Hyannis State Normal School: A Piece of Cape Cod’s History You Likely Don’t Know About

Most everyone on Cape Cod is familiar with Cape Cod Community College which opened in 1961. However did you know that thirty years earlier there was another college on the Cape? It was located only a few miles from Cape Cod Community College, and in fact its headquarters still stands today. At the southern end of the village green on Main Street in Hyannis a brick building stands stoically. It was at one point known as the Hyannis State Teachers College, and for more than three decades it was known as the Hyannis State Normal School.

The ‘normal school’ was a takeoff of the French ‘ecoles normale.’ These were where teaching was elevated to a profession thanks to a Massachusetts law passed in 1838 allowing schools to be established solely for the purpose of training students to become teachers. The first such ‘normal school’ would open in 1839 in Lexington, Massachusetts. It would take nearly sixty years before the normal schools would reach Cape Cod.

In 1894 state law makers would pass a bill allowing for the creation of four new normal schools. By this point in time there were already six throughout the state. Barnstable County residents successfully petitioned the state for one of the new schools. After some deliberation Hyannis was chosen for the school’s location.

On September 9, 1897 the Hyannis State Normal School opened its doors. It was staffed by four including William Baldwin from Belmont, Massachusetts who also served as principal. His education included time at Cornell University as well as Harvard. The remaining staff was Bertha Brown, Sara Oliver, and Edmund Sawyer. Within three months there were forty students at the school, nine men and thirty-one women. The school would remain co-ed until the early 1920’s when enrollment would become restricted to women only.

Campus consisted of four buildings: the Normal School itself, dormitory, training school building, and principal’s residence. The Normal School, built by George Howard of Brockton from West Barnstable bricks, had lecture rooms, laboratories, and even a gymnasium. The school would be primarily a two-year program with courses including psychology, education history, and comprehensive school content dealing with organization, government and laws. The formal dedication of the campus surprisingly was not held before its opening, rather it was held in conjunction with the graduation of the initial class on June 20, 1899.

Principal Baldwin was a firm believer in students having a life outside of the school. He would channel this in unorthodox ways including cancelling classes every so often on warm spring days so the students could enjoy the outdoors. He would remain principal until his retirement 1924, Francis Bagnall was named successor. The school was left in good hands and in fact during Bagnall’s first year as principal had its largest fall enrollment to date with 134 students. The summer sessions would prove even more popular with enrollment climbing as high as 800 in 1921. However that upward trend in students would begin to shift in the other direction.

In 1932 the school’s name would change to become the State Teachers College when Massachusetts voted to grant college status to State Normal Schools. That did not help enrollment in Hyannis and numbers continued to dip throughout the 1930’s. To combat this the school was opened up to men again in 1933 and then in 1937 the school received permission to offer summer credits which would lead to a Master’s Degree in Education. It would not be enough. The outbreak of World War II signaled the beginning of the end.

Courtesy of Maxwell Library Archives & Special Collections, Bridgewater State University

In an effort to stave off the inevitable the campus would be shared with the Massachusetts Maritime Academy starting in 1942. With the two educational organizations headed in different directions MMA requested that they be allowed to take over the entire campus in the summer of 1944. The Commissioner of Education and Massachusetts Governor Leverett Saltonstall decided that the State Teachers College should temporarily suspend operations. Despite that the college would continue to offer summer courses for a few more years before officially being shuttered for good.

In 1948 Mass Maritime would move from the Hyannis campus to its present home in Buzzards Bay. The former State Normal School would be used as town offices until Cape Cod Community College was born in 1961. It would occupy the campus before moving to its present home on Rt. 132 in West Barnstable ten years later. Today the former State Normal School is once again home to the Barnstable Town Offices yet maintains its same stoic brick façade it has had since it was home to Cape Cod’s first college more than a century ago.

By Christopher Setterlund