The University of Wisconsin-River Falls was founded in 1874 as the fourth State Normal School in Wisconsin and the first in the northwestern part of the state. Its first building was dedicated on Sept. 2, 1875.
When the original Normal School building was destroyed by fire in 1897, other communities sought to have the school moved. But the citizens of River Falls were determined to retain it, and the building now known as South Hall was completed in 1898. After the fire, only a half day of classes was missed, for the community offered churches, lodge rooms and other buildings as meeting places.
The school experienced a slow but steady growth in curriculum and enrollment until 1912, when the Department of Agriculture was established and enrollment leaped. Construction of North Hall in 1914 and the addition of a wing in 1926 showed further progress. The addition of a four-year curriculum in 1926 preceded the change of all state normal schools to state teacher colleges in 1927.
In 1951, with the addition of liberal arts courses, the school was designated Wisconsin State College at River Falls. When graduate courses were added in 1964 the name became Wisconsin State University-River Falls. The present name came with the merger of the state universities and the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 1971.
A boom in growth began after World War II. Since then, hardly a year has passed without an addition to the campus in the form of new lands, buildings or remodeling. All ten residence halls have been built since then, in addition to Chalmer Davee Library, Karges Physical Education and Recreation Center, Ames Teacher Education Center, Hagestad Student Center, Agriculture Science Hall, a heating plant, Rodli Commons, the E.H. Kleinpell Fine Arts Classroom Building, Centennial Science Hall, a maintenance and central stores building, an Agricultural Engineering Technology addition and a Food Science wing to the Agriculture Science Hall. The Robert P. Knowles Physical Education and Recreation Center was completed in 1987 and the Karges Physical Education Center was remodeled in 1989. A major remodeling of the Hagestad Student Center was completed in 1990. South Hall, built on the site of the original Normal School, received a major renovation in 1992-93. Both South Hall and North Hall are on the National Register of Historic Places. The Chalmer Davee Library, built in 1954, was remodeled during 1994-96. The new Walker W. Wyman Education Building was dedicated in 2000. The Ames Teacher Education Center was then demolished and construction was begun on a new Student Union spring of 2005.
The title of the chief administrative officer was changed from president to chancellor after the merger of the state institutions of higher education. Presidents and chancellors of the institution have been: Warren Downes Parker (1875-1889), John Quincy Emery (1889-1892), John Hull (interim, 1893-1894), Warren Downes Parker (1894-1898), Warren Judson Brier (1898-1909), Howard L. Wilson (1909-1911), Jesse H. Ames (interim, 1911), James W. Crabtree (1911-1917), Jesse H. Ames (1917-1946), Eugene H. Kleinpell (1946-1967), Richard J. Delorit (interim, 1967-1968), George R. Field (1968-1985) Gary A. Thibodeau (1985-2001), Ann Lydecker (2001-2004), Virgil Nylander (2004-2005), Donald Betz (2005-2008), Connie Foster (2008-2009), and Dean Van Galen (2009-present).