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  • Jack Bowerman

BIRTH OF THE GREEKS AT BAKER 1865-1888

Updated: Feb 17, 2022

We have been working on an article about the beginnings of the fraternity/sorority movement at Baker for a number of weeks and because of the amount of research involved, we are looking at more weeks of work. Our purpose in writing this article is to demonstrate the impact that the movement and the men and women who were behind the movement had on the development of the strength and culture of the Baker Community. To do the subject justice and to ensure that the subject matter of the blog will not become stale, I have decided to break the article up into several articles corresponding with periods of time in the story and publish them as the work on each piece is finished. We welcome any comments, corrections or additions to this article.


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The collegiate student fraternal organization movement in the United States was born out of another student organization tradition, that of literary societies. From Wikipedia: “These societies were formal organizations often with large assembly rooms. They typically existed in pairs (two competing organizations on a campus) and took roughly half the students as members. At some colleges, students would even be assigned to a society by lot. The literary exercises of these societies usually consisted of a debate, and the meetings were open to the public. In addition to a debate, members could be assigned original poems, essays, fiction, to both compose and deliver. Each society had distinctive meetings, with political, social, or religious discussion. These organizations figure prominently in the development of fraternities and sororities because many early fraternities were considered simply 'private' versions of the 'open' literary societies. Private Greek letter fraternities and sororities began forming at colleges and universities around the country before the Civil War. For example, Delta Tau Delta was founded at Bethany College in Virginia (now West Virginia) in 1858. Growth of these organizations naturally slowed during the Civil War but picked up again with greater speed after the war.


As has often been the case, cultural movements arrive at the Baker campus sometime after they begin appearing elsewhere around the nation. Not long after its founding in 1858, literary societies began appearing at Baker, but the four major societies that survived the longest began appearing in 1877 when the Biblical Society was organized initially by a group of men studying for the ministry. Later, it broadened its program. That same year, another group of men organized the Athenian Society. The women organized two literary societies the following year, the Aelioian Society and the Clionian Society. Every student was a member of one of these societies. These groups met weekly preparing for the public debates and orations that took place during the year. Each had their own assembly rooms in the Old Science Hall (now Parmenter). They also hosted social events and put on elaborate programs during commencement week. Nationally, literary societies began to decline in the latter half of the 19th century, but they flourished at Baker well into the 20th century.


In the 19th century, there was considerable opposition at Baker to fraternal organizations (fraternities and sororities) because they were thought to be too expensive and would result in snobbishness. In fact, Baker had imposed a ban on Greek letter fraternities and sororities. In addition, the literary societies were generally opposed fraternities and one society, the Biblicals, had an anti-fraternity clause in their constitution. Nonetheless, the draw of fraternal organizations was strong. Young men and women naturally gravitated toward organizations that included their best friends and whose focus was on fellowship and the social aspects of college life. Also, Baker had no dormitories in those days, so students lived in boarding houses and strong bonds of friendships were formed among students living together.


It is little known, but well documented, that a chapter of a national fraternity was established at Baker in 1865 despite the University’s ban on Greek letter fraternal organizations. James Crooks Hall was a Baker student who transferred to Indiana Asbury University (which later became DePauw). Hall joined Phi Gamma Delta (Fiji) while there but decided after a year to return to Baker. Upon his return, Hall convinced eleven other Baker students to join his fraternity. A number of these men were Civil War veterans and The University’s ban, and literary society antipathy did little to deter them. The men initiated into the Phi Chapter in 1865 were: AIpheus A. B. Cavaness, James M. Cavaness; Walter I. Dallas; Asbury Keiffer; Charles E. Lambert; Draper A. Lindsey; A. R. Robinson; John Robinson; Joshua Robinson; Josiah B. Siess; and Julius W. Thomas. James Crooks Hall became the second graduate of Baker University in 1866 (in the same class of three with James Cavaness) and later married the third member of that class, Olivia Willey. Alpheus A. B. Cavaness (the subject of another article in bakerhistoryblog.com was a poet and bookstore owner in Baldwin. He was also a Border War and Civil War veteran having served under John Brown and James Lane. He gave the land that Baker’s athletic fields now occupy. James Mulloy Cavaness , the brother of Alpheus, was the the first graduate of Baker University in 1866 and a newspaperman, educator, postmaster, poet and a Baker trustee.


James Mulloy Cavaness


James Crooks Hall


Olive Kezia Willey


Becoming dissatisfied with college conditions at Baker at the time, five of the Phi members picked up the chapter charter and paraphernalia and migrated in a body to Northwestern University in the summer of 1869 and the chapter at Baker ceased to exist. The five Phi members all show up in the Northwestern catalog of September 1869: Alpheus A. B. Cavaness, Charles Edward Lambert, Albert Richard Robinson, Draper Alonzo Lindsey, and Josiah Benjamin Siess. The transferring Phi members were unaware that there was already a Fiji chapter at Northwestern at the time and A. A. B. Cavaness later wrote that the other chapter “was made up of high-toned young bloods, city bred, and the idea of associating with a lot of 'hayseeds' was not edifying to them. A few country boys fresh in the college could do nothing, could make no headway as a Greek fraternity against others of more repute and without any such handicap in character of membership. I do recall that we initiated at least two fine fellows, men of fine qualities but without dress coats.” Cavaness and Siess returned to Kansas after the first year and the other Kansas transplants and their new recruits carried on when the national Fiji leadership revoked the charter of the other Fiji chapter and the current Fiji chapter at Northwestern is Phi.


For the next twenty years literary societies dominated the social and cultural life of the Baker, but changes were beginning to take shape in the mid-1880’s. Hillary Asbury Gobin left his professorship at DePauw University to become the President of Baker in 1886. Gobin was born in 1842 in Terre Haute, Indiana and had just begun his studies at DePauw (then Indiana Asbury University) when the Civil War broke out. He served in the Union Army during the war and returned to college after the war. While a student he joined the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and graduated in 1870. He stayed at Baker for only four years, but he left a lasting impression. According to William Colfax Markham who served as Gobin’s secretary while a student at Baker, “Dr. Gobin’s four years in Kansas left a distinct impression on the times as a personality which laid stress upon the dignity and power of the individual with accompanying responsibilities, that should brook no substandard of living.” One of Gobin’s lasting contributions to college life at Baker was the lifting of prohibitions of Greek letter fraternal organizations. Several other Baker faculty members were also Greeks, including mathematics professor Emory Melville Wood who was a Phi Kappa Psi at Allegany College and English professor George Washington Hoss who was a Sigma Chi at DePauw. By the time Gobin left Baker in 1890, the Greek letter fraternal movement at Baker was in full swing. He returned to DePauw and in 1896 became President.


More to come . . . .

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