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1896 or 1899: When was Tarleton Founded?

By Chris Guthrie

As Tarleton State University began to make preparations to celebrate our Centennial in 1999, one major question first had to be addressed: Were we too late; should the university have celebrated its Centennial back in 1996? Local historian Dr. C. Richard King certainly thinks so. In a September 1996 article in the Stephenville Empire-Tribune, he argued that John Tarleton College had originally opened its doors in September of 1896 and that, even though it temporarily suspended operations in 1898, the school’s real 100th birthday was therefore three years earlier than previously believed. This assertion caused a degree of consternation among the Tarleton community, so I believe it is worth the time to set the record straight.

Part of this story may be familiar to many of you. John Tarleton died on September 15, 1895, leaving behind a will that bequeathed a portion of his extensive property holdings in northern Erath county to found a college in Stephenville. An institution of higher education, called Stephenville College, had previously existed in the city but it had closed down earlier in 1895 due to low enrollments and severe financial problems. Stephenville College’s sole building (a wooden three-story structure located where Heritage Park is today) had been sold at a public auction shortly before Tarleton died.

You can therefore imagine the excitement among Stephenville’s leading citizens when they learned that John Tarleton had provided for the establishment of a new college in their city. County Judge Thomas King, who had been named an ex-officio trustee of Tarleton’s estate (along with Texas Governor Charles Allen Culberson and the State Superintendent of Education), appointed a five-member local board, chaired by King himself, to begin the work of making Tarleton’s bequest a reality. The local board and trustees sold Tarleton’s property, earning approximately $85,000 which they invested in Canadian bonds. They then purchased the Stephenville College campus for $1,251 and renamed it John Tarleton College.

Most of its preliminary activity took place in late 1895 and early 1896. The new school was therefore ready to open in the fall of 1896. But did it? Dr. King bases his claim that it did on an announcement that appeared in the Stephenville Empire on September 4, 1896. This announcement listed the dates for the first semester; tuition charges; and a five-member faculty. The same edition carried a brief article on several improvements that had been made to the campus. It also reported that the school would open “next Monday” and that Marshall McIlhaney, former proprietor of Stephenville College, would be president.

However, this announcement and the accompanying article must be viewed with a strong degree of suspicion. Only one more mention of John Tarleton College appeared in the Empire during the rest of 1896. the newspaper contained no account of the opening day of the college or any other news of the first semester. A short article did appear in the November 13, 1896 issue regarding a plan to raise money to move John Tarleton’s remains from Patillo to the campus. But this article did not mention anything about the school actually being in session and, in fact, stated that the money from the Tarleton estate would not “become operative until the fall of 1897”. A similar situation prevailed in 1897; articles on John Tarleton College did not appear at all in the Empire during that year. If Tarleton had started operation in 1896, the Empire, whose publisher was one of the school’s most active boosters would certainly have reported on its activities. The fact that the newspaper did not do so strongly suggests that there was nothing to support. This impression is reinforced by the additional fact that absolutely no supporting information (in the form of school records, reports in other papers, personal recollections, etc.) to indicate that John Tarleton College began operation in the fall of 1896.

The announcement that did appear in the Empire in September 1896 seems to have represented a strategic ploy by Judge Thomas King. Judge King resented the fact that Governor Culberson and the State Superintendent of Education had been named as co-trustees and wanted the college to be completely controlled by the five-man local board which he chaired. He also wanted McIlhaney, his close personal friend, as president. Culberson, on the other hand, insisted that the state play a role in governing the new college and believed that a person from outside of Stephenville—one with a better record of administrative success than McIlhaney—should serve as president. It appears that Judge King had McIlhaney announce the opening of the college in September 1896 in order to present the Governor with a fait accompli and force him to accept King’s position. If so, Judge King figured wrong. In fact, the announcement marked the beginning of a three-year political and legal battle between King and Culberson which delayed the opening of the school (with the Governor’s choice, Dr. W.H. Bruce, as president) until September 4, 1899.

The Tarleton community can therefore rest easy; the plan to celebrate our Centennial in 1999 is right on target.