Business entrepreneur, Henry Harrison Culver, turned his dream into an international manufacturing empire, the foundation upon which Culver Academies would be built.
To Henry Harrison Culver, an Ohio farm boy of the early 1850s, the American dream felt like destiny – one he chased from the age of 15. That’s when he left home with less than a year of common school education and began selling cast-iron cook stoves throughout Illinois, Missouri, and Indiana.
It was the first business venture of many. Some faltered quickly. Others boomed and helped build Culver’s entrepreneurial spirit and resilience.
The strenuous activities of business, however, took a toll on Culver’s health. He spent two years traveling to California and Mexico to rebuild his strength.
Upon his return in 1883, Culver purchased 98 acres of land on the northeast corner of Lake Maxinkuckee – the place where he had met his wife, a school teacher named Emily Jane Hand, on a business trip in the 1860s. A year later, he purchased an additional 208 acres on the north end.
Culver regained his health and his entrepreneurial drive. Inspired by the success of the UMC Camp Meeting Association in Chautauqua, New York, he endeavored to build his own Chautauqua on the more than 300 acres of land he owned adjacent to Lake Maxinkuckee.
In 1889, he constructed an impressive three-story hotel on the site now occupied by Main Barrack, as well as the Park Assembly’s 5,600-square-foot tabernacle. To his great disappointment, his grand plan was not a financial success, and the Assembly did not open for a third season.
“A hobby of mine has been to start a school. It has been one of my castles in the air.”
It was then that Culver began to visualize something greater than the business ventures of his past. He wrote: “I saw in my mind’s eye where the school would have to be, and I began to prepare the land for its location."
In 1894, he hired Dr. J.H. McKenzie as the head of his new school, the “Culver Military Institute.” He had finally realized his American dream.
On September 24, 1894, the “Culver Academy” opened with 45 cadets, representing seven states, reporting for duty.
Though the word “Military” was not added to the title until the following year, the school operated with a military framework because (according to the first catalog) of “its peculiar advantage in bringing about the best results in the development of boys.”
Leading to Serve
It was a shaky start. From a fire that consumed the school’s main structure in 1895, to the tension-filled resignation of the Reverend McKenzie after his unsuccessful attempt to purchase the school, Culver Academy’s future was uncertain.
At the same time, the future seemed promising for a competitor, the Missouri Military Academy (MMA) – until fire tragically struck the school on September 24, 1896. No lives were lost, but the school was left in ruins.
Henry Harrison Culver, who had a school with space for 90 students but an enrollment of 29, stepped in. He wired MMA Head of School Colonel, Alexander Frederick Fleet, the now-famous message:
“You have the boys and I have the buildings; let’s get together.”
Always By Example
On the evening of October 5, 1896, Superintendent Fleet, along with most of his staff and more than 50 cadets, arrived to take up residence in Main Barrack.
Fleet and Culver had instant and positive chemistry, and two of Fleet’s staff would go on to become Culver giants: Bert H. Greiner, who served first in the Mathematics and Physics Department and then as Commandant from 1910 until 1924; and Hugh G. Glascock, who taught Latin and History before serving as Headmaster from 1899 to 1934.
The third early leader, Major Leigh R. Gignilliat, arrived in January 1897. During the following 42 years, he served first as Commandant and then, from 1910 until 1939, Superintendent.
Forging Our Future
With the Academy suddenly the focal point of Lake Maxinkuckee, and H.H. Culver an established leader in the community, the Marshall County Board of Commissioners attempted to change the town name from Marmont to Culver City. Initially rejected by the postal service, the town of Marmont officially became Culver on April 1, 1897.
Shortly after H.H. Culver’s death in 1897, sons Edwin and Bertram assumed operational control with the intention of perpetuating the school as a monument to their father and mother.
Edwin Culver’s premature death in 1930 delayed plans, but by 1932 his widow and heirs joined Bertram Culver and officially established The Culver Educational Foundation.
Together, they gifted all of the institution’s property, funds, and other possessions to the Foundation and alumni leadership. They also established the Culver Covenant between the Culver family and the Board of Directors, a move that aimed to place the institution in the hands of alumni while maintaining the vision that H.H. Culver set out in 1894.
The first Culver summer camp began in 1894, although it wasn’t until 1902 that summer programs were formally introduced. By then, the Trustees and administration felt confident about creating an official summer program with the hope that it would generate income and encourage winter school enrollment. Their confidence was well-founded. Over the next 60 years, Culver’s summer programs would expand from the original Naval School to also include the Cavalry School, Woodcraft Camp, the Aviation School, and the Summer School for Girls.
Forming Future Officers
The first cadre of cadets arrived to start the Naval School in 1902, under the direction of Major Leigh R. Gignilliat and his brother, Lieutenant Commander T.H. Gignilliat.
Throughout the three-year program, cadets attended a wide range of classes, including trigonometry, knotting, naval customs, and nautical astronomy. The young men who completed the program received a certificate of graduation and a recommendation to the Navy with the rank of officer.
Living Our Principles
When Culver’s second summer program, the Cavalry School, opened in the summer of 1907, success was instant. Under the command of officer Major Rossow, the program reached full enrollment before the first summer began.
Troopers had access to academic courses, but the program’s focus was on practical instruction in areas such as boxing, fencing, and rifle practice. The Cavalry School continues to be fundamental today.
Leading a New Generation
By 1912, Colonel Leigh R. Gignilliat had developed an interest in the Boy Scouts. He enlisted General Baden-Powell, Boy Scouts founder, and Daniel Carter Beard, National Scout Commissioner, to help form the camp program.
In 1977, the Woodcraft Camp became coed. Today, around half of the camp population is female. All Camp attendees enjoy the sports, crafts, canoeing, and Indian lore; core elements of the program from the start.
Reaching New Heights
Culver’s summer programs continued to grow and, in 1920, the first School of Aviation was established. Despite its initial popularity, the program took a decades-long hiatus. It was revived in the 1970s, and today students of the Aviation Squadron can earn a private pilot’s license through the program.
In 1957, nine daughters of Culver faculty members were allowed to attend classes and graduate from Culver Military Academy. Then, in 1961, a limited number of young women were accepted into a summer theatre workshop.
These seemingly small changes sparked a major shift for Culver. Over the next four years, the theatre program became so popular that it was clear the school needed a fully integrated girls program. In 1965, Culver established the Summer School for Girls.
Since then, the camp has become one of Culver’s most popular programs, second only to the Naval School.
The small class of faculty daughters that had graduated in 1957 had already broken the mold, proving that a school for girls would be a sound endeavor. Yet, Culver still needed an official place for the female population. In 1970, the Trustees authorized the formation of the Culver Academy for Girls under the direction of Mary Frances England.
The Academy opened in September 1971 with an enrollment of 100 students. Dean England worked to develop traditions that established CGA’s independence but also solidified it as part of a cohesive “Culver experience.”
In contrast to the boys’ military model, Dean England implemented a Prefect System based on those used in Great Britain.
Still in place today, the Prefect System allows girls to lead each other, take on new and increasing responsibilities, and be examples for their peers. Those who do not pursue leadership roles still play an integral part by making positive contributions to the CGA community and by acting as positive role models.