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First John Tarleton College Building

By Frank Chamberlain

The original building that housed the John Tarleton College was constructed in 1893. It originally served as home to the newly established Stephenville College until this institution closed after the 1895-96 academic year. This early demise was attributed to lack of attendance and financial difficulties. The trustees of the John Tarleton estate immediately purchased the building and surrounding property, renaming it “John Tarleton College” (Grissom 31, Guthrie 22-23, King 22-24).

The building is referred to by several names in various historical sources. The most specific of these titles is “College Hall.” However, other sources describe it in more general terms such as “Old Stephenville College Building”, “Original John Tarleton College Building”, or simply “main building.” Any of these terms adequately describes the structure, because it contained all of the institution’s classrooms for several years. Until the 1902 construction of the Marston Science Hall, the entire student population was educated within this building (Grissom 31, Guthrie 28, King 108, Traditions 48).

The College Hall stood on the southern and western corners of the present day Vanderbilt and McIllaney streets. This land is now occupied by Heritage Park, and is situated directly north of the Hunewell Dorms for women. The two story wooden structure originally housed four classrooms on the bottom floor and an auditorium upstairs. This auditorium also served as classroom space as the student population grew. In addition, two studios and a few offices were located inside the building. By 1902, four new rooms were added to the building. A third floor was added in 1904 in order to further increase classroom space and to accommodate the newly established library (Grissom 31, Guthrie 22, King 45).

The facilities of the original Campus Hall were very insufficient. In the beginning, classrooms consisted of little more than desks and blackboards. The school was able to acquire chemistry and physical science equipment in 1903 and placed these utensils in the new Marston Science Hall. As mentioned earlier, Tarleton did not even possess an organized library until 1902 (Finley 13, Grissom 31).

John Tarleton’s grave was briefly located on the grounds near this building. In 1898, three years after Tarleton’s death, his remains were relocated from the Mt. Pisgah cemetery in northern Erath County . Shortly thereafter, a fifteen-foot granite obelisk was erected to mark the grave. Tarleton remained interred in this spot until 1928, when he was exhumed in order to built the Auditorium on the site. Today, this same monument can be seen marking Tarleton’s final resting place at the small triangular piece of land located at the intersection of Washington and Lillian streets. A Texas State Historical Marker was added to the site in 1987 (Guthrie 12, King 17,19).

The College Hall was demolished in 1915. Due to size and equipment limitations, the old wooden building was no longer an adequate facility. By nature, wooden structures require almost yearly repair. Thus, more durable facilities were deemed necessary. The newly built and better-equipped Mollie J. Crow Administration Building became the new center of student activity. After the old building was leveled, the lumber was collected and sold for a thousand dollars. These second hand materials went to good use, as three local houses were built from the remains of Tarleton’s first building (Guthrie 33, King 114).

A controversy still rages concerning the year in which John Tarleton College opened. Prominent historians disagree as to whether the doors were opened in 1896 or 1899. Those who adhere to the earlier date base their claims on the fact that an ad appeared in a Sept. 4, 1896 edition of the Stephenville Empire newspaper. This article announced the opening of the college that was to occur on Monday of the next week. The proponents of the 1899 opening point out that the Empire did not contain a report on a single school activity in the next few years. Given the fact that the publisher was one of the school’s most ardent boosters, this lack of coverage suggests to some researchers that the college never actually opened till 1899. These historians assert that various disagreements between the Tarleton trustees delayed the beginning of classes until Sept. 4, 1899. This later date seems to have been accepted by the school administration as the true opening, because the Tarleton Centennial was observed and celebrated in 1999(Grissom 12,Guthrie 23, King 23).

Finley, J. Rice. “The History of John Tarleton College”. Unpublished M.Ed. thesis. The University of Texas at Austin, 1933.

Grissom, Preston B. “The Development of John Tarleton College”. Unpublished M.A. thesis. West Texas State Teacher’s College, 1933.

Guthrie, Christopher. John Tarleton and his Legacy: The History of Tarleton State University, 1899-1999. Acton, MA: Tapestry Press, 1999.

King, C. Richard. The John Tarleton College Story: Golden Days of Purple and White. Austin, TX: Eakin Press, 1998.

Tarleton Traditions: Centennial Edition 1 (1 October, 1999): 1-48.