sealPurdue News

October 11, 2002

Purdue Press releases biography of John Purdue

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Just in time to celebrate his Oct. 31 birthday, the Purdue University Press has released the first full-length study of John Purdue's life and work.

John Purdue

John Purdue (1802-1876) donated the money to found Indiana's land-grant university. The biography, entitled "The Midas of the Wabash: A Biography of John Purdue," explores the motives behind his contributions to his namesake university. It also recounts his contributions toward building Lafayette, including the financing of bridges and railroads and the establishment of the Lafayette Savings Bank, the Battle Ground Collegiate Institute and the Lafayette Public Schools.

In "The Midas of the Wabash," a 180-page paperback with 10 historical photos, author Robert C. Kriebel describes a man who he says has had his reputation distorted by incomplete knowledge and the allure of recounting stories about a cantankerous old cuss.

According to the biography, Purdue was born in Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania, about 50 miles west of Harrisburg. He died Sept. 12, 1876, in Lafayette. He had just visited the young university bearing his name on the first day of classes that year.

After a family move to south-central Ohio, likely in 1823, John Purdue taught and briefly farmed. He then found his talent for commission sales of farm products, adding a general store in 1833 with Moses Fowler, a former pupil. The two saw opportunity in booming Lafayette, and opened a dry goods store, probably in 1839. Purdue also proved adept in land deals and management, buying extensively in Warren County to the southwest.

Though a man of his times, Purdue wasn't entirely typical. He was:

  • Strong in networking, gregarious and very active locally, but never married.

  • Childless, but a generous donor to area schools and an active friend to youngsters.

  • Not a churchgoer, but a donor to church projects and a collector of a sizable religious library. Purdue was said to be highly principled, and his trustworthiness went far in attributing to his business success. He often assisted family members financially and helped numerous young men learn business ways, even if he was overbearing at times.

    In 1844, Purdue bought land along Second Street and built the "Purdue Block," which still stands. In the next decade, he was a primary organizer, donor and/or investor for Lafayette's first bridge over the Wabash (at Brown Street), the Lafayette & Indianapolis Rail Road Company, Greenbush Cemetery (Lafayette's first public burial ground) and a public school system.

    Purdue turned his New York merchandise buying trips into occasions to sell a variety of inland products, establishing a permanent New York office in 1856. Purdue's profits skyrocketed, and the move turned out to position him for huge deals on pork and other items during the Civil War. His fiscal 1865 income was $90,000, a newspaper reported. Meanwhile, he developed some big-city tastes for clothing, art and photographs of himself.

    At war's end, Purdue sold his businesses. His health may have weakened, and he seemed to lose track of the know-how that had gained him a net worth of about $1 million.

    Kriebel says, "Purdue became enmeshed in congressional politics again, newspaper ownership, implement manufacturing, silver and gold mining, cattle farming, banking, and railroading. Somehow, in the middle of it all, he founded a state university."

    Each of these efforts ran into problems, leading to a diminished reputation, legal battles with former allies, and an estate so messy that when he left no will, it took five years to resolve all of the issues. In disputes over rail lines, Purdue signed as much as $600,000 in personal notes to back his interests.

    Amid some of these battles and Indiana's six-year-old tussle about locating a land-grant college, Purdue, in March 1869, thrust himself into Tippecanoe County's efforts to be the college's home. His oft-cited offer of $150,000 over 10 years plus 100 acres actually was a revised offer. It required that the college be in Tippecanoe County and be named "Purdue University," and that he be added to the organizing trustees and the university trustees, and have "visitorial power over the University." The governor called a special session to enact the late-arising deal.

    Purdue apparently expected to dictate the key decisions as he had in business. Squabbles over building sites and plans, plus other matters, led Purdue to miss board meetings and delayed the first groundbreaking to August 1871 – he wasn't at that either – and the first classes to 1874. By Purdue's death, the university was on its third president.

    The book devotes a long chapter to the funeral, about which much is known, and estate settlement, because many interesting facts came to light. People spoke openly of Purdue's apparent mental deterioration, and his legacy became one of stubbornness and vanity. The longer record shows, however, a civic-minded man who was a friend of education at all levels.

    Author Kriebel is a retired editor of the Journal and Courier in Lafayette. He still writes a weekly column about local history, as he has done since 1977. Kriebel also has written four books of Indiana biography and is author or co-author of four books of Tippecanoe County history.

    "The Midas of the Wabash" is listed at $14.95. It can be ordered directly from the Purdue University Press by calling (800) 247-6553.

    CONTACT: Bryan Shaffer, Purdue University Press information manager, (765) 494-8428; Robert Kriebel, (765) 589-8922.

    Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

    * To the Purdue News and Photos Page