Before 1909: The Earliest History of Arkansas Tech University
How Arkansas Tech University almost didn’t, and then finally did, come into being
By Peter A. Dykema
A close look at the logo of Arkansas Tech University, whether printed on Tech stationery or emblazoned on an ATU T-shirt, reveals that the university considers its founding year to be 1909. But 1909 was simply the year the state legislature and governor passed and signed into law the act providing for four state agricultural schools. One could argue that 1910 is the more important year, for that was when Russellville was chosen as the site for one of the schools and the year classes were first held. From another point of view, the period from 1906–1908 is significant, for that is the time-frame in which the ideas for the agricultural schools were first conceived and debated. This article will present the motivations behind the founding of the agricultural schools and detail the political debate and regional competition which, at several points, could have brought a quick end to the establishment of any institution of higher learning in Pope County.
At the end of the nineteenth century, most progressive reformers in America focused their attention on the problems of urban industrial society, but one wing of the progressive campaign, the Country Life Movement, sought to bring progressive reform to rural America. The leaders of the Country Life Movement were concerned about the widening economic gap between urban regions of the nation and the agrarian countryside. As more and more young people left behind their family farms to find work in the cities, reformers called for the development of agricultural schools located in farm communities, where youngsters could be trained in modern, scientific and, most importantly, profitable farm practices. In the words of President Theodore Roosevelt (1907):
I am firmly convinced that most farmers’ boys and girls should be educated through agricultural high schools and through the teaching of practical elementary agriculture in the rural common schools, so that when grown up they shall become farmers and farmers’ wives. Education should be toward and not away from the farm.
One group that advocated for such schools was the Farmers’ Educational and Cooperative Union (today the National Farmers Union; for the remainder of this article, I refer to it as the Farmers’ Union), founded in 1902 by business-minded progressive farmers, who distrusted university departments of agriculture as much as they resented bankers. The Farmers’ Union rejected radical agendas and promoted self-help methods to improve the lot of American farm families. The Union’s constitution called for practical schools “to educate the agricultural class in scientific farming” and the organization played a key role in establishing such schools in Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Arkansas.
Throughout the South, the Farmers’ Union supported so-called district schools (usually one per congressional district) with residential housing, a regular high school curriculum, and basic vocational training in agriculture. This model and its goals were explained clearly by the Union’s legislative lobbyist, J. D. Doyle, in 1907. According to the Arkansas Gazette:
[Doyle] said that in his opinion young men were leaving the farm in Arkansas and going to the cities simply because they had not been trained to know that farming can be made profitable. He called attention to the districts [that is, the district schools]. The object is to locate a school on a farm and teach the students the practical and scientific sides of farming. It was pointed out that the art of plowing would be demonstrated and that the care and fertilization of the soils would be taught. The kinds of products best suited for the district in which the schools may be located would receive special attention. [January 23, 1907]
In Arkansas, it appears that the first proposal for agricultural schools was made in April, 1906 by the Washington County Farmers’ Union and was quickly endorsed by other local unions throughout the state. The fact that the proposal for agricultural schools was made by farmers living so close to the University at Fayetteville shows the low level of trust existing at the time between farmers and the academically-oriented College of Agriculture. At its convention in the summer of 1906, the Arkansas Farmers’ Union adopted a resolution to lobby the legislature in the following year for the creation of seven agricultural schools; one for each of Arkansas’ congressional districts. Soon after, the Union reduced the proposed number to four schools, one in each quadrant of the state.
History shows that the Union’s proposal was eventually ratified, leading to the creation of the agricultural high schools, later universities, now known as Arkansas Tech (Russellville), Southern Arkansas (Magnolia), the University of Arkansas at Monticello, and Arkansas State (Jonesboro). But in 1907 and 1908, the final result was far from clear. Budget shenanigans, institutional jealousy, regional rivalries, and political deal-making all could have led to very different results.
At first, the efforts of the Farmers’ Union met with little success. During the 1907 legislative session, two bills proposing four schools were introduced, ignored, and quietly withdrawn. Instead, the bill that made the most headway called for only one school with an initial appropriation of $50,000 (keep that figure in mind): it passed the Arkansas House by a vote of 72 to 1. The Farmers’ Union was not at all pleased with the bill but they did continue to support its passage as better than nothing.
In the Senate, the bill faced tougher opposition. Several Senators from northwest Arkansas argued that one school was unnecessary given the existence of the College of Agriculture at the University in Fayetteville. Others felt that the state could not afford an agricultural school in addition to the teacher’s college already approved in 1907 to be built in Conway (the State Normal School, now the University of Central Arkansas). But the Farmers’ Union still carried enough clout that to deny the farmers’ only hope for even a single school would have been political suicide. With minimal enthusiasm, the Senate passed the agricultural-school bill and sent it to the governor for his signature.
In a surprising development, Acting Governor John I. Moore vetoed the measure, citing several reasons, among them a complaint about the method for appointing the schools’ boards of trustees. The Farmers’ Union was outraged, even more so when it became clear that the University of Arkansas received a last-minute budget boost of $55,000, almost exactly what the agricultural school would have received. One member of the Farmer’s Union, Frank Tate of Camden, declared “that it was through the influence of friends of the university that the agriculture bill was killed” and suggested that the Union should lobby legislators to punish the university in the next legislative session.
Whatever the reason for the veto, in retrospect, the people of Pope County owe a debt of gratitude to Acting Governor Moore. Had only one agricultural school been funded and founded, it certainly would not have been placed in Russellville, in the same quadrant of the state as Fayetteville’s College of Agriculture and so near to the newly funded Normal School in Conway. Some of the rivalries between our state universities have long precedents!
