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Moving History Forward: Closing Idaho’s largest city

by DEBORAH MITCHELL/Special to The Press
| October 8, 2021 1:00 AM

Not far from Highway 95 and abutting Lake Pend Oreille stands a beautiful state park — Farragut. But before it became a park, Farragut was a World War II training center for the Navy. At its height, 55,000 naval personnel were on duty, making use of 707 buildings. A railroad connected it with Spokane. It functioned as an entire city — at the time, Idaho’s largest city.

When the 4,000-acre Farragut Naval Training Center on Lake Pend Oreille was scheduled to be decommissioned in 1946, most people thought the surplus would be sent to other locations and the 700-plus buildings would be moved or demolished, but some had a different vision.

Following the end of World War II and the creation of the GI Bill, the demand for college admission from veterans was expected to be unprecedented and the Northwest did not have enough colleges. Additionally, the economy of North Idaho and the Spokane region would be affected by the closure of Farragut.

In the spring of 1946, members from various organizations from around the Inland Empire formed a committee to address the problem. Committee leaders included E. H. Younger of the Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce, G. O. Kildow, president of North Idaho Junior College, Coeur d’Alene Judge W. F. McNaughton, member of the Board of Education, and Commodore Frank Kelly, commandant of Farragut Naval Training Center. They quickly contacted state representatives, governors, senators, veterans’ groups, and the Navy.

It was decided that the training facilities at Farragut — which included classrooms, laundry and kitchen facilities, a library, theater, store, recreation facilities and housing — were ideal for university “overflow” and that the existing housing could accommodate 1,400 married students and 10,000 single students. To accomplish this, Farragut College and Technical Institute was formed as a nonprofit school that would lease the necessary facilities from the war assets administration. The board of directors hired Dr. Joseph Kusner, education professor at the University of Florida, to be the college president.

The first quarter began on Oct. 14, 1946, with 23 faculty and 221 students. In Jan. 1947, enrollment leaped to 1,000 students — 290 in the Technical Institute and 710 in the College Division. GIs came from across the U.S.

The Technical Institute offered programs in refrigeration and air conditioning, photography, radio repair, diesel mechanics, industrial electricity, auto mechanics, autobody repair and carpentry. The college division taught English, science, humanities, social science and business. A variety of activities and competitive sports, including basketball, football, baseball, boxing and swimming, were organized. Various clubs formed, such as a rifle club, drama club, and even a flying club with its own plane.

From the beginning, Farragut College and Technical Institute struggled financially. By the end of the third school year, it was obvious that the expected enrollment of 4,000 was not going to materialize. The Board of Directors decided to close Farragut College in the summer of 1949. Much of the equipment, desks, cabinets, library books, and athletic uniforms were donated to North Idaho Junior College, now NIC. The records and college transcripts are stored at the University of Idaho.

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The Museum of North Idaho preserves and shares the history of North Idaho. For more information, visit our website at www.museumni.org.

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