Tarleton's Unsung Benefactor: Mrs. Pearl Cage
By Chris Guthrie
Over the past one hundred years, the people of Stephenville frequently have come to the aid of Tarleton in times of need. Individuals such as Mr. John Moore, Mrs. Mollie Crow, Mrs. Mary Corn Wilkerson, Mr. Jack Arthur, Dr. Vance Terrell, Dr. Richard Thompson, Mr. Hugh Wolfe, and many others have responded generously whenever Tarleton needed their help. However, one person has been left off this long list of Tarleton benefactors and the purpose of this column today is to give her the recognition she so richly deserves. This is the story of Mrs. Pearl Wiley Cage.
John Tarleton College was in deep trouble in 1916. during the previous decade, the school had suffered from a succession of short-term presidents, declining enrollments, and increasingly severe financial problems which had forced it to dip into the principal of John Tarleton’s original endowment. As a result of these problems, the campus had become run-down and the school had difficulty in even meeting its payroll. James A. Cox, who had become president in 1913, had done what he could to improve the deteriorating situation at the young college, constructing two new buildings and hiring the best faculty that the meager resources of of the school would allow. But he also realized that Tarleton simply could not survive much longer as a private, self supporting junior college and made up his mind that the institution had to be taken over by the state if it wanted to continue operation. Accordingly, Cox put together a proposal that Tarleton become a branch campus of Texas A&M College. This proposal stated that Stephenville would raise the necessary money (reports of the actual amount vary from $15,000 to $80,000) to purchase the 500-acre Fred Chandler property northeast of the city for use as a college farm and increase what was left of Tarleton’s endowment back to its original size of $85,000. the farm, endowment, and 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.
This proposal had the backing of Dr. W.B. Bizzell, president of A&M, and Stephenville’s representatives in the state legislature, who introduced a bill which embodied Cox’s plan in January 1917. Everything looked good—except for one serious hitch. The citizens of Stephenville could not raise the money necessary to implement the assumption of Tarleton by A&M. To their credit, the people of Stephenville did try their best. But, as Dr. Richard Thompson has pointed out, “Stephenville was a poor little town” and the entire amount that Cox needed simply was not there. The serious shortfall in the city’s fundraising efforts could have very well sabotaged the entire transaction. It was at this point that Mrs. Cage intervened.
Mrs. Cage (the former Pearl Wiley) belonged, by virtue of her marriage to Bruce Cage, to one of the wealthiest families in Erath County at the time. The Cage family controlled the Cage & Crow Bank in Stephenville, owned ninety cotton farms along the Bosque River, operated a ranch that encompassed most of northern Erath County, operated a railroad from Stephenville to Waco, and had a large interest in the oil business in Ranger. Mrs. Cage had always been very civic minded, donating her money and time to beautification projects, the construction of the City Park, and other efforts. But despite her efforts on behalf of Stephenville, Mrs. Cage did not enjoy a great deal of popularity among the people of the city. Her wealth, and the lavish spending habits of her family, contrasted sharply with the very simple lives of most of the other residents of Stephenville at the time. She was also strong-willed and outspoken, characteristics that prompted many people to consider her to be “high and mighty, aloof, and bossy.” Dr. Thompson, whose lawyer father often worked with the Cage family, has stated that Mrs. Cage “always worked for the good of Stephenville,” but that work often caused resentment rather than gratitude.
Mrs. Cage also supported Tarleton. When she learned that the effort to raise money for the A&M adoption project had failed to reach its goal, Mrs. Cage took matters into her own hands. Taking advantage of her friendship with Edgar L. Marston, owner of the Texas Pacific Coal and Mining Company in nearby Thurber, she arranged a meeting in New York City with other members of the Marston family and their business associates. At this meeting she presented Tarleton’s case very persuasively and convinced her audience to provide the money necessary to make up the fundraising shortfall. Thanks to her efforts, Cox now had the money to move his proposal forward and John Tarleton College became a branch of Texas A&M in March 1917.
Why was Mrs. Cage’s important contribution forgotten? In the early 1920s a severe local depression hit central Texas and destroyed the entire Cage fortune. In the wake of this catastrophe, the people of Stephenville, who never liked the Cage’s much in the first place, erased the family’s contributions to the city and Tarleton from their collective memory. Mrs. Cage herself, now a widow, was left penniless and had to move into a two-room shack on the east side of town. Many Stephenville citizens believed she had received a just reward for her “high and mighty” attitude and simply forgot all the good works that she had performed earlier. Hopefully, she will now be put on the list of those Stephenville residents who helped make Tarleton State University what it is today.