Higher Learning in the Panhandle

When you think about major colleges and universities in Florida, where does your mind travel? Gainesville? Tallahassee? Miami? Pensacola? These days, higher education can be found in every corner of the state, but you may be surprised to learn that in the 1910s, 20s, and early 30s one of the liveliest institutions in North Florida was located in the Panhandle in De Funiak Springs. It was called Palmer College and Academy.

McIlwain Hall at Palmer College (circa 1915).

McIlwain Hall at Palmer College (circa 1915).

Palmer wasn’t the first institution of higher learning in DeFuniak Springs. Florida’s state normal school for white students was located there from its founding in 1887 to 1905, when the state’s institutions of higher learning were reorganized under the Buckman Act. This was the same act that created the University of Florida (initially known as the University of the State of Florida) and the Florida State College for Women.

With the normal school gone, leaders in De Funiak began wondering what they might do to replace it. The pastor of the Presbyterian Church, Rev. F.L. Higdon, recommended the town act fast to find a way to use the property before the state decided to dispose of it. He envisioned a religious school that would include both the high school grades plus colleagiate work. With the aid of Presbyterians around the region, Palmer College soon emerged. It was named for Benjamin Morgan Palmer, a Presbyterian leader in New Orleans.

Women's basketball team at Palmer College (1913).

Women’s basketball team at Palmer College (1913).

Palmer advertised itself as a place for both local youth and the children of Northerners who wished to “shield their children from the rigors of a Northern climate.” As of 1913, tuition for both the Academy (the high school section) and the College was $30.00 per semester. Room and board in the dormitories was $54.00 per semester. Piano, voice, elocution, or art instruction could be tacked on for an additional $24.00 per semester. Books and laundry were extra, and students were responsible for bringing their own linens.

Palmer’s curriculum included all the basics, including English, math, biology, history. The college also offered Greek, German, French, and Latin. All students participated in chapel services, and Bible study was part of the normal student schedule.

Palmer College students on a picnic (1915 or 1916).

Palmer College students on a picnic (1915 or 1916).

Our favorite State Library resources on Palmer College are the yearbooks. The students wrote much of the material, which allows the readers a window into what it was like to be a young student in the 1910s and 20s. The components of the yearbooks aren’t so different from today, but the humor certainly is. Take, for example, these entries from the “Senior Class Will” of the Class of 1925:

“To the Sophomore Class we bequeath our knowledge of Geometry with our grades; some may need them.”

“I, Ethel Penton, bequeath to Edna Singletary my privilege of town days, hoping that she is as lucky with results as I have been.” (Permission to leave the college grounds was strictly controlled.)

I, Dan Hughes, bequeath to Melville Jennings and Pug Wilson, my good looks, hoping that it is equally divided.”

The yearbooks also report on the students’ social activities. Parties were common, but they were generally formal affairs given either by local community groups or by student organizations like the “Wallace Bruce Literary Society.” Marshmallow roasts, picnics, and occasional excursions by automobile were favorite outings. Some of the games the students played during these activities included “King William,” “Follow the Leader,” “Post Office,” and “Bunco.”

Cover of the 1925 Palmera yearbook for Palmer College, part of the Florida Collection at the State Library.

Cover of the 1925 Palmera yearbook for Palmer College, part of the Florida Collection at the State Library.

Palmer College closed its doors after the 1935-36 academic year, but its history remains preserved in the yearbooks and other print materials produced by the school. Palmer is just one of the many schools for which these items have made it into the State Library & Archives of Florida. Search the library catalog to see if we have resources for learning more about a historic Florida institution near you.

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