Published: Nov 5, 2020 8:03:11 PM



Shackleburg University, located in the town of Shackleburg, Colorado, was established in 1861, a mere thirty years prior to my arrival. That was also the same year the United States Congress officially drew the boundaries for what was then the Colorado territory. Records show the school was initially funded by money from the estate of Cirroc Shackleburg, a secessionist from the Vermont colony, who was killed following the seizure of Fort Ticonderoga in May, 1775.

How his money found its way to establishing a university almost one hundred years later in a western territory, I do not know.

Shackleburg’s campus occupies only a meager 1337-acre (2.08 square mile) patch on the east face of a Rocky mountain peak. The campus houses exactly 108 souls, including students, both men and women, faculty, groundskeepers, houseworkers, and laborers. There are 23 voting faculty members, including the departmental heads, colloquially referred to as the Five Old Men. As of this year in 1891, the school has an enrollment of 70 students, all boarded on campus at an exactly even 50-50 ratio between men and women. I’m told that next year, Tufts University outside of Boston will also offer classes for both men and women, and Shackleburg celebrated this rare achievement in offering equal opportunities for both sexes. The university has no rivals in athletics, instead permitting club competitions in riding, shooting, and boxing.

Not following a usual curriculum, Shackleburg University provides undergraduate instruction in only five departments, each led by one of the Five Old Men, and I will list them here:

First is ontology, my focus, headed by Professor Kendrick Loomis.

Second is cosmology, which I believe is Jasper’s occupation, and is led by Professor Quentin Rakoski.

Third is electrochemistry, led by Professor Dirk Soames.

Fourth is oral history, chaired by Professor Richter Viharo.

The fifth and final department is physiology, overseen by Gustave Tatum. I imagine this is where the boy Monroe spends his time, as does Yvonne Bartlett, who I met at the infirmary.

Shackleburg offers both undergraduate instruction, as well as advanced doctorate degrees in all five of these subjects. I’ve come to understand the university maintains a sister-school affiliation with Niermereich College in Niermereich, Scotland, a place and a college I’d never heard of prior to arriving at Shackleburg. Undergraduate admission at Shackleburg is highly selective, with an acceptance rate of 9% for my class of 1891.

The university has produced many prominent alumni. In only thirty years since its founding, the school has produced 6 members of the United States Congress, 7 United States Governors, 4 United States Cabinet secretaries, an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, one President of the United States, 3 prime ministers of non-American countries, high-ranking United States diplomats to European monarchies, foreign central bankers, scholars in academia, and numerous literary and design figures.

Colonel Cirroc Shacklburg was an officer in the Vermont militia and a member of a prominent landowning family. His will included a bequest to support and maintain a free school to be established in the town of Redfield, Colorado, provided the town change its name to Shackleburg. Shackleburg himself was killed at the seizure of Fort Ticonderoga in May, 1775.

After establishment of the Colorado territory, the Shackleburg School opened with 15 students on October 26, 1861. The first president was Ebenezer Barlowe. Not long after its founding, the school's trustees petitioned the Colorado legislature to convert the free school into a tuition-based school. Once Colorado achieved statehood on August 1, 1876, the legislature agreed, and Shackleburg School became Shackleburg University. It was the first university to be founded in Colorado.

Even from its founding, the university maintained a policy of non-segregation, accepting both white and non-white students. This policy is contested on a yearly basis by trustees and remains a source of contention among the administrative body to this day. It’s rumored one of the Five Old Men brings a protest every year, though it’s never certain which, and every year the motion to segregate is denied. It’s chiefly believed it is the head of the ontology department, my Professor Kendrick Loomis that raises this segregationist issue. With nobody in having seen the Five Old Men for some years now, this cannot be confirmed.

What little we know of Professor Loomis suggests he hails from Saint Augustine, Florida, and is an expert in dead languages, including Latin, Greek, old German, and middle English, as well as a doctorate in ontology. How a man such as he learned old German in Saint Augustine, Florida remains unknown.

The Five Old Men saved Shackleburg. In 1870, nine years after its founding, the campus included only two buildings and 24 students. As the only professors at the school at that time, the Five Old Men voted to move the school out of the town of Shackleburg itself and relocate on the mountainside where it stands today. Professor Rakoski assembled the Orrery with his four pupils on the new campus, working in isolation for ten months on the project, and then finally calling for the remainder of the student body at its completion.

The new site on the mountain was already appealing as a location for Professor Rakoski’s Orrery, but it also presented an abundance of other available structures for repurposing. The Fort on the mountain, built during the last war, was fitted as a dining hall. The Clock Tower was modified to serve as the men’s dormitory. What’s now the Waste Building was formerly a sanatorium, and an orphanage before that. And the infamous infirmary truly did serve as a prison for women accused of witchcraft before the school’s arrival on the site.

