The story began when the Reverend Ira Haning, a Freewill Baptist minister, persuaded Nehemiah and Permelia Atwood, affluent residents and entrepreneurs, to use their wealth to establish a college. Following Nehemiah's death in 1869, the responsibility for making this dream a reality fell to his wife Permelia. In 1873, Permelia Ridgeway Atwood established an endowment and deeded 10 acres of land for Rio Grande College, which officially opened on September 13, 1876
In its earliest years, Rio Grande provided leadership in preparing teachers and Baptist ministers. By 1915, Rio Grande's major focus had shifted to teacher training, which continued as a virtually singular interest for nearly 60 years. The affiliation with the Baptists formally ended in the early 1950's. During the same time period, the farm adjacent to the campus which was owned by the college (students worked there to produce dairy products), was sold to provide much-needed operating funds for the institution. A young businessman, Bob Evans, was the buyer.
Although Rio now includes a variety of new cyberspace options for learning, with distance-learning courses through the Internet, the mission of the institution remains the same as Permelia Atwood envisioned 136 years ago. Personalized attention to students continues to be the heart and soul of Rio Grande.