History of Woodbine Cottage reveals campus secrets

A maze of doorways, hidden histories and secrets characterize Woodbine Cottage.

The 138-year-old house is stored away on the west side of campus. Sheltered by trees and hedges away from Medary Avenue traffic, the cottage is reminiscent of a time when Brookings was still surrounded by prairie.

The house holds secrets of times past and stories of presidents and their families who called the cottage home.

“If walls could talk, a lot of memories would be told,” said Elizabeth “Betty” Berg, former first lady and widow of late Sherwood Berg.

Berg lived in the house from 1978 to 1984. She and President Berg weren’t able to move into the cottage for the first three years of his term.

“Woodbine sort of captures the essence (of SDSU),” Berg said. “The memories are more special. I think it engenders a sense of loyalty and alumni … like to come back and reminisce about their stories.”

Establishing the legacy

The cottage was built in 1887 by Dakota Agricultural College’s second president, Lewis McLouth. McLouth took the design of Woodbine from a home catalog, Palliser’s American Cottage Homes. Woodbine’s design is almost exact to a certain plan in the book, said Les Olive, director of campus planning.

Once McLouth left the institution, the house was bought by South Dakota State College.

Woodbine was used as a women’s dormitory for about 16 women until 1901, then as a music hall for a year and since 1903 it has been used as the official home of the president. The cottage has served as home for 15 of SDSU’s presidents.

The cottage was an infirmary for a short time in 1918 when a flu epidemic spread across campus. Six students died from the epidemic inside the house.

The name of Woodbine Cottage doesn’t have a specific origin, but Olive said it’s most likely due to the type of vine that grew along the house.

The Woodbine was planted alongside the house and has been removed and reinstated over the course of the cottage’s history.

One of the first documented mentions of Woodbine Cottage was found in a caption of an 1897 photo of Woodbine Cottage with women who used it as a dormitory.

 “Pork and beans and blue-grass seed/That’s the grub on which we feed/We’re the hot stuff of Creation/We’re the ‘Woodbine’ delegation,” the caption read, according to a paper on the Woodbine Cottage Experimental Rammed Earth Wall in the South Dakota State Archives.

The cottage has undergone numerous additions and renovations throughout its history. During a restoration project in 2003, Olive said different items were found that revealed an interesting history behind Woodbine Cottage.

New siding had to be put up on the house to make it historically accurate in the 2003 renovation, and restoration workers found autographed siding to a later addition of the house by workers who constructed the addition. Many of the names had military positions added behind them, so Olive suspected the men served in World War II.

Olive said newspapers from 1893 were also found in the restoration project and had been used as insulation. A relatively small women’s shoe was found in a wall along with perfume bottles, 60 to 80 shotgun shells and primers. Someone stuffed the shells through a hole in the wall, Olive said.

Other secrets throughout the house included children’s drawings in crayon in the attic where “generations of president’s children” would play, said former President Peggy Miller, who served from 1998 to 2006.

During her tenure, Miller found a dark room in the Woodbine basement. She also found barware in the basement and assumed a past president attempted to build his own bar. She gave the barware to an SDSU staff member.

One story Miller was told about the house was how Harold Bailey, who served as SDSU’s chief academic officer from 1961 to 1985, accidently shot two holes in the ceiling of Woodbine’s utility room. The room has since been renovated.

“I think in some ways Woodbine is the kind of place that can tie you back to the very beginning,” Miller said about the cottage’s history.

Making a home

Jack Headley spent part of his childhood in the cottage when his father, John Headley, served as South Dakota State University president during the ‘50s.

“The house to me was fantastic,” Headley said.

The cottage was large and he could easily hide away in the house. Headley staked out his own area of the house as his private space to work with his radio equipment. Memories of Woodbine are part of his family memories and of going through high school.

Headley can remember playing pranks on his mother, former First Lady Leona Headley, in the house. He would put fish in a pond-like fountain on the west side of the cottage and his mother would take them out of the pond. He would put more in and she’d take them out. The fountain has since been removed.

What he loved most about the house was how big it was. There was a back staircase near his bedroom, originally designated as a maid service staircase, that he could easily use to sneak in and out of the house without his parents’ notice.

“I could disappear whenever I wanted to,” Headley said.

Most of the time, Headley tried to avoid the busyness as his family hosted visitors.

But Marcella Headley, Jack’s wife, remembered the warmth of the house, particularly of Jack’s mother who entertained often.

“It was just a special place,” Marcella said.

Each president who lived in Woodbine Cottage made it a home for themselves. Marcia Chicoine, former first lady from 2007-2016, made it her home even though she knew it was temporary.

“It just had to become home for those nine and a half years,” Chicoine said.

The house has changed over time, fitting the tastes and interests of each president. But it remains a fixed part of campus. The house joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

“It’s right in the center of campus. While the buildings come and go, it’s been there,” Miller said. “There’s something that makes it a special place, and it’s wise not to abandon it.”

 Building a new history

Now that President Barry Dunn will live in the new University House when it’s completed, Woodbine Cottage has ended its service as the president’s residency.

There are many ideas for how to use the cottage now. Some suggestions include a place for presidential family members or visiting dignitaries to stay, a hospitality management training area, a rental space for faculty retreats or student gatherings and a bed and breakfast.

“I would favor it to be preserved like a home. Not just the four walls, but a home,” Miller said. “It really needs to be a living place.”

Jack Headley wants to keep it as close as possible to what it is now and how he remembers it growing up.

“I don’t want to see it commercialized. It’s too neat of a house,” Jack said.

Jack and Marcella visited the cottage last summer. Marcella visited the house multiple times with her children while Berg lived in the cottage.

“My children were dearly fond of the place — it was papa’s house,” Marcella said. The house was a connection for the Headley’s children to their father’s home and a connection to their grandparents.

Chicoine just moved out of Woodbine Cottage this summer after President David Chicoine’s term ended. She thinks whatever the house becomes, it’s important for it still to be used.

“I think it’s kind of a happy and sad thing,” Chicoine said about being the last presidential couple residing in Woodbine. “It’s happy to have space to entertain more than eight people at a time [for the Dunns in the new University House] … It’s kind of still hard to believe that that’s all done and we’re on the next chapter. It’s kind of hard to sometimes really believe it, but it will get more real as time goes by.”

The University House is much bigger than Woodbine Cottage. President Barry Dunn will be able to host about 35 people for dinner and there will be four bedrooms, four bathrooms and public restrooms.

“The new house is designed to be a people’s house more so than the president’s house,” Dunn said. The presidential position is a public office and the ability to host is important. Hosting was limited to a handful of guests in Woodbine.

Although Dunn enjoys the historic presence of his current farm house, which has been passed along his wife’s family, Woodbine Cottage doesn’t fit the role of a president and a president’s house anymore.

The new University House constructed across the street from Woodbine Cottage is a “logical step” in the growth of SDSU, Dunn said.

“I think we’re feeling our way to a new purpose for Woodbine,” Dunn said. “I think we can take our time and make a really good decision.”

Dunn wants to make sure changes to Woodbine are what’s best for the university.

“Whatever it does … it would take an enormous amount of money and resources are scarce, so you have to make a plan and be careful and be wise with the amount of scarce resources. You have to take care of it and do it right,” Dunn said.

When Dunn plans to move into the University House next year, he hopes to make it a home.

“Whenever you fill up rooms with furniture and people, it’s a wonderful, warm place,” Dunn said.

He said he and First Lady Jane Dunn hope to share that type of environment with the community.