Immediately following the Orrery’s completion, buildings for the Electrochemistry and Oral History departments were assembled, as was the New Chapel. The New Chapel sits on the highest point above the campus near the mountain peak and it houses the personal offices and quarters for the Five Old Men themselves.

While the Archives were erected just below the New Chapel, acting as a modest library available for all faculty and students, legend spread across the campus population that the release of certain texts is heavily controlled by the Five Old Men, and they maintain a much more substantial library within the chapel high above. Although plausible, the myth is unsubstantiated.

Mythmaking surrounds the Five Old Men, which I posit is of their own design, for it’s contested who exactly saved Shackleburg from ruin, as it were. Transplanting the school to the mountainside and taking advantage of existing buildings provided opportunity for these tenured professors to execute daring studies that earned Shackleburg much-need publications and undoubtable notoriety, especially for an institution west of the Mississippi River. Rumor thrived in the east and out here in the west, those engine fires were stoked. And yet, was it the Five Old Men, or was it the university president at the time that truly sheltered the school when it required saving the most? President Gardner Stetson, a former teacher in his own right—and master dancer, of all things—arrived during the transition and offered a deal to the Five Old Men. Control of the school and autonomy for the tenured, but he would serve as the primary administrator in all business Shackleburg might conduct.

Was it Stetson’s warchest of riches and connections that permitted the Five Old Men the boldness they required to capture academia’s attention? Or could they have grown to such great heights of their own accord?

Stetson’s fortune funded construction for the electrochemistry and ontology buildings, built in tandem and designed by the same architect, as well as the central lecture halls and the campus statuary, the latter of which is constantly struck with lightning bolts during any passing storm.

Students board at Shackleburg year-round, inaccessible as it is, especially during winter months. Classes run in the fall and spring, with winter devoted to a singular research study determined by the publication needs of a given department. When presented with an opportunity to seize national or international attention, a department may deploy the collective might of its student body and devote nearly every waking hour of their brief winter days to shared study, research, writing, and eventual publication under the name of one of the Five Old Men.

This collaboration is celebrated as key to Shackleburg’s unique nature. A great deal of the study at the university is collaborative, borrowing certain structures from tutorial systems made famous at Oxford and Cambridge, wherein students divide into pairs, prepare written assignments each week before presenting to their partner. The partner criticizes and critiques the end product and roles are reversed the next week. The tutorials are overseen by associate professors, who in turn grade the partners collectively on either side of the shared learning process.

This shared learning is meant to foster trust in students as peers and equals while developing deeper relationships within one’s own department.

The campus design for Shackleburg eschewed traditional structure in building placement, unsurprising given the borrowed nature of certain structures, so students are always encouraged to tread off the beaten path to meet with one another, even when the campus seems unfit for such interactions. The campus has no quadrangles and few trees, given the altitude.

The most consistent structure on the campus are the Ring Gardens. These are a series of mazes, ponds, and horticulture sites twining around Shackleburg’s borders. The Ring Gardens represent a non-department specific location truly shared and maintained by all students, regardless of focus at the school. Lovely vegetation grows during the spring and summer, I’m told, but at the time of my arrival, only the hardiest thistle plants survive as the frosts descend upon us. The stables are visible beyond the Ring Gardens. Oddest of all, students are not permitted access to the stables without expressed permission, as the horses are used primarily for work—carrying wagon cargo or carriages, and the like.

I looked out from my window across the campus. The Clock Tower stands roughly halfway up the slope where Shackleburg rests. From my desk, I saw the edge of the Orrery, the infirmary on its little outcropping a fair step beyond that, and a trace of the Ring Gardens that hadn’t been swallowed by the lingering cloud layer that still drifted unabated. Far off past that drifting mass were other peaks like dead islands on a Greek sea, perhaps occupied by a siren or cyclops, and little else. I wondered which direction Platavilla was? I had not seen a map or examined a compass since I’d arrived, and I had not been compelled until that instant.

Only a day and a morning at this place and I’d gathered more trivia concerning Shackleburg than I imagined I’d ever be able to recall. I struggled to keep the pieces in order, from Cirroc Shackleburg’s founding, the Five Old Men and their gambit to relocate, all the names and locations, their rules and intentions, all reached me in off-handed half-mention from my dorm-mates, validity as true as any superstition until I could earn the chance to gather evidence with my own eyes. For that was my intent. To separate speculation from fact.

I would find my answers here.

-- Alex Crumb
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