In the fall of 1946 following the end of World War II, Purdue University opened extension centers in La Porte County. With classes originally being held in both Michigan City and La Porte, the staff of eleven professors was forced to rotate between the two cities to teach. During the first two years, the enrollment for classes was high with an all male student body of 25 freshmen and 30 Technical Institute students. Unfortunately the new extension center soon faced the possibility of closure when enrollment began to decline. In an attempt to find a permanent place to hold classes, Mrs. Catherine Hickox was contacted. Mrs. Hickox, the only child of John H. Barker was asked to donate her childhood home to be used as a campus for the Purdue extension center. Mrs. Hickox agreed and negotiations began to settle the fine details of the donation.
Mrs. Hickox was determined to preserve her father’s memory, even if the house would now belong to the university. So, rather than let the university have free reign to take over the house, Mrs. Hickox asked that they leave four rooms untouched. The four rooms on the first floor, the library, drawing room dining room and entrance hall, would be maintained to the standard that they were when the Barker family lived in the house. Mrs. Hickox allowed the university to keep the original furnishings in place, ensuring that the four rooms remained a monument to John H. Barker. Purdue University agreed that when they no longer had need of the mansion, they would turn it over to the Barker Welfare Foundation to be used as they saw fit. In return for this, Mrs. Hickox gave Purdue free reign to remodel the rest of the house to be more suited towards classrooms. By the time the mansion opened for classes in 1949, the basement, second floor, and parts of the first floor had been turned into classrooms, laboratories, and offices. The Barker Mansion was officially ready to start a new era as the Purdue Barker Center.
When the mansion opened for students in 1949, the original staff of eleven was down to only three full time professors teaching 35 freshmen and 24 Technical Institute students. The Barker Center’s daytime freshmen courses maintained a low enrollment, but the part-time night classes for the non-traditional students and the general public were very popular and need a constantly growing staff of part-time professors. By 1951, the Barker Center had 51 students enrolled in just the summer classes. This may seem like a small number but it was significant due to the fact that the Barker Center, unlike most of the other universities in Indiana, had not experienced a drop in enrollment. In addition to that, 20 of the 51 students were from large universities and were home for summer vacation. This high (for the Barker Center) number of students and the lack of a drop in enrollment encouraged Director Waterhouse to look into expanding summer workshops and classes for the general community. When he did so, he was meet with greet success across the board. The workshops and classes were loved by the community and covered everything from hands on technical training to speech therapy workshops to classes on how to arrange flowers.
Unlike most universities in the early 1950s, the Barker Center never experienced the expected 12% enrollment drop. Instead, the center had a steady rate of growth that would continue on until the early 1960s. Then, due to the rate of growth of the incoming student body, Purdue made the decision to purchase land in Westville to build a campus on. By 1968, the new campus was ready and Purdue officially moved campuses and renamed their La Porte County extension center Purdue University North Central. This marked the beginning for this newly named campus and the end of another era for the Barker Mansion.
It is hard sometimes to look around this grand mansion and imagine classes being held in the master bedroom and students studying in the library. Yet this is a part of our history here at Barker Mansion. Not only that, but we have to say our thanks to Purdue for all of the precautions they took to ensure that the mansion looks as beautiful now as it did over one hundred years ago.
Until next time this was Heritage Interpreter Jackie Perkins!