Humanities & Cultural
Rev. Milton Wright
Years before the Wright Brothers flew into history from a wind-swept hill at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, their father helped one of Huntington County’s most prominent institutions take wing.
Milton Wright was a bishop of the Church of the United Brethren in Christ during the period when church leaders were seeking a place to educate young people from the denomination. Without his support and approval, the institution we now know as Huntington University might not have been established.
Though history associates Milton Wright’s sons, pioneer aviators Orville and Wilbur, with Dayton, Ohio, their father was a native Hoosier. He was born in 1828 to a farm family in Rush County. He worked on the farm while attending rural schools and, for a time, Hartsville College, in nearby Bartholomew County. As was often the case at that time, limited opportunity for a formal education beyond childhood meant the most diligent students augmented knowledge through extensive reading in their areas of interest or expertise. Wright was one of those students.
An article published shortly after Wright’s death in 1917 in The Christian Conservator, the official publication of the United Brethren Church, reports that he was “converted to a life of service to Jesus Christ at the age of 15, while alone at work in the field, and not in connection with any revival services.” That set him on his course to Hartsville, which was then the United Brethren-supported college in Indiana.
Wright received denominational licenses to “exhort” in 1849 and to preach two years later. In the summer of 1856 he was formally ordained a minister of the church, and was assigned the next year as a missionary to the Pacific Northwest. After two years’ service in Oregon, he returned to the Midwest, and soon married Susan Catherine Koerner. They settled in the Hartsville area, where Rev. Wright pastored a church and took a teaching position at the college.
Doctrinal differences led to a division in the United Brethren Church in 1889. Wright, one of the denomination’s six bishops, led a faction that broke from the main denominational body. The group’s leadership was located in Dayton at the time and became interested in starting a counterpart to a financially troubled Hartsville college. As head of the board of bishops, Wright was a pivotal decision maker in this effort.
In 1896, the denomination’s General Board of Education approved a plan to establish a college. At the same time, a Huntington group, headed by local attorney and United Brethren minister A. G. Johnson, formed the Huntington Land Association as an agency for a group of landowners on the city’s northeast side. Unsolicited, the association approached the church with a proposal to build a single, three-story building and donate it and surrounding acreage as a college. In turn, the church would outfit and operate the school, and sell home lots around the campus grounds on behalf of the association. Bishop Wright saw the offer as nothing less than Divine Providence, and what was to be known as Central College came into existence. The cornerstone for the all-purpose building was laid in the late summer of 1896 and the structure, known today as Becker Hall, was dedicated in September 1897.
The college was renamed Huntington College in 1917 and became Huntington University in 2005. The school celebrated its 125th anniversary in September.
Without Orville and Wilbur Wright, mankind’s conquest of the air would not have begun as it did. And without their father, a transformative chapter in Huntington County’s history might have unfolded differently.