This year marks a century since Ball State University enrolled its inaugural class of 235 students. Amazingly, its proud tradition as a public coeducational research university in Muncie, Indiana, began with a modest $200 loan.
When brothers Edmund and Frank Ball hit their uncle up for the cash back in 1880, higher education was scarcely a consideration. The Ball Brothers were focused instead on manufacturing when they founded the oddly-named Wooden Jacket Can Company. Adding three more brothers to the braintrust — Lucius, William and George — their Buffalo, NY-based plant quickly became a premier food containering operation.
Moving from upstate New York to Muncie in 1886, the ambitious Balls grew their business into a global enterprise specializing in the production of glass food and beverage containers. As the Ball Brothers excelled in business, they contributed to an array of philanthropic causes. The brothers took a particular interest in their hometown, becoming founding benefactors of Muncie’s Ball Memorial Hospital; YMCA; and Minnetrista, a collection of museums, sculptures, and gardens that remains among Indiana’s most appealing tourist draws today.
It was also during this time of civic generosity that the Ball Brothers donated $35,100 to the Indiana General Assembly to reopen the defunct Indiana Normal Institute. In 1918, the renamed Ball State University enrolled its first class. It would seem that the brothers were not just staked by their uncle but inspired by him as well. Uncle George Harvey Ball had originally founded Keuka College in 1890. And Ball sister Lucina, an educator, also assisted directly in the founding of Philadelphia’s Drexel Institute. Higher education was a Ball family passion.
Today, Ball State enrolls just a shade under twenty-two thousand students annually, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. That said, the Ball Brothers most lasting contribution to the world is probably an item you have somewhere in your house. Indeed, one could argue that the Ball Brothers’ best-known product only peaked in popularity this last decade. If you order a cocktail at a bar in Brooklyn, swipe a wildflower centerpiece from your hippie friend’s wedding, or follow some life-hack website’s recipe for creating a week’s worth of easy-to-serve salads, chances are you’re holding a Ball Jar.
Today, the Ball Corporation, as it is now known, operates out of Colorado and is no longer in the canning or jarring business. In fact, since the 1950s, it has placed increasing emphasis on manufacturing in the aerospace sector. The trademark mason jar is actually licensed to a former subsidiary called Jarden. That said, it remains a lasting contributor to modern retail culture.
Sure, the Ball Brothers founded a university with an annual endowment in excess of $192 million before passing into the hereafter. But truly, thanks to their mason jars, the name Ball is also legend among denizens of weekend craft fairs and farmer’s markets.
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