When Jim Cole invited me to his 120-year-old farm­house to see a 160-year-old picture of Hillsdale College, I wasn’t sure what I had gotten myself into. 

“You ain’t scared of big dogs, are you?” he asked over the phone. 

I brought along beef jerky to cajole the two hounds that guard his dri­veway. 

He told me that the Cole family first settled at the four corners of Hillsdale, Reading, Allen, and Cambria Town­ships back in 1840. John Cole, Jim Cole’s great-great-grand­father, worked as a lum­berjack in Saginaw until he saved enough money to buy a farm and move to Hillsdale. Since then, the Cole family has farmed the acreage along Cole Road.

“You could get lost between here and Hillsdale back then,” Cole said. 

It’s dif­ficult to imagine woodland com­pletely cov­ering all of the corn and soybean fields that sur­round Hillsdale. And it’s nearly impos­sible to imagine the task of clearing those woods, uprooting each stump and boulder, to make fields for planting. 

“It must’ve been nothing but hard work for the whole time they were alive,” Cole said. 

Despite the hardship of set­tling virgin land in the mid-nine­teenth century, John Cole became a suc­cessful farmer, raising roan shorthorn bulls that he showed and bred at the Hillsdale County Fair­grounds. He also pro­duced and sold maple syrup and honey from his farm. 

According to the family stories that Cole told me, John’s cattle were rustled twice by bandits. 

“Once, he trailed them all the way up to Homer. He had a 10 gauge shotgun. He found those guys, and they had all of the money they had gotten for selling the cows, except for what they spent in the bar.”

Another time, a group of rustlers made it all the way to Angola, Indiana with his cattle. But once he caught them, he couldn’t nav­igate his way back home around the hun­dreds of lakes that cover north­eastern Indiana. 

“So he had to put a note on a dog and sent him home,” according to Cole. When the dog reached Hillsdale, his family sent a group of Indians to help him home. 

“He worked pretty hard for what he got, to take off and chase his cows and be gone for days and weeks to wherever.” 

Cole led me up the steep steps of the old farm­house into a bedroom with green wall­paper. On the far side of the room was a time-worn cer­tificate in a hefty frame.

Sometime between 1855 and 1862, John Cole donated $100 to Hillsdale College, only a few years after the college moved from its Spring Arbor campus. During this time, the college struggled finan­cially and often solicited local people for dona­tions. In return for his gen­erosity, the Hillsdale College gave John a large lith­o­graph that reads: 

“This cer­tifies that John Cole of Reading, Michigan, having exe­cuted to the Treasury of Hillsdale College his promissory note for the sum of One Hundred Dollars, will upon the payment of the said note be Entitled to FREE TUITION FOREVER in any of the regular courses of instruction in said college.”

Signed, Pres­ident Edmund Burke Fair­field and Sec­retary-Trea­surer Henry J. King. 

If it wasn’t for the boldface writing “Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, Michigan,” you might mistake the picture for some­thing else, because it dis­plays the old Central Hall, which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1874. Con­struction on the current Central Hall began the next year. 

Mossey Library Archivist Lori Curtis said that the college archive has several examples of per­petual schol­arship cer­tifi­cates like Cole’s. It was common in those days for Pres­ident Fair­field and Pro­fessor Ransom Dunn to solicit local churches, busi­nesses, and farmers for dona­tions to build the endowment. 

Cole said he was unsure why his great-great-grand­father donated to the college. He never attended college classes and was not a member of the Free-Will Baptist Church.

Cole doesn’t visit the college often, however he helped to con­struct the Mary Randall Preschool building on campus during the late 1960s. 

The picture has been hanging in the upstairs room of the farm­house for at least 80 years. Cole says it will probably still hang there until he passes on. It is a tes­tament to the Cole family legacy, pioneer men and women who built Hillsdale county and made it a place suitable for a liberal arts college.