By Mary Giorgio
Industrialist John Purdue grew up in poverty, receiving only five years of formal education, yet he went on to play a leading role in the establishment of one of Indiana’s most prestigious universities. Purdue’s generous contribution towards establishing Purdue University made the dream of opening a public college in Tippecanoe County a reality. Purdue’s commitment to improving his community went well beyond his donation to fund a university. As a leading businessman in Lafayette, Indiana, for over 35 years, Purdue donated his time and money to many important public projects.
Purdue was born on October 31, 1802, in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania. He was the only son of Charles and Mary Purdue. The couple also had nine daughters(!!!). Charles Purdue worked at an iron foundry, but the job failed to provide adequate pay to support his large family. They eventually relocated to Ohio, where Charles died.
At the age of 12, John Purdue was apprenticed to a merchant in Adelphi, Ohio. He later taught school in Ohio and Michigan from 1823 to 1831. Using the savings he earned as a teacher, Purdue purchased a farm in 1831. He sold it the following year for a profit. He then became an agricultural broker, facilitating the sale of neighbors’ farm animals and crops. In 1833, Purdue opened a general store with his business partner, Moses Fowler.
As Purdue’s wealth increased, he began purchasing more land in surrounding states. In 1834, he acquired 240 acres in present-day Lafayette, Indiana, for $850. Seeing potential in the frontier town, Purdue and Fowler sold their Ohio holdings in 1839 and moved to Indiana. The two men opened a grocery and dry goods business on the courthouse square. Purdue also acted as an agricultural broker for his new Indiana neighbors, traveling to New York City to sell their pork, lard, pigskin, corn, wheat, butter, and more.
Purdue soon established a reputation as one of the county’s most successful businessmen. He took an active interest in civic improvement and was always willing to lend a hand or open his pocketbook for a worthy cause. In 1839, shortly after moving to town, Purdue donated operational funds to the newly organized Agricultural Society. In 1840, he funded start-up costs for a library club. In 1842, he donated funds to establish a city band. Purdue also financed a local thespian club and debate group. His donations facilitated the construction and renovation of dozens of local churches.
In addition to these smaller expenditures, Purdue took a leading role in a number of local infrastructure projects. In 1845, Purdue joined with four business partners to finance the construction of a bridge over the Wabash River. The Lafayette Bridge Company spent $20,000 on the construction of a 600-ft wooden toll bridge at Brown Street. It opened in 1847. The construction of this bridge resulted in the development of the west side of the Wabash River. Soon after, in 1846, Purdue became involved in the establishment of a railroad line from Lafayette to Indianapolis.
By the mid-1840s, Lafayette was facing a public crisis. The growing community had no public burial ground. Purdue played a leading role in the establishment of Greenbush Cemetery in 1848.
He also answered the call to serve on the town’s first public school board in 1852. When a state tax lawsuit left Indiana public schools unexpectedly without operational funds, Purdue personally financed all of Lafayette’s school costs until the matter was settled. At Purdue’s encouragement, three school buildings were constructed for Lafayette children before he left office in 1855 – Southern School at Third and Romig, Eastern School on Elizabeth Street, and Central School at 6th and Brown. Following his departure from the Lafayette School Board, Purdue served as a trustee for the Battle Ground Collegiate Institute. He also donated funds for the establishment of a similar institution in nearby Stockwell, Indiana.
With the coming of the Civil War, Purdue donated heavily to the Union cause and became a trusted source of dry goods and pork products for the Union Army. In 1862, in response to an increase in lawlessness by local Confederate sympathizers, Purdue founded the Purdue Rifles, a volunteer force of 100 trained men who protected local businesses from looting, guarded Confederate prisoners, and rounded up deserters.
Following the war’s end, Tippecanoe County found itself in debt. Its commitments to pay stipends to veterans and the families of fallen soldiers outweighed treasury funds. To keep the county afloat, Purdue stepped up yet again, offering Tippecanoe County a $10,000 loan.
Not all of Purdue’s ventures were so successful. He ran for Congress twice, in 1864 and 1866, and lost both elections. Investments in a Colorado silver mining scheme also failed to pay dividends. A Lafayette-Muncie-Bloomington Railroad branch that Purdue backed failed to materialize. Yet, despite these setbacks, Purdue was generally considered to be among the wealthiest and most successful men in the county.
Purdue’s single greatest legacy was still ahead. In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Act, authorizing the creation of land-grant colleges using proceeds from federal land sales. The Indiana legislature began to consider locations for a land-grant college in the Hoosier state. The competition was fierce – with Indiana University in Bloomington, Northwestern Christian College in Indianapolis, and the Stockwell and Battle Ground Collegiate Institutions near Lafayette all vying to become Indiana’s land-grant college. The chosen community would need to match startup costs with cash and land donations.
In Lafayette, locals raised a sum of cash, land, and bonds, but needed a prominent backer to make a big donation. Enter John Purdue, who willingly offered $150,000 and 100 acres of land. He made the gift on the condition that the college be in Battle Ground and bear his name. Purdue’s donation was enough to edge out the competition. Following the establishment of Purdue University in 1869, Purdue became a member of the new college’s board of trustees. Classes began on September 16, 1874, with six instructors, 39 students, and 3 buildings – a modest beginning for what would become one of Indiana’s greatest public education institutions. Purdue died on September 12, 1876, and is buried on campus.
John Purdue’s legacy lives on in Tippecanoe County. Purdue’s gifts of time and capital touched nearly every aspect of community development in the roughly 35 years that he called Lafayette home. His greatest and most lasting achievement, the establishment of Purdue University, has resulted in a quality collegiate education for hundreds of thousands of students over the past 150 years.
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