On this date: Culver is now in session

Jeff Kenney

First cadets arrive in 1894


September 24, 2021

The first cadets of Culver Military Academy arrived on campus on Sept. 24, 1894, a moment which represented both a culmination of what had come before, and an obvious new beginning of a venture whose success and renown its founder surely could never have anticipated. 

The initial 45 cadets who made up the very first class of CMA arrived on the 24th for "Examination for Admission," with the first term actually starting the next day, Sept. 25.

At least one student who donned a Culver cap and uniform that day had already been part of an experimental summer camp on the property just weeks earlier, organized by the school's founder, Henry Harrison Culver. That camper, David C. Braden, was ostensibly the first cadet to sign up for Culver's first official term as a boarding school that autumn, but he also holds the distinction of later status as founder of Culver's first retail venture (The "Toggery Shop"), founder of the Shack (initially a candy shop which added a soda fountain and eventually a grille), and the first Culver graduate to have a son attend the school.


Culver's first cadet, David Braden, and his report card.


The pathway to Culver Military Academy had been something of a winding one. Born in 1840 in Ohio, H. H. Culver spent most of his working life operating the Wrought Iron Range Company, which he and his brothers founded in 1864. Based in St. Louis, the business included a massive sales force which saw great success in selling stoves, kitchen implements, and clocks. 

By the late 1870s, facing health concerns, Culver purchased a large tract of land on Lake Maxinkuckee on which to rest and retire, near the place he had met his wife, Emily Jane Hand, years earlier. 

Ever the restless businessman, Culver opened a new venture in 1889, Culver Park Assembly, at the site of today's campus. Based on the success of the outdoor "edutainment" spectacle on Lake Chautauqua in New York, Culver's Chautauqua boasted the superstar Christian preachers of the day and drew some 10,000 visitors to the site. 

The Assembly was short-lived, however, and by the spring of 1894, Culver was regionally advertising a summer camp and his new boarding school. At the time, the school's facilities consisted entirely of the Assembly's wood frame structures: the hotel and the "Tabernacle" amphitheater building, which would serve as CMA's first gymnasium. 

Just 16 boys occupied these facilities in the summer of 1894, with Braden the only one among them known to have signed on for the autumn school term. 

The 1894-95 roster of 45 cadets included: 

First Class: Henry Clay Adams Jr. and Elijah Bishop Martindale Jr.

Second Class: John Smith Mizner and Charles Herbert Stuart.

Third Class: David Clinton Braden, Joseph Paul Graham, Paul Hendricks Harlan, Joseph Beatty Hamilton, John Hitt, Arthur Rollins Keesling, Theodore Dwight Layman, Chauncey De Witt Meier and George McMullen Raymond.

Fourth Class: Fred Nicholas Baylies, John Bruce Bindley, James Braden, Joseph Kinsey Cole, Charles Bendorf Cooper, Fletcher McCullough Durbin, Samuel Myers Dyson, Herbert Medbourn Garn, John Horace Goodwin, Walter Melvin Hand, Ralph Prescott Harlan, Fred House, Herbert Brunt McMahon, Robert Homer Rea, Charles Joseph Rudershouser, Frank Tuttle Sloan, William Thompson Starr, Milton Stern and Earl Threlkeld.

Prepatory Class: Harry Alfrey, Knight Culver, Warman Flack, Maynard Fane Holtzinger, James Van Dyke Nelson, Harry Schweitzer Owens, Asa Culver Purinton, Harry Fletcher Reeves, Fred Edward Robbins, John Morrison Stevenson, Charles Spense, Robert Lee Taylor and Frank Sherman Vories.


The Chatauqua hotel was the first school building.


The cadets were organized into one company, with Henry C. Adams as captain and his good friend, Elijah Martindale Jr. as lieutenant.  

Culver Military's initial band consisted of 10 players, if the director was counted as one. Rumor had it that, for special occasions, citizens from Marmont (the town changed its name to Culver in 1896 to honor CMA's founder) and members of the Academy’s working staff were also pressed into service.

Mr. Culver himself described the initial purpose and mission of the school in its first catalog in 1894 (it can be seen in its entirety here). He noted the boarding school was established to prepare students "for our best colleges or scientific schools, or for business. It is the aim of the Academy to provide thorough intellectual training in the various branches of learning; military, gymnastics, and athletic training; and careful moral and religious instruction. Special care is taken to provide a delightful home school where everything possible is done to make school life pleasant and profitable."

The above – at the rate of $360 per year for tuition, room and board, uniform, and all other expenses – was to be accomplished under the watchful eye of Culver's first superintendent, the Rev. J.H. McKenzie, PhD. 

According to the calendar in the first catalog, the first term ended on Monday, February 4, 1895. Ironically the term and the main school building ended on the same day. 

In the late afternoon, a fire broke out and rapidly consumed the building. The sentiments of one unnamed student witness to the fire are doubtless similar to those of today's students: "From the point of view of students concerned, the fire picked the best time: it came right in the middle of an examination and wiped that particular set of exams off the slate entirely."


The "fire-proof" Main Barrack and Tabernacle gymnasium


Amazingly, by the start of the fall term, 1895, Mr. Culver had leveraged his considerable resources and the "fire-proof" first building of the "modern" Culver awaited students: the brick and steel Main Barrack, then only three stories. Like its wooden predecessor, it served virtually all functions of the school (barracks, classroom, and dining hall in the basement) with the exception of the still-standing Tabernacle gymnasium. Designed by renowned St. Louis architect Albert Knell, Main Barrack would set the tone for the rest of the campus' architecture, just as that first year would set the tone for the school which Culver would become. 

This week, in fact, sees another important early anniversary for Culver which arguably may have saved the fledgling school. On Sept. 26, 1896, a fire destroyed Missouri Military Academy, eventually leading to its entire student body, faculty, and staff moving to Culver by October of that same year.

The move gave the needed influx of numbers to begin a growth pattern for Culver Military Academy which would soar in the decades to come.

Explore more: former Culver Academies historian Robert B.D. Hartman wrote a number of articles on the founding and early years of Culver, which can be accessed online here. His book, "Pass in Review," can also be found here on Culver's Digital Vault.

Jeff Kenney is the director and historian for the Culver Academies Museum.

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