A Hall & A Man: Abner Coburn (Part III) – Beneficiary of Higher Education

So now we have seen just how successful a businessman Abner Coburn was, but how was he important to the University of Maine you ask?  Oh, you didn’t ask.  Well, I’m going to tell you anyway.

In addition to being an established businessman, Abner Coburn was also heavily involved in politics.  He was first elected to the Maine House of Representatives in 1838 as a member of the Whig party.  He was elected again in 1840 and 1844.  In 1852 he served as an elector for the Whig party Presidential candidate.  Upon the dissolution of the Whig party, Abner became a founding member of the Republican Party.  In 1855 and 1857 he was member of the council for the Governor of Maine.  In 1860 he served as an elector for the to-be-elected President Abraham Lincoln.  In 1862 he ran for Governor of Maine as the Republican candidate and won the election, filling the post during 1863 and 1864.  During his time as Governor, he heavily influenced the decision to adopt the terms of the Morrill Act that ultimately provided for the existence of the University of Maine.  During the first session of the Maine legislature after passing of the Morrill Act Governor Coburn stated “There can be no doubt, I think, that vast benefits will flow from this act, and I have no hesitation in urging upon you the prompt acceptance of its terms and conditions.” and “The acceptance of the act imposes very considerable responsibilities on the State, and I am justified in assuming that you will exercise the soundest discretion in any disposition you may make of the munificent gift now placed under your control.”

After his time a Governor, Abner remained involved in the creation of the University when, in 1867, he became President of the Board of Trustees.  He served in this capacity until reaching the age limit in 1879.  During his tenure the decision was made to allow students to attend meetings of the State Board of Agriculture.  As such, a law was passed to ensure that at least one of these meetings every year would be in close proximity to the school.  Abner Coburn, being president of the Maine Central Railroad at the time, provided passes on the railroad to the students so that they could attend more than just the one meeting each year.  The students attending came to be known as the Coburn Cadets.  This had the two-fold benefit of exposing students to the state and the various communities to what the school was accomplishing.

Abner Coburn’s involvement and assistance was not limited to his time on the Board of Trustees, or to the University of Maine.  He was a constant financial benefactor to the university.  One example of his generosity occurred at the 1876 Commencement when Abner met with President Fernald and pulled two one-hundred dollar bills and one fifty from a roll of bills (over $5000 in today’s money!), handing them to President Fernald and saying “you may put that amount into the Library.”  In a letter he wrote to President Fernald in 1882, which included a check for more books, he commented with regards to the Library “I think well of keeping this branch of the College in fair running order.”  After his death in 1885, he willed $100,000 (over $2.5 million today) to the university.  Beyond the University of Maine, Abner served as a trustee for Colby College between 1845 and his death, for a time serving as its Vice President.

Abner Coburn died on January 4th, 1885, having outlived all of his siblings and never marrying.  Just as in life, in death he remained unequivocally generous.  In total he willed over $1 million dollars ($25 million today) not including the proceeds from the sale of land to be split among his remaining family.  Among the larger benefactors were: the University of Maine with $100,000 (as previously mentioned); Colby College with $200,000; Maine General Hospital (now Maine Medical Center) with $100,000; Maine Insane Asylum (now Augusta Mental Health Center) with $50,000; Waterville Classical Institute (later the Coburn Classical Institute) with $100,000; and various Baptist missions totaling $450,000.  Abner Coburn’s commitment to the betterment of all persons was a life-long one that he ensured would extend well beyond his time on this earth.  More people than can be counted have assuredly benefitted from the generosity of the man who was Abner Coburn.

Coburn Hall (pictured above, upper left and right) was completed in early 1888 and dedicated June 26th of that year.  The building was designed by Frank E. Kidder, Class of 1879.  The cost of the building was $25,000.  In the beginning it housed the Departments of Natural History and Agriculture and an improved library.  In the early 1900’s it became home to the department of Biology.  Renovated in 2011, Coburn Hall now houses the Margaret Chase Smith Center for Public Policy and the Wild Blueberry Commission of Maine.  Other facilities dedicated to Abner Coburn were: Coburn Hall on the original campus of Colby College (the current Coburn Hall is named for his niece); Hotel Coburn in Skowhegan (pictured above, lower left), no longer in existence; Coburn Park in Skowhegan, on land donated to the city by Abner Coburn; and Coburn Hall on the campus of Virginia Union University (pictured above, lower right) in honor of his generous financial contributions to the American Baptist Home Mission Society.

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