History | Traditions
by R.B.D. Hartman
The Culver Military Academy was founded in 1894 by St. Louis businessman Henry Harrison Culver, who was born on August 9, 1840, near London, Ohio. Forced to care for himself from age 15, he settled in St. Louis, Missouri where he joined his two brothers in forming the very successful Wrought Iron Range Company in 1870.
In 1883, his health faltered and he and his wife, Emily Jane, moved to LakeMaxinkuckee in northern Indiana. He built a home on the northeast corner of the lake and became interested in the life of MarshallCounty and the local community, then called Marmont.
His first major investment on the lake, the Culver Park Hotel, opened on the north shore in 1889 It was unsuccessful financially and closed after two years.
In 1894, Mr. Culver converted the hotel into dormitories, classrooms, and support facilities and established the Culver Military Institute. An article in the Indianapolis News in the fall of 1894 says, “...quite an adventure when a small group of boys (47)....alighted at Marmont (changed to Culver in 1897) one afternoon in September of 1894. . . to form the first Corps of Cadets of Culver Academy. . . ” By Thanksgiving of 1894, the school formally identified itself as the CulverMilitaryAcademy.
Mr. Culver personally wrote the first catalog of the school, stating that the purpose of the institution was to “thoroughly prepare boys and young men for our best colleges or scientific schools, or for business.” He adopted the military system because he believed it brought out the best results in the development of boys. He linked successful mastery of the military system at Culver to success in college, and in all aspects of life.
In February of 1895, the hotel building was destroyed by fire and construction began immediately on a new “brick, stone, steel and iron” replacement. In September Main Barrack opened with accommodations for about 100 students, classrooms, and dining facilities. The new building did not solve enrollment issues and only 37 boys were present at the start of the second year and dropped below 30 in 1896. Clearly the new school was in dire straits.
The destruction of the Missouri MilitaryAcademy in Mexico, Missouri, by an early morning fire prompted Henry Harrison Culver to invite its superintendent, Colonel Alexander Frederick Fleet, to bring his faculty and students to Indiana. The now-famous telegram: “You have the boys and I have the buildings. Let’s get together,” brought Fleet, 72 cadets, and a faculty of five to the north shore of LakeMaxinkuckee. Fleet’s skills as a scholar melded with the founder’s financial wherewithal and ensured the school success both educationally and fiscally.
Henry Harrison Culver died in 1897, but his school’s future was firmly established. Two sons, Edwin and Bertram, were determined to see their father’s dream fulfilled and worked diligently to develop the campus, add new programs, and spread the reputation of the institution.
Leigh R. Gignilliat, a recent graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, joined the staff as commandant of cadets early in 1897. His military system stressed the importance of delegating great authority to cadet officers. The vital role cadets had in maintaining the military system was clearly stated in an early Culver catalog: “Through them (the cadets) the greater part of the discipline and instruction of the Corps has to be effected.” It proved to be a winning formula.
Fleet retired in 1910 and was succeeded by Gignilliat, now a lieutenant colonel He immediately began to exercise his creative instincts by forming an association of alumni which, in 1916, became known as the Culver Legion. Other actions established some of Culver’s greatest traditions, such as The Iron Gate graduation ceremony, the introduction of the official Culver Ring, gala dances, and colorful parades. Always attentive and supportive of the military of the United States, Culver men served gallantly in the First World War.
In 1932, the Culver family relinquished control of the school by surrendering “all property, funds, and other possessions” to The Culver Educational Foundation, a not-for-profit entity. Henceforth the Foundation was “responsible for its own destiny . . . [and] to continue with the grace of God, to guide its progress in an ever‑increasing service to the Nation’s youth, in whose hands lie the perpetuation of those fundamentals upon which the ideals of American democracy depend.”
In 1939, commandant of cadets, Charles F. McKinney ’12, prepared a monograph which stressed the importance of leadership. “Today as never before, the world needs leaders, leaders in every phase of human endeavor. The question is, ‘Shall we wait for them to be a gift for us, or shall we deliberately develop them?’” It was a rhetorical question. Culver was already preparing America’s leaders.