|Congressman Justin Morrill.|
Library of Congress.
The original "land grant college" law – the Morrill Act of 1862 – gave acreage "to the several states" based on their numbers of Congressmen: two Senators and a population-based slate of Representatives. Iowa was the first state to accept the terms of the Morrill Act. The legislature selected the existing* Iowa Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) to receive the benefits of the Act, so that school is generally considered the first land grant college.
Territories were not included and, of course, had no U. S. Senators or Representative anyway. The political entities named in the 1881 Act's title were all Territories. This law explicitly extended a form of the "land grant college" provision to those areas. Dakota Territory quickly took advantage of the new law, establishing Dakota Agriculture College (now South Dakota State University). The 1883 Territorial legislature provided funding for the first college building.
In general, however, territorial economies proved too weak to support such institutions, even with the grants. (Like Idaho, for example, Montana waited to attain statehood before establishing its land grant college.) When delegates gathered to write a constitution for the proposed state of Idaho, they took it for granted that a land grant college would follow. In particular, they wrote into that document not only that there would be such a university, but that it would be located in Moscow [blog, Oct 3].
|Wheat harvest, ca. 1909. Project Gutenberg image.|
The 1890 "Organic Act" that established the state of Idaho specifically noted that the lands granted to the Territory under the 1881 law were "hereby vested in the State of Idaho to the extent of the full quantity of seventy-two sections to the said state." The Act also made additional public land grants for a state Normal school, penitentiary, and various charitable and educational public institutions.
On the other hand, the Act also included the provision that “said Act of February 18, 1881, shall be so amended as to provide that none of said lands shall be sold for less than $10.00 per acre.”
Although contemporary records are largely silent on the point, such a stipulation suggests that speculators had been buying up the ceded acreage at bargain prices. That might explain why prior sales had not generated enough income to establish a college.
But even with that stipulation, stingy additional financing from the state kept the new University of Idaho on a tight budget. Construction of the main campus building began in 1891, but the structure was not completed until 1899.
* The Morrill Act and this 1881 follow-up proved quite effective. Perhaps twenty states or territories applied the land grant designation to existing schools. However, many of those institutions were barely holding on financially or were basically moribund. Their new status saved them from dissolution. About thirty states, like Idaho, founded totally new schools under the Act.
References: [Brit], [French], Hawley]