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A strong college can be the centerpiece of a growing town. It can bring in people, businesses and resources that a town needs to grow. For Neligh, Gates College provided just that for 32 years. However, it wasn’t without struggle.
In the late 1800s, Congregationalists put an emphasis on education with support from the church, leading to the establishment of colleges and academies across the midwest. One such institution was Doane University, then Doane College, established in 1872. Another was Gates College in Neligh.
A Beginning Marked By Conflict
Incorporated on September 29, 1881, Gates College was built in Neligh after a bidding war with other Northeast Nebraska towns — Norfolk, Oakdale and Albion. Neligh won out after submitting a bid for $5,000 in cash and 40 acres of land for the institution. The college was named after Reverend H.N. Gates who, at the time, was the State Superintendent of Home Missions for the Congregational Church. At the time it was built, Gates College was the only institution of higher learning in Nebraska north of the Platte River.
According to “Gates College: Doane’s ‘Sister School to the North,’ ” written by 2005 Neligh-Oakdale graduate Jamie Helgren, Gates College wasn’t actually a college at all in the beginning.
“Though called a ‘college’ in the official documents, Gates began instruction solely as a college preparatory department the first four years,” Helgren wrote.
Gates began classes in 1882. Four years later, the first college course was offered at Gates, kicking off controversy that would follow the school until its end.
Doane supporters quickly met the move with opposition, believing the church couldn’t support more than one college in the state. They believed a second college, rather than the feeder academy Gates had acted as to that point, would stretch the church too far financially and would dwindle both institution’s enrollment. The debate raged on until 1891, when the General Association made a landmark decision.
“In spite of a $30,000 endowment pledged on condition of the General Association’s endorsement of Gates College, those against a second Congregational college in the state were successful,” wrote Helgren. “At the state meeting in 1891, the General Association voted 124 to 107 against recognizing and endorsing Gates as a college.”
The debate leading up to the position put Neligh on the map. The arguments were heard across the country, with stories appearing in publications as far away as Boston, an impressive feat for the time.
The Fight To Keep Gates College In Neligh
The remaining 23 years of Gates’ existence were marked by attempts to move the college elsewhere. The first attempt came the very next year when it was recommended that Gates and Doane be joined into one central college for the state, leaving both Neligh and Crete without schools. Gates College trustees actually were in favor of this move however the same could not be said about Doane and the idea was squashed by 1893.
Gates continued to grow. While many issues began to pop up, the school persevered on.
“By 1889 the campus had grown to include four buildings and a library of 5,000 volumes, with music and normal courses offered,” Helgren wrote. “Under president (H.K.) Warren’s tenure, the academy department doubled, and even after the long controversy with Doane College, Gates added a summer school and a business course in 1892.”
It wasn’t long before Gates was back in the spotlight of yet another controversy. Amidst the school’s $10,000 debt and feeling the lack of support for the school, President H.K. Warren, the school’s original president, resigned from his position as the leader of Gates. This quickly led trustees to encourage a move to nearby Norfolk, which had grown to be nearly four times the population of Neligh during Gates’ lifetime.
The trustees voted to make the move and were immediately met with opposition from the people of Neligh. Citizens quickly filed a court injunction against the move but that didn’t stop the trustees as they found their own loophole. The majority resigned their positions on the board to organize the Norfolk school. The school was opened in 1895.
Despite the loss of the trustees, Gates carried on. Debate raged on among the Congregationalists over which school would be better for the long term - Gates or Norfolk. The sides were so split that they decided to bring in an investigation committee from out of state to help with the decision.
Thanks to the vote of confidence from the committee, Gates survived while Norfolk College was closed in 1898. However, it was simply prolonging the inevitable. Gates continued to struggle financially. It dropped to full-time academy status once again before the turn of the century, a sign that the end was near. The Congregational Church began closing down its various academies shortly after, choosing instead to funnel resources back to Doane. Gates held out for as long as it could but closed its doors for good in 1914.
All That Remains
From then on, the buildings were removed from town, leaving little evidence of the school that aided in the population boom of the town in the late 1800s. While President Warren’s house is still around, the only remaining building of the college itself is the former gymnasium.
Built in 1892, the gym was a two-story building that housed equipment for men on the first floor and women on the second, according to the National Register of Historic Places.
“The college took interest in the health of the students and in September 1892, a meeting was held to discuss the possibility of erecting a gymnasium building,” Tom Buecker wrote in his nomination of the building’s historic registration.
When the school lost rescinded its charter in 1899, the gym was quickly shut down. However, that move may have been the one that saved it from the fate of the other buildings of the school as Antelope County was in need of a new facility to house inmates. In 1900, the county bought the building from the school and moved three cells from the courthouse to the first floor of the building. The second floor served as the office for the county sheriff.
The Antelope County Historical Society took over the building in 1964 when a new jail was built. The building housed the county’s museum for many years after until the museum was moved across the street. Then, in 2016, the building was reopened as Jailhouse Junkees and remains as such today.
While evidence of Gates College’s existence remains only through historical markers and the former gym, the impact it had during its short existence can not be overstated. Neligh’s population exploded during the time of Gates’ existence, setting the foundation for what would become the center of Antelope County.