Over 700 miles away in Southeastern Minnesota, a woman named Michelle Otte wakes up every morning and goes to work at the Kenyon Public Library.
No, Otte doesn’t have an unusually long commute — she, and those who visit her library, live in the city of Kenyon in Goodhue County, Minn.
“We’ve always known that the town was named after Kenyon College,” Otte, the director of the library, said. “But I’m unaware of anyone trying to connect the two since the 1800s.”
Three weeks ago, the Sept. 22 issue of the Collegian’s “Class Clash” asked students, “In which state is there a city named ‘Kenyon’ in honor of the College?” Respondents were baffled: Only one out of four answered correctly, and several readers had never heard of the city.
Kenyon, Minn. is no piece of cake to investigate. A quick Google search leads to homepage links with little information aside from job listings and city council minutes. The sparse Wikipedia page lists only the bare-bones facts: With a population of about 1,800 and an annual precipitation rate of 31 inches, this 2.35-square-mile city is located about an hour’s drive south from Minneapolis. Its motto: “Boulevard of Roses.” Save for a footnote that leads unhelpfully back to the city’s welcome page, there is no explanation for the eponymous connection to a liberal arts college located five states and a time zone away in Gambier, Ohio.
Otte was eager to delve deeper into the city’s connection to the College. She provided the Collegian with several photocopied pages out of two books, We Give You Kenyon: A Bicentennial History of a Minnesota Community and History of Goodhue County Minnesota. The city’s origins can be traced through the actions of Rutherford B. Hayes, 19th president of the United States and Kenyon valedictorian for the Class of 1842.
In 1887, Hayes appointed Ohio-born, retired Quartermaster Corps General William Le Duc U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture. Le Duc was a successful legal and business personality in Minnesota, but before he achieved any notability, he attended Kenyon. After graduating in 1848, he moved to Minnesota, waxing poetic about the state’s agricultural potential to his younger brother, James Le Duc, who would graduate from Kenyon in 1855.
Minnesota history doesn’t shed nearly as much light on James as it does on his older brother William, a celebrated military and political figure. Little is known about James except, like many explorers of his era, he dreamed of founding a city.
Thus, 30 years after Philander Chase bestowed the name “Kenyon” on one spot in the woods, James Le Duc rode into Goodhue County in May 1856 to do the same for another.
After he founded the city, however, James Le Duc again disappeared from the pages of history. “It appears that his main accomplishment was naming the town, because he kind of just fell off into obscurity after leaving Kenyon, as far as I know,” Otte said. “He definitely left a legacy here, but he didn’t really stick around to see the town succeed or flourish.” Otte believes James Le Duc may have returned to Ohio, as there is no further information about him in Minnesota history books.
The city he left behind has come to parallel the village of his alma mater. Otte described an all-too familiar community — the type in which families have stayed for generations, the local law enforcement knows everyone and large corporate stores have begun to buy out the smaller, independent ones. “Everybody kind of knows everybody, which is sometimes a good thing, and sometimes a bad thing,” Otte said. “You know, that’s small towns for you.”
One page of A Bicentennial History of Kenyon, which was published in 1976, contains a black-and-white, slightly grainy, but nevertheless immediately recognizable aerial photo of the Kenyon College campus: Old Kenyon Residence Hall anchors the photo, with Middle Path and its auxiliary pathways shooting off from it in an intricate network across campus. The caption at the bottom reads “Few Kenyon residents, if any, have ever had the opportunity to see the campus of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. However, through the cooperation of Thomas B. Greenslade, Kenyon College archivist, a print of an aerial photograph of the college campus was obtained.”
Otte would like to see the city and College develop more of an established connection. She has lived in the Kenyon area her entire life, but, aside from a few families she knows who drove to Gambier to visit their city’s namesake, does not know any Kenyon, Minn. residents affiliated with the College.
“I’ve been the director here at the library for four and a half years, and this is definitely the first time that anyone has reached out to me from the College about the history of the town,” Otte said.