjoy it as a walking community; others find the trek up and down the hill impossibly long. Some engage with local families and institutions while others choose to pass through without connecting. But when Denisonians come back to Granville after five years, twenty, or fifty, then the stories roll and Granville takes a leading part in reminiscence.