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County History

History of Higher Education in Allegany County

Transcribed from the Alfred Sun, February 15, 1940.
Transcribed by Karen Meisenheimer.


Note: This history of Alfred University and Houghton College was written in 1940 by Hubert Bliss.

PEAKS OF ALLEGANY

By Hubert D. Bliss

Alfred University might rightly be called the seat of the highest education in the Empire State. It smashes all “peak” records for colleges in the state. Elevation may not be the gauge for distinction itself, but when a college finds itself top of the heap, so to speak, it has a right to metaphor.

And Alfred is the top of the heap. Few villages in the state are higher than Alfred. None of these is a college town. So higher education becomes highest at Alfred.

Alfred village is 1760 feet altitude at the college’s Carnegie Library. From there it rises to around 1850 feet within the village limits. The college campus probably is around 1850 feet at the Davis Memorial carillon tower.

So the seat of the “highest education” in the state, Alfred also can claim such tangible “peaks” as having the highest campus in the Empire State and probably the loftiest carillon in the world.



“Peaks of Allegany” has taken its readers to some new heights – and now it seems as though it ought to get them down lest it appear that the aim of these articles is to dazzle with tall tales of elevation. The significance back of the peaks, after all, is in identifying Allegany County as the peak section of the Empire State, so far as its being a functioning economic and political unit at the state’s highest populated points.

In other words the people are the important factor. The physical aspects gain their stature thereby. For it is what people have done with this oft-regarded formidable countryside that makes worth while such recording of peaks and vales.

Since Allegany has cosmopolitan pursuits, there is almost no end to a roll call of “peaks” possible. But these limit themselves to three major fields wherein Allegany County makes a distinct contribution to State and National annals. At least, they so fall within the scope of this series.

As a rural country, it is predominantly agricultural. This factor of its arability at the peak point in the state is basic in these articles. But interpretation into terms of actual farming as among the three major fields of human activities belongs to a subsequent chapter.

As the state’s leading mineral producing county, Allegany County has an enviable “economic peak” rating in its oil and gas fields. And this, too, deserves its own article later within the human activity category.

This article takes up the third field in human relations, wherein Allegany County commands a unique place – that of higher education. Old Allegany boasts Alfred University and Houghton College as holding high the banner of culture and leadership within its borders. Off-hand, I know of only one other rural county – St. Lawrence—in the state with two colleges.

But Allegany County achieves its position from a population of only 38,000. Moreover, the ranking is from a region so rugged physically and rigorous climatically that one scarcely expects [s]cholastic attainments out of the ordinary.

That colleges do not grow on every hilltop is evident from the fact that in only one county adjoining Allegany County is there any college. Cattaraugus has St. Bonaventure. Wyoming, Steuben and Livingston counties in New York State and Potter County in Pennsylvania have none.

Yet chance does not explain why Allegany County has two colleges. Rather, it is because within the people of a small rural section was born the inspiration to kindle and keep aglow these educational lights in the highlands. Each institution has its separate attributes; such as cannot be catalogued in this article. Yet it can claim as a fact that nowhere else within the Empire State has a similar contribution been made to education; that in no region of the United States has such a limited population achieved more mightily within scholastic lines.

For close to 104 years, Alfred University has been serving its educational field. In 1936 it observed its centennial—a century span that had seen it grow from a select school for its own town to a university with accredited standing among college associations of the nation. It is not the purpose to review here the history of the two Allegany colleges. Strictly historical data is not the intent of the series.

But a record of 104 years of adherence to educational ideals bespeaks a “peak” that belongs to the very fabric of “Peaks of Allegany”. “Nestled away ‘mid the Empire State hills” runs the first line of Alfred’s Alma Mater song. There the pioneer college of western New York, founded scarcely 40 years after the first white settler came into Allegany County, has implemented its own song with the flavor of the highlands.

In the college catalogues of the Alfred era when I attended, a perennial reference cited Alfred as having “a high moral atmosphere”. Target for occasional jesting among the students, the claim indeed appears modest in height of such “peak” points as now arise for the college. The catalogue of today could extend “high” to the superlative or resort to “loftiest” or “most elevated” for peak terms in its moral atmosphere, gained as its reward for its last quarter century of educational service.

Alfred now has nearly 650 students in the college department, and 350 taking vocational courses in the New York State School of Agriculture—a total of approximately 1,000. Expansion has been marked in the last quarter century. The university embraces the College of Liberal Arts, the original Alfred institution of higher education when the state chartered it as a university in 1857; the nationally renowned New York State College of Ceramics and the New York State School of Agriculture, besides an affiliated Seventh Day Baptist Seminary. Plans also have been announced for starting a Graduate school next year.

Houghton College goes back more than a half century for its educational groundings. It was started as Houghton Wesleyan Methodist Seminary in 1884. College courses were introduced later, and in 1923 it was chartered as a college. On a ridge above the Genesee River, it is situated in one of the notable historical regions of Allegany County both during the Seneca Indian supremacy and the close to 150 years that the white man has been here.

Houghton’s most marked achievement in respect to general public recognition is within musical fields; it’s A Cappela Choir being known by its concerts over a wide area. The college has had a vigorous growth, until there are now 500 students enrolled.

Indeed, Allegany’s two colleges typify a county in which education is a noble tradition. It is significant that Allegany shares with Yates County the rating of lowest in illiteracy in New York State. The two counties were classed with only seven-tenths of one percent of their population unable to read or write, in the last census. Facts such as these supply the background for the conviction that it is indeed not mere chance when a highland county such as Allegany has two outstanding institutions of higher education.

Instead those who found Allegany Hills in inviting spot to settle were wrought of the stuff from which real achievement comes. Beyond that was the cosmopolitan character of its people which enabled them to compound a distinctive scholastic life to which the outside world gives heed.

Two colleges then – Alfred and Houghton—bespeak one of the “peak” attainments within the human relations field that make Allegany County great in every sense of the word.

---Copyright, 1940, by H.D. Bliss

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