The Farmers’ Union proposal found stronger support during the 1908 gubernatorial race. George W. Donaghey actively sought the support of the Farmers’ Union and he went on record in favor of a bill for four agricultural schools. But the platform of his party, the Democrats, stipulated that one of the schools “be located at the University of Arkansas and another at the State Normal School” in Conway. After his victory, Donaghey continued to push for four schools. In his inaugural address before the legislature in January of 1909, Donaghey supported the call for four agricultural institutions though only two as independent schools: the third was to become a part of the university and the fourth a department at the normal school.
The Farmers’ Union was pleased at Donaghey’s support for four schools but not for his plans for their location. Indeed, at the Union’s convention in the summer of 1908, the entire executive committee was swept out of office for being too closely aligned with Donaghey. The new executive committee continued to demand four new schools separate from existing institutions, with “one in the East, one in the South, one in the West, and one in the North.” The Union’s lobbying effort was successful enough in the fall of 1908 and into 1909 that the University of Arkansas felt the need to go on the offensive. In a series of articles in the Arkansas Gazette addressing the school issue, university officials consistently argued that the creation of four new, separate schools was impractical and financially irresponsible. One Fayetteville professor (and later, briefly, president of the University), John H. Reynolds, went even further and argued that a “cosmopolitan high school … is infinitely better than a separate agricultural and industrial school.” Such schools, isolated in rural areas, he argued, would only “accentuate … class distinctions and prejudices.” The University simply did not support rural, vocational, agricultural schools.
Legislators introduced several bills regarding agricultural schools in the 1909 session: one would have provided for one school to be in Fayetteville; another provided for one school to be in Conway. A third proposal was introduced in the Senate by H. C. Henderson of Randolph County, calling for four schools in four districts of the state, while a fourth bill was introduced in the House by J. J. Bellamy of Lawrence County, also calling for four schools in four districts of the state. The Farmers’ Union supported both the Henderson bill and the Bellamy proposal, but, due to resistance in the Senate to Henderson’s bill, the Bellamy proposal moved through the legislative process more quickly and eventually became the favored plan. However, Bellamy’s original bill still faced one obstacle. While supporting four schools, it still placed one of them specifically in Conway at the new State Normal School. Perhaps due to the influence of the Farmers’ Union, the bill was not sent to the education committee but rather was passed on to the agriculture committee, where most of the members were farmers and several of them were members of the Farmers’ Union. Only in this committee did the bill receive the changes necessary to make it possible that Pope County and Russellville could someday vie for an agricultural school. The provision favoring Conway was deleted and the four districts or quadrants of the state were redefined and redrawn so that Faulkner and Washington Counties were both placed in the western district (or the northwest), thus ensuring that Fayetteville and Conway could not both receive a school.
The Arkansas Gazette reported that when the revised bill was debated before the full House, there was a strenuous and stubborn fight waged by those opposing four schools. Several amendments were offered but all were voted down; the bill held up as rewritten in committee. Although it passed the House by a final vote of 84 to 7, the Arkansas Gazette predicted that the Bellamy bill “would have a hard life in the Senate with a strong probability of defeat in that body.” Initially, the bill appeared to be stalled but, in the end, strong support from Governor Donaghey and ever more potent lobbying by the Farmers’ Union won the day. Holdouts from northwest Arkansas were brought in line when other senators threatened to cut the University’s budget. The vote in the Senate was 23 to 3 and Donaghey signed the Bellamy bill, now known as Act 100 of the Acts of Arkansas Legislature, into law on April 1, 1909.
Governor Donaghey supported the idea of agricultural schools but it was the Farmer’s Union that pushed relentlessly for four schools. A wary, even distrustful, relationship between farmers, on the one side, and the University of Arkansas and the State Normal School, on the other, led the Farmers’ Union to demand separate schools in four other locales. The Union’s wishes were met, even to the point that the majority of the board members for each of the four schools were names suggested by the Union.
One final piece of trivia also supports the key role played by the Farmers’ Union in the founding of what has become Arkansas Tech. When Old Main was torn down in 1972, to make way for the ‘new’ Old Main, the current Crabaugh building, a cigar box was removed from the old cornerstone. This time capsule contained copies of Board of Trustees minutes, newspaper clippings, and, most important for our purposes, a booklet on the by-laws and constitution of the Farmers’ Union.
Pope County and Russellville were lucky even to be able to compete for one of the state agricultural schools. The legislative session of 1907 only provided for one school. Events throughout the period 1906-09 most often favored Fayetteville and/or Conway to receive a school. But because the Farmers’ Union stuck to its original vision of four schools, in four parts of the state, in four farming towns, Russellville was able to vie for and eventually receive a school in 1910. Thus, Arkansas Tech University almost didn’t, but finally did, come into being in Pope County.
Sources: Each of the following works addresses the years 1906-09 but the article by James Willis, professor of history (retired) at Southern Arkansas University, provides the most detail for this earliest period. All of the quotations in this article are found in his article. I thank Professor Willis for providing me with an early draft of his work.
G. R. Turrentine and John E. Tucker, “History of Arkansas Polytechnic College: From Its Beginnings to the Administration of J.W. Hull” (no date).
Kenneth R. Walker, History of Arkansas Tech University 1909-1990 (1992).
James F. Willis, “The Farmers’ Schools of 1909: The Origins of Arkansas’s Four Regional Universities,” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly 65 (2006): 224-49.