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Tarleton Becomes Part of the Texas A&M College, 1917

By Chris Guthrie

When James F. Cox assumed the presidency of John Tarleton College in 1913, the school was in bad shape:

“I had no faculty except for Mr. and Mrs. Charles Froh, music teachers. The buildings were in bad repair. The library was depleted and entirely inadequate even for a second rate Junior College. Laboratory equipment and furniture fixtures for the college were very poor. The school owed several thousand dollars on running expenses and the $85,000 endowment fund had been reduced to about $62,500. The school had lost its standing and its reputation. The campus…was grown up in weeds. There were no ball parks, gridirons, tennis courts, or gymnasium…”

It is no surprise that Cox only had Mr. and Mrs. Froh as faculty members when he first arrived at Tarleton. The financial difficulties that he described had been so serious that, on several occasions, the school had been unable to pay its teachers for three to four months at a stretch. At the time of Cox’s arrival, in fact, the school still owed back salaries to a number of former faculty members.

Even though Cox would later state that “no college president faced a more discouraging set-up than was mine at Stephenville in 1913,” he did what he could to improve the situation. Due to generous gifts from several local residents, the college built the Mollie Crow Administration Building and Marston Conservatory during his administration, thereby improving the physical facilities of the school. Cox worked closely with the local board to squeeze as much interest income of the remainder of John Tarleton’s endowment without diminishing the principal any further. He also hired the best faculty the meager income of the school would allow, one that included Lily Pearl Chamberlin, George O. Ferguson, Charles Hale, A.B. Hays, and Charles Froh. Cox would later give much of the credit to Tarleton’s survival to their determination, sacrifice, and dedication.

Cox realized that his efforts would never be enough to save Tarleton as a private, self-supporting junior college. He aimed instead to improve the reputation, quality, and stability of the school to such a point that it could be taken over either by the University of Texas or Texas A&M College. Tarleton’s only chance at long-term survival lay in becoming part of one of these state-supported institutions of higher education.

Cox had numerous discussions throughout 1916 with the local board on this issue and finally decided to offer Tarleton to Texas A&M. At the time, A&M was the only college in the state to offer “training in technical agriculture and related sciences,” an emphasis which fit well with the rural environment of Tarleton and the background and needs of many of its students. In December 1916, Cox wrote a letter to Dr. W.B. Bizzell, president of A&M, introducing his plan to make Tarleton a branch of the College Station institution. Bizzell expressed interest in the idea and gave Cox permission to move ahead and put together a specific proposal. After obtaining the backing of State Senator Scott Woodward and State Representative Henry Clark, Cox organized several town hall meetings in Stephenville to obtain the necessary public support for his plan. As a result of these efforts, Cox ultimately came up with a proposal that A&M could find difficult to resist. The people of Stephenville would raise approximately $15,000 in order to purchase the 500-acre Fred Chandler property northeast of the city for use a college farm and to increase what was left of Tarleton’s original endowment to $75,000. This money and land, plus the existing college facilities and campus, would then be donated to the state in exchange for Tarleton’s acceptance as a branch of Texas A&M. Representative Clark introduced a bill which embodied Cox’s proposal in the Texas legislature in January 1917.

Although supported by Bizzell, Cox’s proposal received some opposition from A&M alumni and businessmen in the Bryan-College Station area. Alumni feared that the addition of a branch campus in Stephenville would weaken academic programs at A&M and reduce enrollment at the main campus. Businessmen feared that Tarleton would siphon away state money that A&M would have otherwise received. These opponents also argued that the addition of a branch campus without a statewide referendum was unconstitutional and requested that the Texas attorney general render an option on the issue before any further steps were taken. The attorney general complied with this request and found that the acquisition of Tarleton as a branch of Texas A&M was indeed legal. At the same time, President Bizzell soothed alumni fears by promising that “every effort will be made so to correlate the work of this institution (i.e., Tarleton) so as not to result detrimentally to the Agricultural and Mechanical College.”

Self-interest also played a role in A&M’s decision to accept Tarleton as a branch institution. In November 1916 a delegation from Sweetwater, Texas met with the directors of A&M and requested their support for the creation of a “West Texas A&M College.” This institution would be a full four-year college but under the control of the Texas A&M board of directors. The directors opposed this plan to open a “duplicate A&M” in West Texas, but they did state that they favored the idea of establishing “junior agricultural colleges” throughout the state to serve as feeder schools to the main campus. According to the official historian of Texas A&M University, Henry C. Dethloff, the decision to accept Tarleton as a branch of A&M can at least be partially explained by this perceived “threat” from West Texas:

“It can be surmised then, that at least in part, Texas A&M’s decision to branch out came as a product of pressure from West Texas to establish a ‘rival’ institution. The junior A&M colleges would undermine support for a full-scale West Texas A&M College while providing useful feeder schools and new regional influence for Texas A&M.”

On February 20, 1917, the bill to “establish a branch of the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas, at Stephenville, Texas, and to be known as the John Tarleton Agricultural College” passed the Texas legislature. The next month, the A&M board of directors visited Stephenville to formally accept Cox’s proposal. Although it had not been easy, the citizens of Stephenville had raised the necessary money to supplement Tarleton’s endowment and purchase the college farm. Cox officially handed this package over to the directors of A&M on March 24, 1917. Once the deal had been completed, the board prepared an itemized budget of $222,000 for the new branch. Governor James B. Ferguson approved the appropriation in May 1917. The A&M board retained Cox as chief administrative officer of the school, with the title of dean. Bizzell assumed the title of president of Tarleton, although he had little to do with the day-to-day operation of the college and rarely visited Stephenville except on special occasions. With all the necessary preliminary business completed, John Tarleton Agricultural College opened in September 1917 as a branch of Texas A&M College, offering junior and senior high school courses and a full curriculum of freshman and sophomore college classes. A new era in the history of the college had begun.