In the early 1930’s, the Bucknell University Christian Association brought forth the idea building a conference center for the University to use as an off-campus location where students, faculty, and guest leaders could hold informal discussions and programs, including leadership training, educational, fellowship, and religious retreat events. By 1935, Professor D. M. Griffith, the chairman of the Advisory Council of the University Christian Association, appointed a committee to study potential sites and the financing of a conference center. Over the next two years, the Christian Association Advisory Council studied nine different campus centers by correspondence and 26 possible future sites located within a twenty-mile radius of the University. According to a history of the conference center by Forrest Brown, Secretary of the Bucknell Christian Association, Dr. Griffith stated that Bucknell’s President Marts thought the center should provide “…an assembly room with fireplace, a kitchen and dining room, and dormitory facilities for overnight groups…Specifically, it should serve as a place to hold Christian Association retreats, Student Church meetings, faculty and student outings, departmental picnics, and a shelter to be used in connection with field trips in the natural sciences, a center for developing Alpine sports, such as winter hikes, skiing, tobogganing, perhaps skating and the like.”
In March of 1937, Mr. Grove, a resident of Mifflinburg, suggested to Mr. Dayton Ranck, Treasurer of the University, that the advisory council consider a 28 acre tract on Buffalo Creek, 7 ½ miles from the campus, and adjoining the village of Cowan. The advisory council members liked the area and the decision was made to purchase the property for $2,200.00. The property was initially known as the University Conference Center. The property had a six room farmhouse, sheds, and a barn. However, the buildings and surrounding land needed significant renovations and maintenance. Bucknell’s President Marts approved the plan to raise funds for the improvements to the property and gave an initial gift of $1000 toward the work. These improvements included tearing down old sheds, leveling the ground, painting the farmhouse, and renovating the old barn to create a large meeting room on the first floor and a dormitory for twenty-five men upstairs.
During wartime, the Center was used less frequently, and buildings began to decay again. After the war, focus was brought to the University Conference Center again, and the Bucknell University Christian Association renovated the men’s space in the barn by replacing a rotting wooden floor with concrete, updating the kerosene lamps to electric, and adding an electric water pump and chlorinating system to provide a safe water supply. The lawns on the property were kept again. By 1954, most postwar World War II renovations on Bucknell’s main campus were complete as well, and the Advisory Council of the University Christian Association raised the question about building a lodge on the conference center property. The Advisory Council organized a fundraising campaign to support construction which resulted in nearly $50,000 raised from over 600 contributors. On April 26, 1956, the building committee submitted to the Trustees a request to begin construction. The request was approved and construction began in early May. The lodge had a central lounge area, dormitories for 28 men and 28 women, separate rooms for chaperones, dining facilities, kitchen, modern plumbing, heating, and hot showers. The lodge was put under the direction of the University Christian Association and was known as the Cowan Lodge. The building was dedicated on October 28, 1956. The Freshman Camp program sponsored by the Bucknell University Christian Association was the first event held at the conference center after the construction of the Cowan Lodge.
The University Conference Center and Cowan Lodge became a popular place to host various groups and activities. It was the scene of Freshman Camps, student-faculty picnics, outings and dinners for campus groups, and “over-nights” for sororities. Here the students found a setting in which informal fellowship and association brought refreshment to their college years. In 1966, the Christian Association Conference Center was renamed the Forrest D. Brown Conference Center, to honor retired Forrest D. Brown who served as General Secretary of the Christian Association for 36 years. This name continues into the present.
Today, the Forrest D. Brown Conference Center”, affectionately referred to as “Cowan,” continues to be a desirable location for Bucknell hosted retreats, events, and campus activities. It is the site of the Building on Foundations (BoF) retreat for incoming first-year students as well as the Common Ground retreat focusing on diversity issues and held over fall break. Buckwild, a first-year student pre-orientation program, also uses the Forrest D. Brown Conference Center for a portion of their trip and for the final day celebration. The CLIMBucknell challenge course is a popular location for group training, such as the Residential Colleges which the course for team-building activities. Greek life organizations also use the facility and property for retreats. If you have an interest is going to Cowan yourself, take a trip with some friends a few miles off campus and see all it has to offer. If you would like more information about Cowan, visit the Special Collections/University Archives on Lower Level 1 of the library.