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In 1929, in Maple City, elderly Sam Peters visits his childhood friend, Ella Bishop, whom he had always hoped to marry, and awakens her from a nap. Ella has been reminiscing about her life, and continues now with Sam, recalling the September day in 1879 when she enrolled at the newly-opened Midwestern University: Ella excitedly runs to Midwestern, a university built in the middle of cornfields, and encounters the immigrant janitor, Chris Jensen, who says he has just been promoted to gardener. Ella arrives in time to hear President Corcoran's speech, in which he says that education is the road to freedom. At home later that day, Ella's cousin, Amy Saunders, an irrepressible flirt, leaves her chores to go out for ice cream with neighbor boy Buddy Warner, and when Sam, who delivers groceries, pulls up, Ella tells him her dreams of becoming a teacher. Sam is in love with Ella, and has his own dreams of owning a grocery, but Ella is not in love with Sam. After four years, Ella graduates with honors, and Corcoran asks her to teach English at the university. Corcoran's offer is the fulfillment of a dream for Ella, and she approaches each student as an individual, pressing for an astronomy course for Anton Radchek, and urging Minna Fields, who possesses a remarkable memory, to strive for a degree as a librarian, even though she speaks poor English. One night in 1883, Ella is unable to attend a concert with Sam because of a sore throat. When she puts a pot of maple candy on her snowy roof to harden, she is accidentally locked outside and calls to a stranger on the sidewalk for help. Delbert Thompson, a new lawyer in town, comes to her aid and brings a ladder to help her down. Ella and Delbert immediately take to each other, and in 1884, they become engaged. One night, Ella breaks a date with Delbert so that she can defend Minna against an accusation by the faculty that she cheated on a test. While Ella is proving that Minna is not only honest, but appears to have been cheating only because she has a photographic memory and transcribed exactly what she read, Delbert allows himself to be seduced by jealous Amy. Ella is deeply shocked by Amy and Delbert's betrayal, and Sam later forces the couple to marry and move out of town. Ella thinks of resigning from the college to move to New York, but Corcoran convinces her that she has a gift for teaching, and she remains. In the winter, Amy returns home pregnant, having been abandoned by Delbert. Amy dies during childbirth, and Ella and her mother rear her daughter Hope as their own. Many years pass, and in 1899, Hope is enrolled as a student at Midwestern, and has fallen in love with fellow student Richard Clark. Sam, who owns his own grocery business and a new "horseless carriage" for deliveries, still quietly hopes to marry Ella. However, Ella has fallen in love with married professor John Stevens, who shares her love for literature. Few know about their discreet relationship, which Ella breaks off when John's wife finally refuses to consent to divorce for religious reasons. John leaves the university, Hope and Richard become engaged, and Ella gives Hope the wedding dress she had once readied for her own marriage. In 1906, Corcoran returns from an extensive holiday in Europe, and tells Ella that John died there in a train accident. Corcoran, now elderly, resigns his presidency and turns it over to newcomer Watts. Ella has lost her spirit for teaching and clashes with Watts over his attempts to modernize the curriculum. Corcoran consoles Ella after Watts suggests that she resign, but hints that she, like the college, needs modernizing. Ella takes his advice to heart, purchases an automobile, and apologizes to Watts, who becomes her friend. In 1917, Corcoran dies and World War I takes many of the university's male students. The next year, Ella's mother dies, and Hope and Richard move to California, where they have a baby girl, Gretchen. By 1934, Gretchen is a sophomore at Midwestern and seeks Ella's advice when she falls in love with a married man. Although Gretchen assumes that her spinster aunt has never known love, Ella gives her advice from her heart, and Gretchen decides not to pursue the relationship. Now elderly, Ella retires. One of the oldest buildings at Midwestern is slated for razing to make way for a new structure, and the news coincides with an alumni banquet. Because Ella is so upset that the building is to be demolished, she decides not to attend the banquet until Gretchen surprises her with a visit from Hope and Richard. When they arrive at the banquet hall, Ella discovers that the banquet is being held in her honor, and she is surprised to see many of her former students there, including Nobel prize-winning astronomer Anton Radcheck, renowned historian Minna Fields, and Senator "Snapper" MacRae, who once was an ignorant country boy. Ella is granted an honorary doctorate and recalls Corcoran's opening speech for the university: "Wisdom is the first cousin to freedom, and freedom is the glory of our nation and our people." Ella returns home with Sam, as always, by her side.