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Behind the big themes, celebrated figures, and dry dates of history are the interesting stories of life in the past and ordinary people. Southeast Missouri has a varied and rich history that you often don’t hear about in history classes. Join Bill Eddleman of the State Historical Society of Missouri to hear about these stories with “Tales from Days Gone By.” Listen in on the second and fourth Thursday of the month during Morning Edition (7:45 a.m.) and All Things Considered (4:44 p.m.)

The Crown Jewel of Caledonia: The Bellevue Collegiate Institute

Bellevue Collegiate Institute building in the early 1930s.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Historic American Buildings Survey.
Bellevue Collegiate Institute building in the early 1930s.

The demand for higher education in Missouri increased after the Civil War. Children of families from an expanding middle class aspired to prepare for better careers, but many could not afford the costs of university education.

One response to this need came from Protestant religious denominations. An early effort resulted in establishment of a Methodist academy in the Arcadia Valley in 1846, led by Rev. Jerome C. Berryman. This school closed due to financial problems before the Civil War and an order of Catholic nuns purchased the building.

A group of stockholders had undertaken to build a small college in Caledonia in 1864. By 1867 they had raised $6650, acquired a town lot, and planned to raise a brick building in the Italianate style. They needed a sponsor with connections beyond the local area and the St. Louis Conference of the Methodist Church agreed. Methodism had been strong in the Bellevue Valley since its settlement. The Bellevue Collegiate Institute was established in 1869, and immediately the group began construction of a larger building addition. The stately building earned the Institute its nickname of “The Crown Jewel of Caledonia.”

BCI provided a coeducational program, with a curriculum leading from the grammar school level to a full baccalaureate. The group recruited a talented faculty from across the country, including Rev. Berryman. The curriculum included religious study and a full range of basic topics. Throughout its life, Bellevue Collegiate Institute had fewer than 100 students at any one time, many boarded with local families.

The most illustrious faculty member, Willard D. Vandiver, became President of BCI in 1880 after two years as professor of Mathematics and Science and remained in the position until 1889. Vandiver later said of BCI that it, “…furnished educational facilities for more Southeast Missouri families than any other school in the State except the State Normal School at Cape Girardeau, which under the patronage of the State had grown to be a larger institution. Bellevue College, as it was generally known from 1870 to 1900, during my nine years was nearly doubled and its influence extended to more than twenty counties in that section of the State."

The St. Louis Southern Methodist Conference was never a strong financial supporter of BCI, however, and withdrew support in September 1895. The school continued to operate for another seven years. In the face of increased competition from public colleges and declining financial support, BCI closed its doors in 1902. The building became Caledonia High School in 1911.

Alumni of BCI were active and formed the Bellevue Collegiate Institute Homecoming Association in 1938. At one alumni meeting, members suggested they choose two of the most outstanding living former students. They selected Judge James T. Ronald, age 94 at the time, nominated for his 40 years on the bench of the Superior Court of Seattle, and Mrs. Lucy Gibson Green, executive head of the Arkansas State School for the Blind. The Association met annually in October through the 1960s, and some surviving alumni met at the time of the 1968 dedication of a historical marker topped by the school bell on the site of the Institute. The grand historic building served as Junior High School and Shop until the district razed it in 1955.

Bellevue Collegiate Institute and similar private colleges provided students of middling means with a quality education from before the days of the public state universities and into the early 1900s. Many towns in Southeast Missouri owe much to these institutions for the educated citizens they provided to improve life in these communities.

Bill Eddleman was born in Cape Girardeau, and is an 8th-generation Cape Countian. His first Missouri ancestor came to the state in 1802. He attended SEMO for two years before transferring to the University of Missouri to study Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. He stayed at Mizzou to earn a master of science in Fisheries and Wildlife, and continued studies in Wildlife Ecology at Oklahoma State University.